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The desolation of disconnection

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There will be many kinds of fall-out from last week’s BlackBerry outage. One is how people respond to the desolation of disconnection, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Loss. Bereavement. Deprivation. Divorce. Estrangement. Separation. On 10 October, several million South Africans added another word to this lexicon of personal desolation: disconnection.

That’s when BlackBerry services went down across much of the world, and stayed down for three days. This was somewhat amusing for users of other phones, who find BlackBerry users’ constant need for communication annoying.

But when more than 2-million people are using a service, and become dependent on it, the consequences go further than a few missed e-mail messages. It means 5% of the country’s population is scrambling to find alternatives, and it means loss of productivity for business decision-makers who depend on their e-mail to do their job while on the move.

But it also has a deeper meaning, and not only for BlackBerry users.

We have become so deeply dependent on the devices we use for communication, we feel naked without them. Inadvertently leaving home without a cellphone, for example, creates a level of insecurity that ranks right up there with carrying no money or other means of payment.

This is not the first communications outage to strike large numbers of South Africans. The entire Vodacom network went down for half a day recently, creating the single biggest communications disconnection this country has yet seen.

The two outages in fact provide case studies in crisis management. In Vodacom’s case, CEO Pieter Uys took the lead in responding to media and customer enquiries, the company’s Twitter feed was used to broadcast status updates, and executive head of media communications Richard Boorman was fully available to media by phone and e-mail.

As a result, although customers were briefly angry and frustrated, the media was kind to the company, and the event ultimately had little impact on the business of Vodacom.

The response of Research in Motion (RIM) was the diametric opposite. For the first two days of the crisis, they provided no access to company representatives whatsoever. They issued brief statements twice a day, with no reference to human beings. Local offices were not allowed to add any further comment or assurances.

Only when the outage reached the United States, on the third day, was there any sign of RIM leadership. Their chief technical officer called a telephonic press conference, and the chief information officer issued a detailed apology on the RIM web site. Only then did the world hear from the company’s joint CEOs ‚ who already happened to be under fire from investors.

Aside from the public relations disaster that this kind of response represents, it also deepens customers’ sense of disconnection. Not only are they cut off from the services on which they’ve come to depend, but they are also deliberately disconnected from the service provider itself.

One can create many analogies for the emotional impact on customers. For example, it can be described as the equivalent of parents accidentally locking their children out of the house, and then refusing to tell them how or when they can come back inside.

Such children lose faith and trust in their parents, and begin devising ways to avoid finding themselves in that situation again. They find a way to acquire duplicate keys, or a secret entrance, or alternative accommodation at friends or family.

That, for a service provider, is a worst case scenario. It means that, the next time there is a disconnection crisis, their customers may well have a back-up solution in place. And when they switch over to that backup, they might not come back again.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx (www.worldwideworx.com) market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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