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CRM lessons from BlackBerry’s service disaster

12th Oct 2011
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BlackBerry users are furious at the service outage - and the company's response. So how should it have reacted?

It has been an extraordinary and uncomfortable few days for BlackBerry and the device’s maker, Research in Motion (RIM).
In an unprecedented disruption, countless numbers of BlackBerry users in Europe found themselves with slow or collapsed email services from Monday lunchtime (UK time), while BlackBerry Messenger also broke down. The problem rapidly spread to the rest of the world, with users jamming social networks to learn more about the cause of the problem and, more importantly, when normal service would resume.
But they were greeted with near silence from RIM, and by Monday evening its communications response was a solitary tweet from one of its Twitter accounts @Blackberryhelp:
With no details on the nature of the problem or an estimated time of resolution, users were understandably flummoxed – and particularly so when the silence continued and the problems, which initially seemed to have been rectified by Tuesday morning, continued to spread.
Farhad Divecha, director of AccuraCast, describes the confusion. "BlackBerry seems to have been caught out completely by the severity of this service outage - not just technically but also in their customer communication, revealing a serious lack of preparation.

"They run several Twitter feeds (@UK_BlackBerry, @blackberry, @BlackBerryHelp), an official Facebook page, but there have been gaps of over 12 hours between service updates. Ideally, they should be providing hourly updates so users have some indication that they are moving towards a resolution, and this should have been part of a communication programme planned well in advance - something that should swing into action as soon as a serious problem has been identified.”

Shimon Cohen, chairman of The PR Office, adds: "From time to time broadband goes down, lines get cut and email crashes. We all accept that with technology it happens from time-to-time. However, in this instance, it is not clear what is happening and how long it is going to take to fix and that is the main frustration. RIM need to get better at valuing and communicating with their customers: use the other media channels to talk to us through Twitter, Facebook and on line news - there is nothing wrong with issuing a press release or picking up the phone and calling the media the old fashion way."
A modest response
When RIM finally broke the silence on Tuesday evening, the details were modest at best.
In a statement issued at 2200 BST on Tuesday, RIM issued a short statement explaining that the problem was caused by "a core switch failure within RIM's infrastructure" resulting in a backlog of data and that RIM was "working to clear that backlog and restore normal service as quickly as possible." It concluded: "We apologise for any inconvenience and we will continue to keep you informed."
Furthermore, it wasn’t until Wednesday morning that a senior executive from RIM made a public statement, when Stephen Bates, who was attending the BlackBerry Innovation Forum in London, said that staff were "working around the clock to get to the bottom of the problem." But by that time there were reports that the outage was spreading to North America.
The whole debacle was hardly crisis communications 101.
"In crisis management a company has to be available, communicate often and transparently, to say what the crisis is and how it will prevent it reoccurring,” emphasises Chaz Brooks, co-founder of Chazbrooks Communications. “RIM appears to have been in a panicked denial, and failed in all areas. Communication to customers was not good and contained industry jargon which teenage users would not have understood, and it did not put up a press spokesperson for comment at all.”
Sean Fleming, crisis/issues management ‘specialist’ at Octopus Communications, is similarly critical of the handling of the affair.
"When something like this happens, when something major goes wrong, you generally get one shot at staying in charge and if you miss that chance the situation can (and probably will) spiral out of control right in front of you. You have to, as the saying goes, go ugly early. Acknowledge the problem, explain (without washing your dirty linen in public) what has happened, set some realistic expectations about how long the problem will persist, and give people a sense that you are taking appropriate steps."
How to get it right
So, what should RIM have done differently?
"Crisis situations are never fun especially when you're a global brand that has millions relying on your network to communicate with friends, family and for work. Openness, speed and transparency are key in such situations,” emphasises Raman Sehgal, owner at ramarketing. "An upfront apology by RIM followed by updates on how staff are frantically trying to resolve the issue should have been regularly updated from the first hour via controlled outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and its own website along with proactively communicating with in-direct outlets such as network providers and of course the mass media.
"Delays and denial when dealing with journalists will only ever lead to negative coverage. Often customers are looking for the human-side of these big brands and corporate conglomerates in these crisis situations yet it seemed to take the UK MD 48 hours to issue an apology. A real school boy PR error. Just imagine this was Virgin Mobile - reckon it would take Branson 48 hours to show his face? Thought not."
Divecha believes that the affair has also demonstrated shortcomings in the brand’s social media strategy: "BlackBerry clearly see it as a branding and sales tool, but not one for customer service," he says. "A good example of live service updates can be seen on the BT Business site which carries information on current and resolved technical problems, plus details of the issues under investigation and estimated time before completion. BlackBerry would be well advised to establish their own service update site to more effectively deal with future issues, and run their social media in a more holistic way."
Fleming also highlights some other advice that RIM could have taken to have minimised the damage. "One key thing would be to stop describing the problem as 'issues' that were causing ‘inconvenience’ because, frankly, that kind of language is only going to enflame things," he explains. "They were far too slow to acknowledge it too. Twitter was alive with BlackBerry users complaining before a statement was issued. 
"But the point at which things went very badly wrong for RIM was when it claimed everything was fixed, only for the problems to resurface. A problem that is experienced in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India, Brazil, Chile and Argentina is significant. For it to reoccur is only going to fuel concerns that something has gone badly wrong – either with security or service provision. To leave customers in the dark, or worse misinformed, could turn out to do more lasting damage than whatever was the cause of RIM’s inconvenient issues."
The irony of the whole affair hasn’t been lost on Ian Williams, head of technology media at LEWIS PR. "Although many companies are still getting to grips with how best to use social media and online channels to communicate with customers, the likes of RIM really should be one of the organisations leading the way," he says. "When you have such a customer facing brand, particularly one for whom communication is the bread and butter, these channels need to be used to deliver regular updates. Even if the situation hasn't changed, by regularly informing users that it is being worked on provides assurance that their woes are being taken seriously."
With the timing of the outage coinciding with the launch of Apple’s iOS5, which boasts a new tool called iMessage which will compete directly with BBM, BlackBerry is in an embarrassing situation. But as Paul Maher, MD of Positive Marketing Communications, emphasises, it is more than just the outage that is the reason for the fury.
"The still-inadequately-explained outage at RIM is no longer its biggest issue," he concludes. "The silence was deafening and could be terminal. Without a full mea culpa, a detailed technical explanation of what went wrong and importantly a credible publicly-stated action plan to ensure it does not happen again, Blackberry’s jam will turn into toast."


On Thursday afternoon, the founder of RIM released a video statement via the website explaining the reasons for the outage. Mike Lazaridis apologised for the disruption but warned it’s "too soon to say this issue is fully resolved... We know we've let many of you down. You expect more from us. I expect more from us." 

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