Will Apple’s lack of a Social CRM strategy be its downfall?

By Richard Hughes on March 02, 2011

With the latest Apple media event just a few hours away, the rumour-mill is in full swing speculating on the features of the new iPad (cameras! USB port! retina display! white case!). My wish is far more modest – I just want them to release iOS 4.3, and thereby end one of my least satisfactory experiences as an Apple customer. Well, what I would really like is some sort of Social CRM strategy from Apple, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that.

In November, I bought the new Apple TV. For an Mac-centric household like mine, it’s a fabulous little device; it can stream video, photos and music from all your computers, it’s tiny, it’s silent, it’s only $99. But there was one big problem, it didn’t work properly.

Every 20-30 minutes, the colours on the TV would go crazy, seemingly caused by failure in the HDMI handshake between the Apple TV and the TV.

A search of Apple’s discussion forums showed that mine was far from being an isolated case. When I first encountered the problem, there were 440 replies on the thread. There are now more than 800, running to 55 pages. How many of these replies are from Apple themselves? Zero.

Apple’s culture of secrecy is well known, so perhaps this isn’t a surprise. But it has been fascinating to watch the impact of leaving customers without an adequate response to the problem. Some customers decided to return their Apple TVs. Some decided to wait for a software fix. Amusingly, the most rabid Apple fanboys tried to pretend that it was Sony or Panasonic’s fault, and said they were going to buy a new TV. Meanwhile, Apple said nothing.

Then beta versions of iOS 4.3 started reaching developers, and reports emerged that these fixed the problem by restoring an option that was on the original Apple TV, enabling the user to pick the HDMI connection mode. At last, light at the end of the tunnel. But then Apple started removing some of these posts, as discussion of beta software is prohibited on their customer forums. So the discussion moved to an independent forum, where Apple had no control. And once Apple had lost control of the discussion, someone posted a link to where beta version of all Apple’s software could be downloaded.

I resisted the temptation for a week or two. But then, after being called by my children to fix the problem about 6 times in the course of one movie, I decided enough was enough. Downloading and installing the beta took about 10 minutes, and the colour problem hasn’t recurred since. Yet, for the next few hours at least, I am still using an illegally downloaded version of the firmware to make my Apple TV usable.

I am a fairly loyal Apple customer. In my house, we have 4 Macs (in various states of obsolescence), 3 iPods, an iPad and an Apple TV, and I love all of these devices. Yet, Apple drove me away from their forums, and towards illegal downloads of beta software. A year ago I wrote in Socializing Beyond The Enterprise,

If customers are not given a forum to express their views, they will simply go elsewhere and express those views, but probably less constructively; the Internet provides a wide range of such forums.

Little did I expect that I would find myself in such an extreme example of this.

Apple’s record on new product launches is enviable. But the policy of secrecy really only works when things are going well. Over the last year, they have had several mishaps – the iPhone “antennagate” (I still can’t believe that people accepted “have a free case” as a solution), Ping (which I guess everyone just ignored), and the growing furore over subscription payments. When things go wrong, it is essential to have good customer communication processes in place. And these days, that means having a highly visible presence on public social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and on company-hosted communities. Apple have none of these.

We all look to Apple as a shining example of a technology success. But could it be that in 5-10 years time we all look back and wonder “how on earth did Apple ever get so successful without a Social CRM strategy?”. It feels crazy to be predicting the downfall of a $300bn giant, but could the culture of secrecy be so deeply engrained in Apple that they fail to adapt to the demands of the new social customer?