A rotten Apple? Leadership follies from antennagate
On June 24th, a public relations nightmare began for Apple when word leaked that there may be issues with the latest version of its immensely popular iPhone 4. Specifically, users provided evidence of a defective antennae design that causes poor connections and dropped calls when the phone was held in a certain way.
With over 3 million of his company's smartphones sold in the first 22 days on the market, Apple CEO Steve Jobs cut short his Hawaii vacation to address this issue in a hastily scheduled press conference on Friday, July 16th. As "antennagate" gained momentum, Apple handled some things poorly, while they ended up getting it right. It's another story that offers a few leadership lessons from which we can all learn.
1) Communicate, don't fall behind
While few would argue that Apple has been consistently ahead of the curve with their smartphone technology, the folks at Apple fell behind this story early and had trouble catching up. Perhaps they didn't anticipate the coverage, but from the beginning Apple remained quiet as the story gained momentum. The information that was released was largely unsympathetic to end-users. Jobs himself suggested customers "avoid holding it in that way," while internal troubleshooting guidelines suggested that customer service agents should not offer free cases, and instead instruct customers where to (not) hold the phone.
2) A leader's job is to educate
In his press conference, Jobs made it clear that only 22 days had passed from the release of the iPhone 4. He proceeded to educate the audience - largely composed of media - that all smartphones experience signal degradation when held in certain ways. (I tried it with my own smartphone and, true to Jobs' claims, the signal got worse.) Jobs went on to provide data about the number of iPhone 4 users who had called Applecare complaining of signal issues, and then answered questions for over 30 minutes. In doing all of this, he was educating both the public and the media about larger issues surrounding the smartphone industry, and specific topics related to the iPhone 4. Jobs made a compelling case that the iPhone 4's problem was more a perception issue rather than a death knell for the product.
3) Vulnerability isn't always a bad thing
Jobs opened his press conference by stating, "we're not perfect." This went a long way towards mitigating the perception that many hold about Apple - that they're an arrogant company that does not admit fault and has lost touch with consumers. By simply acknowledging the idea that his company has faults, Apple demonstrated a vulnerability that, counter-intuitively, improves outside perception of Apple. Furthermore, when Jobs suggested that his company only "works harder" when faced with mistakes, he refuted the image that some critics embrace that the company was simply working to develop creative excuses rather than fix the problem.
4) Attack problems - they won't just go away
While the folks at Apple were no doubt working hard behind the scenes to address the issue of signal degredation, the primary problem here seemed to be public perception. The perception that developed - and Apple didn't dispute - was that Apple didn't care that there was an issue with their iPhone 4. It took a Consumer Reports conclusion that they would not recommend the iPhone 4, despite its high marks in almost all categories, to finally spur Apple into action. Apple came to the conclusion that their problem, even if it was one of perception, was not going to simply go away. They finally attacked the issue by gathering and sharing data with the public and providing context around the antennae issue.
5) Sometimes an apology goes a long way
Apple reversed course when, during the questioning period of the news conference, CEO Steve Jobs offered an apology, a free case, and a potential refund to those customers who have experienced problems. It's been clearly demonstrated that a case fixes the antennae issue. Jobs offer of a case allowed customers to hop back on board without the anxiety that they are carrying an inferior product. And for the iPhone 4 customers who are not satisfied, the refund offers them a way out, and more importantly increases their chances of trying an Apple product in the future.
Consumer Reports felt that the offer of free cases was a good first step, but still does not recommend the iPhone 4. Others feel that coverage of the iPhone 4 issue was overblown. What did you think about how Apple handled the problem, and what could they have done better?
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July 18, 2010; 4:14 PM ET
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