Clif Notes: Are You Dissin' Me?

I just don't believe it. I don't have an MBA and never took any marketing classes. But it seems to me that announcing, "sure our product sucks, but it doesn't suck as bad as our competitor's," is a rather bizarre way of getting new customers or making existing customers happy with their purchase decision.

Let's briefly recap. In the last issue we talked about the problems that Apple was having with the antenna design on the new iPhone 4. It turns out that the antenna, which runs around the edge of the phone, has a small gap in the lower left-hand corner. If your fingers should close this gap, you lose your signal. This was seen by most customers as being a problem. Apple's response? No it isn't; You're holding the phone wrong.

Predictably the iPhone 4 customer base went apoplectic. The rest of the smart phone market went into hysterics. Telling your customers that they are too dumb to use the product they bought is a rather interesting approach to customer service.

A simple workaround was to put a piece of duct tape over the gap, but that looks tacky. A nicer solution is to get a plastic or rubber case for the phone. Leaked internal documents show that AppleCare had been instructed to tell people that Apple was not going to be providing these.

This fiasco has become known as Antenna-gate.

Well, there have been some developments in this saga since the last column. Apple came back and announced that, without really admitting that there was a problem with the antenna, they were going to offer free cases, or in some circumstances, even refunds to iPhone 4 users. Then they turn around and say that antenna problems are common to all smart phones, and that the iPhone 4 antenna problems are not as bad as their competitor's. They even published their own lab results to prove it. (That tactic didn't work for BP Petroleum, either.)

Let's summarize. There is no problem with our product. You people just don't know how to hold a phone. Oh wait. The problem that doesn't exist isn't hardware; it's a software bug. Okay, now even Consumer Reports is hallucinating and thinks there's a problem. So we're going to go ahead and give you a phone case that gets around the problem that doesn't exist. By the way, our problem, that doesn't exist, isn't as bad as our competitor's problems.

Color me flabbergasted. Don't get me wrong. I've always known that Apple was arrogant. They insist that their usability lab tests show that people do not use keyboard shortcuts to access menu items. Combine that with the idea that most users would get confused if the mouse had more than a single button. So in order to activate a pop-up context menu, you have to use your other hand to simultaneously hold down the control key while you click the mouse. So it's easier to remember and use two hands to perform a keyboard and mouse sequence than it is to right-click on a two button mouse? Give me a break. So the attitude is nothing new. It's just one of those things that Apple users have to put up with, the same as Windows users have their crosses to bear. It's just that Antenna-gate and the fact that it happened in the consumer electronics market, not just the more limited Apple computer users market, has made this a particularly glaring public example. And in my opinion, Apple deserves the ridicule they've received.

I think there is a lesson in this for all of us. It comes down to respect, or in this case, lack of respect. No respect of users. As a computer professional I absolutely cringe when I see some 23-year-old IT "professional" go into an accounting or administrative department, cop an arrogant attitude, and start treating users twice their age as a bunch of ignorant buffoons. That shows disrespect for the users.

When a user asks a question about, what to us, is a very simple thing, throwing out a lot of technical jargon just because it is beneath you to explain how to do something to a mere user shows disrespect. You may be busy, and you may make more money (although you might also be surprised), but your time is not inherently more valuable than their time. As a matter of fact, in many cases, they add more value to the company's bottom line than you do.

When the user asks a question to which you don't know the answer and you either start making guesses, or worse, making it up as you go along, that's not just disrespect. That's lying.

Please don't misunderstand. I do know how frustrating it can be working with some users. The military has a saying. "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy." I have modified that slightly. "No program survives first contact with the users." But that's part of the job. And by failing to respect the users, we turn what should be a cooperative work environment into a stressful battle zone populated by snipers. We will never be treated with the respect that we crave if we are not willing to treat anyone outside of our own technology clique with respect.

So the next time that you are tempted to either roll your eyes or baby talk to a department manager because he doesn't understand or remember that the cursor control keys don't work in your green screen application, perhaps you could try respecting him for what he can do that you can't. Then look for a better way to explain things. You'll get more respect by showing respect.

As a friend of mine who is a graduate of a rather prestigious university put it, "Eventually I learned that just because I'm smart, that doesn't mean that other people are dumb."

And no. Wearing blue jeans and a black turtleneck to work isn't going to let you get away with it either.

Clif Oliver

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Sep/Oct 2010