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Tale of two outages

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On 10 October, South Africans wrestled with two major connectivity outages: the SEACOM undersea cable and the BlackBerry Internet Service both went down. But the outages were one thing: how users were treated was another, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK. They provide a case study in both successful and disastrous public relations.

When a cable breaks at the bottom of an ocean, the task of finding the fault ‚ let alone repairing it ‚ is enormously complex, involving ships, divers and massive shifting of equipment. When a server in a computer room goes down, it is a matter of walking into that room and lifting the hood.

However, the way SEACOM and Research in Motion (RIM) handled their respective outages on October 10 made it seem as if the roles had been reversed.

While RIM kept millions of users across Africa, Europe and the Middle East in the dark about why their BlackBerry services were not working, SEACOM immediately posted a statement on its web site and informed media and analysts exactly what the problem was with their undersea cable.

The BlackBerry service went down at about 11am South African time. The first statement that was issued ‚ after social networks were inundated with complaints, queries and even anguish ‚ came more than five hours later.

And this is how the message ran:

‚We are working to resolve an issue currently impacting some BlackBerry subscribers in Europe, Middle East and Africa. We’re investigating, and we apologise to our customers for any inconvenience caused whilst this is resolved.‚

It may as well have come from outer space. More than five hours after the outage began, there was no indication of what had happened, why it happened, how it happened or when the crisis would be resolved.

The next morning, RIM issued the following statement:

‚The service issue that you inquired about yesterday was resolved and all services are operating normally.‚

Their biggest customer crisis in the history of their service to Europe, Middle East and Africa (the ‚EMEA‚ region) is waved aside as a ‚service issue‚ .

That such a major outage, affecting an estimated 10-million users, could be addressed so late, with so little information and with so little concern, is not only astonishing. It is an insult to the intelligence of customers.

That RIM should issue such statements in the week after Apple had redoubled their challenge (see The Next Big Shift) to RIM’s continued leadership of the corporate smartphone market is a dereliction of duty by RIM’s senior management.

That RIM should be so unconcerned about the EMEA market, where they have experienced their strongest recent growth and greatest present customer loyalty, is a signal that its top management has lost sight of what makes a company great.

In contrast, here is the SEACOM response to its own outage:

‚SEACOM’s services in the Mediterranean experienced a service affecting outage late morning on Saturday 8 October 2011 (SA time) between Abu Talat (Egypt) and Marseilles (France). ‚Initial estimates indicate that the total repair time will be around twelve days depending on weather conditions. This entails gaining the necessary permits and the actual repair time. A repair vessel has been notified of the callout and mobilization will occur immediately once permits are received. ‚The outage initially affected all SEACOM traffic to Europe, however SEACOM was able to restore some services by Saturday afternoon. Further restoration has continued throughout the weekend in cooperation with customers and partners and SEACOM will continue to actively work on securing additional capacity for all necessary services over the next day or two.‚

Even more impressively, management was on hand to address media enquiries, and confirmed that the outage was due to a cable break in the Mediterranean ‚ even identifying the precise link that was down, and how traffic was being rerouted.

Later that day, they issued an update: ‚SEACOM has partially restored its customers’ services on alternate routes. Additional capacity is expected to come online within the next 24 hours, allowing us to substantially complete restoration. SEACOM continues to monitor the situation closely and will continue to provide updates to customers.‚

That’s how you address an outage crisis, RIM. You can learn from this Third World outfit.

It could have been so different.

When RIM came under fire from the SA and UK governments earlier this year, for supposedly facilitating crime in South Africa and riots in the UK through their BlackBerry Messenger service, the company reiterated its stance that it cooperated with law enforcement authorities, and otherwise maintained a dignified silence. It was, indeed, an example of best practice in crisis management. The media applauded RIM for that. But when it comes to customer service, and a major failure in that service, silence is worst practice.

When current customers have to make their next smartphone purchase decision, the events of 10 October ‚ the RIM response as much as the outage itself ‚ will weigh heavily on their decisions.

Related articles on the BlackBerry outage:

* Follow Arthur on Gadget on @art2gee

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