OPINION

Apple Still Thinks It Controls the Customer Conversation

It’s well established that social CRM and the use of social media for sales and marketing purposes can be a difficult concept to fully grasp and integrate into business operations. That’s because every business needs to understand its audience in order to put together a social strategy that makes sense for its unique circumstances. A one-size-fits-all template fits no one in the social era.

Still, there are some things that you don’t do. You don’t use social data to creep out your customers, for instance, by revealing that you know things about their kids, their travels, or their interests when it’s not appropriate. That should be clear.

Another no-no is to try to control the conversation. The customer now owns the conversation about your company; you can participate, or you can ignore it. What you can’t do is try to steer or squelch the conversation. It is not yours to manipulate — even in cases where the conversation is taking place in a community your company has created. If you do attempt to dominate the conversation, your community will be essentially obsolete overnight.

If you want an example of that, look no farther than Apple and its recent woes regarding the iPhone 4. I love Apple products — I have two of them whirring away in my office at this very instant — but while the company is advanced in design, marketing and service (in many cases), it’s way behind the times in other areas. Specifically, it lags in appreciating the power of its customers, many of whom, ironically, are empowered by devices like the iPhone.

Apple Plays Thought Police

If you haven’t been paying attention, the iPhone 4 debuted with the same fanfare as its predecessors, but the excitement was quickly subdued by word of an antenna issue that caused calls to drop if the phone was held a certain way. Initially, Apple denied and downplayed the problem, then suggested a fix that customers could pay for.

Meanwhile, Consumer Reports issued an unflattering evaluation of the iPhone 4 that advised skipping this version. Eventually, Steve Jobs was forced to break out his best black long-sleeve turtleneck and make essentially a public capitulation and offer free bumpers to all iPhone 4 users.

All the while, users were talking about this subject all over the Internet, including on Apple’s own support community. For a while, that is. Last week, it became apparent that Apple was deleting discussions of the Consumer Reports story from the community. The practice was discontinued after news of it emerged in the tech media, but it also stimulated reports of past scrubbing of negative threads. Endgadet reported that Apple “routinely deletes discussion of hardware flaws that it’s not ready to ‘fess up to, or just generally negative lines of thought about its product.”

Alone in the Bubble

Apple’s leadership exists in a bit of a bubble, which might explain why it thinks that deleting the threads on its own community would cause the discussion to go away. However, consumers don’t live in that bubble — they have lots of places to find peers and talk about the products they love (or love to hate).

Taking steps to squelch the conversation points out how poorly Apple understands its role (and its significance) in the customer conversation. Apple does not control it, nor can it. Ironically, the iPhone represents technology that allows users to become even more deeply involved in the conversation — it has a role in increasing the customer’s power and tilting things away from the company-controlled relationship Apple still seems to believe exists.

What Apple should be doing is participating in the conversation, and doing so fearlessly — especially on its own support boards. The iPhone 4 issue is a gigantic elephant in Apple’s virtual living room, and the company should explain how it’s going to tame it, lead it into the front yard, and get it out of the customers’ way. Ignoring it just causes the manure to pile up, and deleting customers’ discussions about it causes the manure to pile up faster.

If your company has a problem, the era of social demands that you be upfront about it, take customer concerns seriously, and behave as a partner with your customers. Clinging to the outdated model of control of the conversation only makes your business look inconsiderate and out of touch. That’s a way of making your customers “think different” about you that should be avoided at all costs.


CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at Forecasting Clouds. He has been a technology journalist for 15 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he’s not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he’s wearing his airplane geek hat; he’s written two books on World War II aviation, and his next two are slated for publication in 2010.

5 Comments

  • To assess Apple’s relationship with their customers as opposed to the media and blogosphere, try visiting the Apple Store and the genius bar to get the truth. And when not near a store try phoning the help line to get to know how Apple treats its customers.

    As you are obviously not a customer and have never visited the Apple store, all you can do is trying to spout your criticism hoping to rally the great unwashed to agree with you.

    I have not yet bought an iPhone or an iPad, but own various Apple products and have always been very satisfied with the way Apple treated me whenever I encountered a problem with either their hardware or their software. You should try them sometime.

    • Your flaw billtwyman is to reference steve jobs as though he speaks truth. The article is quite articulate on how jobs has NOT been forthcoming with the truth.

      Though I do give you props for the cutesy big/small thing in your efforts to avoid reality.

  • ‘The iPhone 4 issue is a gigantic elephant in Apple’s virtual living room’

    In life there are large things and tiny things. Tiny would be the appropriate word to describe the actual number of complaints from users as detailed by Mr Jobs. Elephantine quite accurately describes the AM ount of rubbish written about this so-called problem.

    Gigantic properly describes the demand for the iPhone 4.

  • REPLY TO: BrianB99 Posted 2010-07-22, who wrote: "I think if you run or own the community you have the right to say what goes on. If the forum is on Apple’s website and it is their forum. I believe they have the right to edit or delete what is said. If people want to criticize, whine, and complain. They should send their concerns to Customer Service. You can always blog about your feelings somewhere else on the web."

    I wonder how carefully you read the article BrianB99. Of coarse in your own communities blogs you have a "right" to alter and remove what people are posting there, BUT, the article is all about explaining how doing so is a very toxic business practice. The article tell how apple has tried to control the conversation and shows exactly how and why apple is shooting itself in the foot.

    Then you come along and say that apple has a right to do that. Yes apple has a right to be very stupid and make me want to stop supporting them and in fact this makes me want to stop supporting them for very good reason.

  • I think if you run or own the community you have the right to say what goes on. If the forum is on Apple’s website and it is their forum. I believe they have the right to edit or delete what is said. If people want to criticize, whine, and complain. They should send their concerns to Customer Service. You can always blog about your feelings somewhere else on the web.

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