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o2’s Apple iPhone 3G launch: Chaotic, shambolic, appalling. Next!

I’ve touched the iPhone 3G. I’ve held it in my hand. I have my very own, on review, thanks to o2. Their well oiled PR machine was operating at full tilt in the run up to the launch of the iPhone last week. I know the chaps at o2 PR directly — I’ve sat down and had probiotic porridge smoothies with them (a phase I was going through). I don’t know their external PR firm too well, but I’ve only good things to say about the way they’ve handled themselves as far as I’m concerned.

It was a small delight to get a working device. I would have queued up like the best of them and I didn’t go into the Carphone Warehouse on Sunday morning just for the fun of it — I went in to see when they’ll have more stock as I’d like to get one. I’d like to commit to the 18 month contract and get my very own. Review units are brilliant because I can tell you with utter confidence that the iPhone 3G on o2 is excellent. It does like it’s battery. But so does my Nokia E90. The 3G is very, very good. The maps, the browsing, the iPhone experience, is enhanced by o2’s 3G network.

I always like a contrast. It’s always interesting comparing reality with the corporate line. That’s why you find me talking about what I saw in the Orange store, or how I got on talking with a chap from the Vodafone store, or why I made a video of Orange’s May 2008 customer brochure (to demonstrate that there was almost nothing about mobile data mentioned).

A few weeks ago, our Podcast Master, Ben Smith, turned to me in semi-mock-horror when we collectively realised we were going to be out of the country on iPhone-day (July 11th 2008). We were due in Dublin for Unlimited Drinks the day before. We’d never make it back in time for a 8.02am launch! How would we cope?

It’s mock concern. We’re all adults. There is, nonetheless, a bit of excitement to be had about how Apple manage themselves and their partners. There’s nothing like a bit of showmanship. It’s our job, we felt, to report it. To experience it, document it, in some cases, fan the excitement a little — for those reading in Newbury, in Maidenhead and in any of this great country’s provinces. For anyone who was stuck in an office wanting to know about the iPhone, we wanted to bring you a unique viewpoint. The Engadgets of this world would always be first with X, Y or Z, but we could bring it to you, live blogged.

In the end, we had a Dublin challenge. So we agreed that Dan Lane, regular participant on the SMS Text News podcast, would be our anchor. What’s more, he actually wanted to buy a handset himself. He was ready to commit to the 18 month deal. So instead of just looking, he’d actually be participating.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if we could put Dan toward the front of the queue, by arrangement with o2 or the Carphone Warehouse? We weren’t looking for freebies, just the opportunity to ‘cover it live’. Rebecca, acting for Carphone, tentatively agreed at the beginning of the week before confirming that Dan could pop by before the launch and be at the front of the queue.

Excellent. Right on.

Back to the beginning of last week. Chaos unleashed with news that both o2 and then Carphone Warehouse’s ordering sites had gone down and/or screwed up. To the point that our very own Ben Smith thought he’d ordered 9 times. But, in the end, he didn’t. Lauren, of Sonus PR (across the hall at SMS Text News Towers) thought she’d ordered one but it never arrived.

As the iPhone launch day arrived, the industry was in a state of flux. Some of us were left wondering if this was a brilliant Apple strategy to dominate the headlines. Deliberately make sure that there are screw-ups, and so on, so that you build demand and a bit of panic. Get people queuing on launch day.

All of this was, in my mind, set against the absolute rubbish launch day of the 2G iPhone. I remember reporting the experience of one reader — he’d gone into the Winchester branch of o2, I think, maybe Carphone, and found 18 sales people on standby, with zero customers. No queues. A damp squid. Turned out the pricing was all wrong. Lots of people liked the device, hardly anyone was prepared to pay top dollar for it.

Having fixed the model, having made it that if you’re an existing o2 customer, you can ‘upgrade’ to a new iPhone with minimal friction and new customers get the iPhone absolutely free on some contracts… geez… we predicted a riot.

And a riot, there almost was.

On the day, our man, Dan, was right there. You can follow his coverage by just searching ‘iPhone’ here on SMS Text News.

Second in the door at Carphone Warehouse, looked after expertly by the Carphone PR team, Dan attempted to make his purchase. He was denied, like many other countless customers, by the o2 credit check system screwing up.

No problem for Carphone. They failed back to their own system. That coughed and spluttered all day. Alas, a gremlin in the system prevented Dan from passing the credit check. Your postcode needs to be exactly the same on their system as it is is on the credit check system. But an inconsistency at the address of Dan’s block of flats played havoc.

Embarrassed smiles. There is, I suspect, nothing worse than having to PR a shit system. There was little Freud, the PR tasked with handling Carphone’s increasingly failing system of checks and balances, could do.

At one point, Dan was told that, because the credit check system wasn’t working for him (it was working ok for others), that …. well, bluntly… that’s it. I took a call from him whilst I was about to interview the chaps at ChangingWorlds in Dublin, where he explained that the Carphone Warehouse Manager did the mechanical equivalent of coming to a total halt. “It’ll need to be referred” — words to that effect — is what Dan was told. Command and control was, most definitely, not in the field. The poor manager was left with no alternative but to smile as politely as possible, take Dan’s iPhone and give it to another lucky punter.

This things happen. It’s annoying, it really is. I could spend some time examining the Carphone process and pointing out holes, but really, they do a fine job most of the time. I used the exact same credit check system 7 days beforehand in their Lakeside Store and it worked perfectly and in about 2 seconds. (I was looking for an N82 on Orange).

So whilst Carphone didn’t exactly perform in the eyes of Dan, countless others were delighted to take home their new iPhone on Friday.

We move on.

“You can still get an iPhone!” was the message I got from Dan as I arrived back from Dublin. Camped out at the SMS Text News office on Oxford Street, Dan had remembered that the Apple Store sold iPhones.

Now, he’s not a desperate chap. He’s a certain and predictable individual with a shocking amount of intelligence and nothing short of jedi-ninja-like programming abiliites. He didn’t need to go hunting for the iPhone. But he’s a good sport. He wanted to cover it for us and, you know, if it meant standing in a queue for a few hours… sure thing, he could record the experience and the best point being he’d leave with a new iPhone to play with….

At this point in the late afternoon, goodness knows what was going on at o2.

Their credit check system was monumentally screwed. By all accounts, they’d moved to the backup system of paper — passports, utility bills, forms, the whole shebang.

The Apple Store was able to sell iPhones on Friday. But only with this archaic system. That nobody was trained to deal with. And nobody had any forms. And the o2 credit check system only worked on Windows. So, er, quickly, install VMware Fusion on some Apples and let’s get Windows installed. Let’s give everyone in the queue chairs. And £15 iTunes gift vouchers as a gesture of good faith. Get some coffee and newspapers in. Let’s sell folk some iPhones. Dan covered this experience from the coalface. It was a fascinating viewpoint into the culture of service that one associates with Apple.

Late, late in the evening, Dan completed his transaction and finally got his own iPhone. He signed the forms, he presented his ID — in the event, Podmaster Ben Smith had to cough up the cash for the device because Dan’s bank(s) had long since thought his cards were being used maliciously by the Carphone Manager (“declined, declined, declined”).

But he got his iPhone.

It was obviously not activated. No biggie. He expected to wait ’til the evening or, worst case, 24 hours, for the word to get through, somehow, somewhere, on the o2 network, that Dan had bought the iPhone, passed the (paper) credit check and was an o2 customer. So switch him on.

No.

Saturday passed. Dan contented himself playing with the new features on the device via WiFi. “I think this is excellent, the Facebook App is great,” he told us, before we recorded the SMS Text News podcast on Saturday evening, “But my phone isn’t actually activated yet!”

No biggie. Delays, right? Paper. They’ll sort it. They’ll be working through the night to sort it. Don’t worry.

That’s what we all thought.

No.

Monday arrived. Calls to o2 = useless.

Tuesday evening arrived and that’s now four days into the contract and Dan’s iPhone still wasn’t active on the o2 network.

What gives?

His patience, obviously. He lost his patience and, after oodles of hold music, has finally succeeded — at least, he hopes — in cancelling his useless contract with o2.

There is only so much you can do to try and make a company take your money.

Which brings me to my point. Just how bad do you have to be? Just how disorganised can you get? WHO was in charge of the iPhone roll-out at o2?

Who handled the damage control? Who gave permission to change to the paper-based credit checking system? Good call, but where was the follow-through?

You can’t let customers walk out the door with a device that doesn’t activate after FOUR days?

I think I know what’s happened. Well, I can speculate. Somewhere, there’s a piece of paper that’s fallen down the back of the fax machine. It’ll have Dan’s iPhone MSISDN number and SIM details. Nobody’s bothered to sort it yet.

Nobody cares.

Clearly, nobody cares. Countless calls to o2 by Dan have yieled nothing.

No one at o2 gives a stuff about him as a customer — to the point that he’s done a complete 360 degree turn and his only recourse is to cancel and ask them to come and pick up the device. Or tell him where to send it.

Where is the management responsibility and control?

Where is the edict, issued to all staff members, to make it clear that the iPhone launch is a strategically important event for o2? That if anyone calls with problems, sort them. iPhone customers aren’t your average 5 quid a month ARPU users. By dint of the large contracts, iPhone customers spend at least, what 40-50 quid a month.

But move mountains to get the customers live, right? Surely?

Surely if your system is that fragile — if it falls over in the full glare of the media spotlight and you’re reduced to processing paper, at least make sure the job is done correctly? Don’t go home at 9pm. These people queued for hours. These folk are your most loyal, loyal customers. They’re standing in line for HOURS to give your company money!

I’d like you to help me. I’d like to know the names of the people in charge. I’m not interested in blame. I can’t help but ask questions and feel astounded at how apparently badly organised the company is. But blame is a rather useless objective. I’m interested in results.

I’d like to give an answer to Lauren who tried ordering an iPhone last week, but the o2 order failed. But she got a text message telling her it would arrive on Friday. It didn’t. And she was charged 99 pounds for the privilege. Errrrr? By all means, things do go wrong. But surely you can fix them, especially given four days?

Yes. And don’t call me Shirley. (For any Airplane fans).

I’d like to give an answer to Dan. Secretly I’d like to give him some hope of a swift resolution — I’d like to make them both happy with a fix. Similarly if you too had trouble with your iPhone, I’d like to help. Email me (ewan@smstextnews.com) if you’ve been nailed by the broken o2 system.

I’ll talk to the o2 PR tomorrow — I’ll email Nick Wilkins. He’s a nice chap. I’ll see what he might be able to do. But I fear it might not be him, but rather the internal machinations of o2 that may well be the barrier to a swift resolution.

But for now, I wanted to record this. This post and a lot of the related ones will definitely be going in the 2008 SMS Text News Annual (Krystal’s busy working on it): The shambolic launch of o2’s iPhone 3G.

Here’s Dan’s last post on the matter. You never know, maybe we can get him up and running tomorrow morning, eh?

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

16 replies on “o2’s Apple iPhone 3G launch: Chaotic, shambolic, appalling. Next!”

While you're at it ask them when I can upgrade my existing one and why I can't even put my name on a list for one?

It's not just pre-launch ordering and launch day that were botched. Aside from new connections available at the Apple store upgrade customers who missed out on day one are still in an information vacuum.

Dan may have tried to cancel his and offer to let them have it back – but what's the betting it gets activated anyway (eventuuuuuuallllly) and a bill plops on his doormat when he least expects it… My guess is his request to cancel went on a Post-It that went on the floor…….

All these issues are easily fixed – customer anger can quickly dissipate when mistakes are acknowledged and compensated for. Sometimes you can tell more about a company from how it responds to its failures than how it deals with the big successes.

I am really interested in hearing how O2 deal with this.

I also wonder whether Apple will follow the same model with the next launch. Wouldn't it just be easier to sell unlocked iPhones in conjunction with the subsidised operator deals.

I am not sure whether this chaos is as good for Apple as other people seem to think.

Brilliant article by the way.

I'm truly surprised at how o2 have treated their customers over the iPhone mayhem. The cost of the device (and their contracts) are appalling in my view, and you would never see me paying that much for a phone that likes to pretend it's everything other than a phone. But forgetting that, the price should mean you in return as a customer at least gratify a certain amount of Customer Service.

The Launch seems to be only a cock-up. Yes, many people may of got their phones, some may be working, but what about the other people, like Dan, who have nothing in return for endless queing and ridiculous prices?

I also don't think the blame falls directly on to o2 either, Apple must take blame for not organising it's own launch and coordinating itself with the companies it chooses to work with. The same with the Carephone Warehouse. Apple may of predicted a great deal of demand, but where was their plan? Where was there an efficient system to process and complete transactions?

I hope Apple, o2 and the Carphone Warehouse learn something out of this… Respect and curteosy towards those who put their trust in their business.

I also would love to see the responses you get, will there be the usual beating around the bush?

Samantha.

Let's face it: O2 are shit useless!
If even their friendly PR-droids had an ounce of sense they'd be trawling mobile blogs and forums explaining the problems and reassuring customers. But after 17 hours of this post being published, there's nothing but silence.

Even Orange couldn't turn this series of glitches into such a disaster!

I just cancelled my order for two iPhones for my business. O2 really are up there with Vodaphone for appalling customer service. I really haven't been treated this badly whilst spending so much money, ever.

But, enough whining and bitching, I'll just wait for the storm to blow over.

carphone systems allowed more than 3000 iphones to be over ordered and now all of their poor sales staff are forced to face the understandable disapointment of customers who have payed for empty promises! carphone have turned us all into liars.

Wow… my experiences, compared to yours, have so far been such a polar extreme I think I'm going to have to write a blog post about it. Yes, I've had problems too, but O2 and CPW have gone out of their way to remain transparent and courteous and to keep me updated throughout the entire process. Even the purchase itself was rapid and without a hitch, due in no small part to the fact I was first in the queue of 2 people when CPW opened their local store at 730am that Friday.
I'll write a long post and link to it here once (or maybe “if”) the problem's been resolved and I can give a fair assessment of the whole situation.

Wow… my experiences, compared to yours, have so far been such a polar extreme I think I'm going to have to write a blog post about it. Yes, I've had problems too, but O2 and CPW have gone out of their way to remain transparent and courteous and to keep me updated throughout the entire process. Even the purchase itself was rapid and without a hitch, due in no small part to the fact I was first in the queue of 2 people when CPW opened their local store at 730am that Friday.
I'll write a long post and link to it here once (or maybe “if”) the problem's been resolved and I can give a fair assessment of the whole situation.

Wow… my experiences, compared to yours, have so far been such a polar extreme I think I'm going to have to write a blog post about it. Yes, I've had problems too, but O2 and CPW have gone out of their way to remain transparent and courteous and to keep me updated throughout the entire process. Even the purchase itself was rapid and without a hitch, due in no small part to the fact I was first in the queue of 2 people when CPW opened their local store at 730am that Friday.
I'll write a long post and link to it here once (or maybe “if”) the problem's been resolved and I can give a fair assessment of the whole situation.

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