BlackBerry: Buggy Whip Manufacturer of the 21st Century


BlackBerry – anyone remember them? – is back in the news this week, touting two new phones to accompany its new operating system, the BlackBerry 10, and its “new” name: BlackBerry. The molasses-like company finally shed the cumbersome and meaningless “Research in Motion” moniker since nobody ever referred to them that way anyway. For the record, Research in Motion was the name of the company and BlackBerry the name of the phone. Now everything is called BlackBerry, and for the company, everything is still called crisis.

The old expression used to be “A day late and a dollar short.” In BlackBerry’s case, they are at least four years late and millions of dollars short, and no hope of ever becoming relevant again in the smart phone wars.

Which is unfortunate, since stiff competition often raises the game of all who compete, to the betterment of the end users. And sad, too, since BlackBerry virtually invented the smart phone, long before Steve Jobs ever dreamed of the iPhone.

But there are important crisis lessons here for all companies, starting with BlackBerry taking so many victory laps around the track in their early days of unprecedented success that they failed to hear the encroaching footsteps of feet fast approaching from behind. In other words, if you build a better mousetrap, only some of the people will beat a path to your door; others will be too busy trying to top your invention. This is only news to companies who live with blinders on.  

You have to have a good memory or be of a certain age to remember Lotus 1-2-3. That was the “bee’s-knees” of spreadsheets, the company that essentially invented a new way of crunching numbers – until Microsoft Excel came along and cleaned Lotus’ clock.

Before PowerPoint became so ubiquitous that its name is virtually synonymous with boring business presentations, Harvard Graphics was the go-to must have software for baking up colorful pie charts.

And how about WordPerfect? A company that once had some 95% of the word processing market, now is a small niche company catering mostly to law firms, thanks to a marketing onslaught by Word.

BlackBerry certainly should have known it was not immune from this common business practice: full assault on the market leader.

The struggling company’s crisis communications messages will have to figure out how to woo back some former customers, and that will not be easy. It will be well nigh impossible to pry loose a meaningful number of iPhone and Android customers who have so much invested in their phones already and are locked into long term contracts.

On top of that, BlackBerry has only about 10 percent of the apps that Apple has. The company says it is working on an app that will convert Android (not Apple) apps so that they will work on BlackBerry phones. Maybe so, but why would the average user want to go through such a cumbersome conversion process, and who is to say it will work glitch-free?

BlackBerry’s biggest crisis could be summed up as a yawn. It needs to create some sizzle with developing a host of must-have apps and features in order to distinguish itself from its competitors. Tech writers say the company still has life in it. I’m not so sure.

And there are other reasons why the company is doomed that have nothing to do with technology or lack of apps: BlackBerry does not understand basic customer service. I was a loyal BlackBerry user for many years, until they drove me into the arms of Apple.

My phone carrier is Verizon and whenever I had a question or a problem with my  BlackBerry I had to first call Verizon (I understand this is the same with AT&T) and give them a chance to figure out the problem. Because I use a Mac and often my problem had to do with syncing my BlackBerry with my Mac, Verizon usually struck out. Only then would they transfer my call to BlackBerry tech support. It is not possible to call BlackBerry tech support directly!

Thus, in order to ask a technical question I would have to speak with five separate people: first a Verizon “screener;” then a Verizon tech person who ultimately realized I needed to speak with someone who was both a Mac and BlackBerry specialist (followed by a long wait on hold until they located someone). Then – and only then – would they transfer me to the BlackBerry tech support team. And when I reached the first BlackBerry tech support person, who was not a Mac specialist, I would then have to be transferred to a Research in Motion tech support person was also a Mac specialist. This last person was usually able to solve the problem quickly. But it would take me an average of one and a-half hours to get it done.

BlackBerry should have realized a long time ago that this artificial barrier they have created frustrates its customers. The company should be doing everything possible to make their customers’ experiences with the  BlackBerry a positive, not negative, encounter. I am a business user and I never had an overall positive experience when I needed tech support with my BlackBerry.

I have had an iPhone for more than a year. If I have a question I call AppleCare and the first person I talk to helps me. In minutes, not hours. I still have Verizon service but I never need to call them with a question about the iPhone.

That is called customer service, and until BlackBerry learns that, they will still have problems. In other words, even if they have – at last – built a truly better mousetrap, if I can’t talk directly to their customer service/tech support people with one phone call, why would I ever want to subject myself to the sort of ordeal I just described?

And I am far from alone. 

BlackBerry loyalists can point to secure networks and other features that make the product standout. Just the way the last remaining buggy whip manufacturer probably touted the crisp and efficient slap of the whip on a horse’s ass.

Until the Model T came along.