RIM’s free app apology shows more tone deafness

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Research in Motion just got through its worst outage ever last week and responded by giving away $100 worth of apps, mostly a bunch of games. Oh, and it’s throwing in a month free of tech support for enterprise customers and a free trial of customer support for people who don’t have it. We still don’t know if more compensation is on its way, but this seems like an unsatisfactory and incomplete way to address such a big outage.

RIM is taking a big downtime in service and trying to smooth things over by pointing people to apps in a store that many people don’t care for. If users wanted apps above all else, they’d be on another platform already. It’s like a car dealer apologizing for a faulty auto part by offering you free coke from their vending machine. Throwing on tech support also seems hollow, considering it wouldn’t have been helpful in this case and it won’t prevent this issue next time or speed up a solution. Now, there could be more compensation going on with carriers, though it’s unclear if anything will trickle down to end users.

RIM’s corporate messaging needs work

It seems like the handling of RIM’s worst network failure is another case of tone deaf communication in the face of a tough situation from the smartphone maker. RIM has been struggling through a rough year with declining market share and sales and it hasn’t managed the turmoil well. Co-CEO Mike Laziridis walked out of a TV interview in April after encountering some unwelcome questions from an interviewer. At the launch of the PlayBook tablet, Laziridis and co-CEO Jim Balsillie pulled out of formal comments at the last second and instead worked the room, which again made people wonder what was going on. The CEOs have dismissed most concerns about their co-CEO working arrangement, even a very pointed letter from an anonymous executive, though the company has conceded a little by launching a committee to explore splitting the roles of co-chair and co-CEOS.

The company has struggled internally with how to handle the marketing around the PlayBook, and whether it was a consumer or business device. That lack of clarity has not been dispelled over time and it’s likely that has helped contribute to lackluster sales of the device. The Wall Street Journal had a great look at the inside struggles over the PlayBook marketin, quoting an executive who said: “There’s an internal war going on around the marketing message. Even the guys at the top don’t agree.”

An apology with more oomph

This latest outage has also exposed more problems in the way RIM communicates. As my colleague Bobbie Johnson pointed out, the initial communication out of RIM was more of a slow trickle of information, and it took the CEOs too long to address the issue before Laziridis issued a video apology. Today’s apology is of course helpful but it seems like overall, a better, more targeted address of the issues or at least something more substantial in the way of a giveaway could trigger more confidence from users and investors. The stock slid 6.5 percent Monday following the apology.

So what could RIM have done? I think it could have offered up something more valuable to users like real compensation. Or as Roger Cheng at CNET suggests, RIM could work with retail and carrier partners to get customers early upgrades to new BlackBerrys or hand out some free BlackBerry devices or accessories to the best customers. For people who lost productivity and real money, even that may not temper their anger, but it would surely seem more meaningful and relevant than providing a narrow list of apps, even if they are popular.

Monetary compensation may still be in the cards, but I think the first big act of contrition can set the tone and it seems like RIM’s initial attempt is disjointed. Better to issue an initial apology and put together a more thoughtful package, even if takes a little longer, than to put out something that seems whipped together. Apple took its time before offering free bumpers following the “antennagate” issue and while it was faulted for taking a while to respond, Apple seemed to do enough in the eyes of most people to allow them to move on. Steve Jobs made a point of prizing the company’s relationship with users even when it seemed like he wasn’t convinced he needed to go to the lengths Apple did.

Time is running out 

This is a critical time for RIM to learn from its mistakes. It needs to figure out how to communicate to its audience of prospective and existing users their importance to the company. Right now, there’s little reason for many consumers to look at a BlackBerry, and now with email service recovering from a big outage, RIM has to ensure that its message is clear. More than at any time in the past, BlackBerry users need some reason and assurance for why it makes sense to choose RIM.

RIM still has a daunting task in terms of providing the actual devices people want and creating a platform that works well on tablets and smartphones. But that just means it shouldn’t be stumbling on something more basic like communicating goodwill to users. I’ll be interested to see what else RIM demonstrates at its developer conference this week. Let’s hope it’s something with more clarity and ‘oomph’ because right now, RIM not only needs some great hardware and software, it needs to know how to better communicate and connect with customers.

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