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Quick! Get Apple a New Map--for Smart Crisis Control

A buggy product launch? That's familiar territory for most tech founders... but not for Apple. Here's how the company could have minimized the damage.

Apple has never been known for its comfort with criticism or questioning. But the recent switch from Google Maps to Apple's own mapping offering in the latest version of its iOS mobile operating system has become a full out fiasco--and offers some examples of what not to do when things go wrong and customers notice.

Apple has worked hard to cultivate an image of a company that can do no wrong. Not that history jibes with the pretty picture. Antenna problems for some owners of the iPhone 4 eventually spawned the term "Antennagate" and remarks about the "death grip" that could cause a loss of reception. There were those pesky reports of iPhones and iPods overheating (sometimes drastically), and data and Wi-Fi connection problems with some recent editions of the Mac operating system.

By and large, Apple has managed to keep things under control. But for any company, the day can come when things just fall apart, and that's what happened when people started using the new mapping system. Comments, even from people who otherwise seemed predisposed to cut the company slack, were scathing. For example, tech entrepreneur and blogger Anil Dash wrote, "Apple's made a new product that actually is pretty but dumb."

Not only were there widespread complaints, but someone started a Tumblr blog called "The Amazing iOS 6 Maps," which rapidly became popular for showcasing examples of mistakes.

Apple provided a statement to CNET, which read like enough spin to warrant a hurricane warning:

Customers around the world are upgrading to iOS 6 with over 200 new features including Apple Maps, our first map service. We are excited to offer this service with innovative new features like Flyover and Siri integration, and free turn by turn navigation. We launched this new map service knowing that it is a major initiative and we are just getting started with it. We are continuously improving it, and as Maps is a cloud-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get. We're also working with developers to integrate some of the amazing transit apps in the App Store into iOS Maps. We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better.

There are times when excuses and thanking people for feedback--more like irritated grumblings and derisive laughter--don't do the trick. Sometimes, you have to get beyond the happy face and meet a situation square on. Here's what Apple might have done instead:

  • Admit that things went badly.
  • Avoid trying to pretend that you're in a normal period of continuous improvement.
  • Don't talk about what cool things you'll add in the future; talk about what you'll do now to fix the situation.
  • Break out the caffeine and get the service working as quickly as possible.

Realize that when so many things are wrong, you'll have to fix bits at a time. So do that publicly. Provide regular and frequent updates so people know you are trying to solve the problem. And when you've got some of the worst offenders fixed, then create your own Tumblr or blog or something where you can not only show improvements, but demonstrate useful and exciting things your service can do.

Given that we're talking about Apple, much of this is unlikely to happen. However, that doesn't mean you can't learn for that time in the future when you also have to face the wrath of customers and get them to believe, yes, you really will make it better.

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Last updated: Sep 21, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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