Monday 21 July 2008


The release of Apple's mobile me Iphone software is a disaster for one customer - me! And I don't even have an Iphone.

During the past week, it's occurred to me that I'm doing business with a great many companies where the relationship is way out of balance. I need them many many times more than they need me.

After four days without email, thanks to a prolonged outage of the Apple email system, and with little by way of apology or direction from Apple, it is pretty plain that my email is a much bigger matter of concern to me than it is to Apple.

Today, the company announced a record quarterly profit of $1.07 billion US.

While Apple enjoys a zealotry from its fans and the media that might provide inspiration for a Presidential candidate or a religious cult, their haste to keep their new products and the profits flowing appears to have bowled over their impressive technical team.

Waiting for the Iphone, Apple Store Sydney

The release last week of the software companion to the Iphone, known as MobileMe, is a disaster for at least one customer. Demobilised me.

I've been a subscriber to a service called .mac for the past few years. It's like a hotmail, yahoo mail or gmail account. It has some extra features, but it also has a catch. It costs $139 per year. For that, I have assumed that I would have an email platform of unrivalled stability - and perhaps some customer service as well.

On Saturday morning, I woke to discover that my .mac email was down. I wasn't too alarmed. I recall experiencing outages of a few minutes before.

It's now been four days since I've received any email. And I'm worried.

Apple have confirmed that the problem is at their end. They haven't provided any other information or service that might indicate they appreciate the seriousness of an email system disabled for four days.

My Apple mail account is where my personal life resides. Having lived abroad for many years, a lot of my personal relationships are maintained by email. For the past four days, anyone who sends an email to me assumes that it has gone through - but it hasn't. Who knows what I might be missing out on?

And then there's the banking, credit card, newsletter and magazine subscriptions. They are essential aspects of modern life. And I'm being deprived of all of them by an overly ambitious Apple keen to sign up as many Iphone customers as possible to its inadequately tested MobileMe service.

It's certainly made me very conscious of how dependent I am on email.

But that's just the start of the story.

Just as disturbing as four days without email, is the faceless beast that one encounters when service is required.

Apple is ubiquitous. I can't open a newspaper or walk down the street without being clobbered by an image of the Iphone or an Apple icon. Yet Apple's service is less ubiquitous. In fact there is nobody in Australia to discuss this problem with.

Despite paying a significant annual fee, there is no phone support for my .mac email account. Furthermore, after extensively scouring the Apple website, the only mention I can find of this problem is a simple line "1% of MobileMe members cannot access MobileMe Mail. We apologize for any inconvenience."

It's a lottery I didn't care to win. But given the seriousness of email continuity and certainty that I am one of thousands of Apple customers experiencing this prolonged outage, I am appalled by Apple's communications with its aggrieved customers.

A company with any regard for its customers and proper recognition of the seriousness of a protracted email outage would make a more comprehensive statement on the problem available on its website.

Such action would of course draw wider attention to the problem.

Apple has clearly reasoned once again that PR should trump all other concerns - especially a claimed 1% of MobileMail users.... and especially when there are record sales and profit figures to release.

Monday 14 July 2008


World Youth Day provides an incomparable opportunity to see the energy and dynamism of the Catholic Church's young flock and contrast this with its institutional rottenness

The youthful exuberance on the streets of Sydney for World Youth Day captures the celebration of humanity that is at the heart of great spiritual movements.

It could even warm the heart of a long lapsed Catholic. That is, until the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Pell, takes to the stage.

It's hard to imagine how he could be more adept at diminishing the church's best Australian moment in decades - and how perfectly he embodies an outmoded institution of cold, bloated, self importance and inhumanity.

Over the past few days, Pell has expressed views across three issues that put the church at odds with a great many of its adherents and the wider community. Such is the extremism of these views, they must also be theologically contentious. And they most certainly provide rich fodder to those dismissive of the church as an institution whose negatives far outweigh its positives.

First and most damningly, Pell's intervention to minimise the sexual abuse case of Anthony Jones revealed at best, an incompetence so dire as to render him unfit for the position he holds and at worst, a mischievous callousness. Cardinal Pell's apology to Jones, in the face of a media catastrophe, lacked compassion. His posturing rings hollow and he has failed to publicly express any empathy for the victim.

After last week, you might have expected that the Archbishop would keep his head down and just smile for the cameras during the Papal visit.

But no. Perhaps fearing the imminent end of his run of World Youth Day induced superstardom, Cardinal Pell yesterday shared some further personal positions - on global warming and population growth.

Remarkably, the Archbishop used his World Youth Day press conference to burnish his credentials as a climate change sceptic - washing down the Pope's global warming message of a day earlier.

Finally, the Cardinal expressed concern that birth rates in Western countries are insufficient to maintain current population levels.

Curiously, he neglected to mention that the world population continues to grow, and for the first time in history, food supplies are stretched and fuel supplies are drying up. In the past year, food shortages and inflation have forced millions around the world into starvation. There are real concerns about the earth's capacity to support the demands its present population are imposing.

In the face of these facts, the Archbishop's call to action was for Catholics to go forth, procreate and save the West with a population explosion. Implicit in this message is a cultural and racial bigotry that values a child born in the developed West over those born in the developing world or those born into non Christian cultures.

The world does not have a population growth problem. The world has a population problem. Population control is viewed as one of the best instruments for decreasing global poverty.

Many of the participants in World Youth Day come from developing countries where the populations are implored to have small families. To them, the global food and resources crisis is a daily reality.

I wonder how Cardinal Pell's message was received by these pilgrims? I wonder whether they realised that by virtue of their country of birth, they were excluded from the Cardinal's populate or perish call?

Monday 7 July 2008


Loyal customers seem to have become disposable items for our banks and telcos.

Imagine you've been a loyal customer at your local pub for years. One day, you grab your schooner and pass over your $3.50. The barman thanks you politely for your years of patronage and moves to serve the next customer. You overhear the next customer referencing the new drinker's special- for new customers only. Right before your eyes, the barman offers the new customer a fifty percent discount on all beer for the next three months.

For being a new customer, he pays half the price that you, a longstanding and loyal customer pays.

After years of loyal patronage, would you feel a little neglected? I know I would.

I've never studied business, but in my years of working in business, I have always operated on the principle that the cultivation and retention of long term customers is the most important of all commercial objectives. What better measure is there of a company's success in its customer relationships than a portfolio of long term customers?

It seems many large corporations have moved on from this simple and seemingly obvious commercial principle.

Over the past year, I've watched phone companies and banks release product after product to woo new customers that effectively punish long standing customers. Optus, the Commonwealth Bank, HSBC Bank - are some that I've noticed.

I have been an Optus home phone, mobile, TV and internet customer for most of the past 10 years. When my home phone contract recently lapsed, I took a look at my Optus options and selected a new plan. I then became aware that Optus provided a very significant additional discount new customers on a new plan that an old customer (me) with a raft of current Optus contracts (my homephone was out of contract) was not entitled to.

I pointed out my disappointment and the seeming lack of commercial sense in this approach to Optus personnel to no avail. It made me ponder my relationship with Optus and the company's non existent recognition of my years of loyalty.

I moved my mobile phone contract to Three (I've had my issues there too - I'll cover these at another time) and took up a house phone contract with Skype (more issues....). I stayed on Optus for broadband and TV.

I've seen both the Commonwealth Bank (I've been a customer for nearly 40 years) and HSBC (I've been a customer around 10 years) do the same thing with high interest offers for new deposits in recent months.

In these cases, new customers have been offered a generous additional 0.5 per cent on their savings above the interest rate paid to existing customers.

The commercial principle in all these cases is that the loyal customer can be neglected while the new customer (likely a swinging customer) is to be courted.

You really have to wonder what they're teaching in business schools. It's a reversal of the commercial rationale behind the loyalty schemes that are run by airlines, hotel groups and other businesses.

I'm guessing there must be some special MBA marketing courses covering industry sectors like banking and telephony. These industries are defined by two features - they lock customers into long term accounts or plans, and they can reasonably assume that customers will require their services, or those of their competitors for life.

It seems that the two lessons being taught in these classes are -
* Expend all marketing and customer service resources on new client conversion.
* Once signed up, allocate minimal resources to the ongoing management or functioning of the customer relationship.

Presumably there is some study out there in the land of corporate academe that posits that clinching the initial deal with a new customer is more commercially valuable than a relationship of long term loyalty. Promiscuity pays!

And it seems to me that the students of this MBA course unit are heading up marketing strategy in major banks and telephone companies across Australia. I suppose the best way to counter this is for customers to offer no loyalty to any company and constantly switch mobile phone service providors and banks - but who has the time for that? - or is that the whole point?