So perhaps we are coming to the close of the regrettable chapter that is the Galaxy Note 7. It has been more than a month since we first heard of Galaxy Note 7 devices exploding and after dozens of incidents, several recalls and repairs and replacements and hundreds of cynical memes, it seems that the Korean giant is finally giving up the ghost on the device that was supposed to be its flagship. And while there will be multiple post mortems, recriminations, and prolonged analysis, we really think that the whole crisis escalated because of what seems in rosy retrospect a lack of simple common sense at times. Of course, it is easy to be wise after the event and we have no way of knowing what actually transpired in Samsung and well, it might be a while before we really know what went wrong with the device, but based on what we DO know, there are seven things that tech companies can learn from the whole sorry episode:
1. React swiftly
For a company that churns out devices so quickly and is known for its turn of speed, Samsung’s reaction to the entire “explosive” crisis has tended to be generally on the slow side. Official reactions tended to trickle in hours and some times even days, after reports, giving rumor mills ample time to run amok. In the age of light speed social networking which thrives on negativity and bad news, that was not very clever.
2. React prominently and clearly
Not only were the reactions to the news of exploding devices delayed, they were also less than distinct and at times seemed fuzzy. It was not clear if the device was being recalled or how it would be replaced. Contrast this with the way Samsung’s arch-rival Apple took on the antenna-gate crisis in 2010, with Steve Jobs addressing a briefing on the subject, discussing the problem in detail, and suggesting solutions. Yes, his statement that iPhone owners’ were holding the phone wrong did invite a fair amount of criticism, but all said and done, the company had got a clear statement out in the field and had shown it was aware of a potential problem. With Samsung, alas, things were not that clear for quite a while (some might claim they are still not clear).
3. There are no “isolated incidents”
When reports of there being problems with Nokia’s batteries had started trickling in 2007, the initial reaction in many quarters (of the media and indeed in the trade) had been that these were one-offs. However, the company itself reacted very swiftly with one executive telling me rather bluntly “when it’s dangerous, there are no isolated incidents.” The result was one of the most comprehensive and swift product recalls we have seen in tech history. We suspect that the “isolated incident” mindset might have dogged Samsung’s initial reaction to the Note 7 crisis – witness the “only 35 cases have been reported globally” statement that was issued in early September. The fact that the company was claiming that the crisis was not a major one even as airlines were banning its products on flights sent out contradictory signals to the consumers.
4. If it’s dangerous, recall – do not replace or repair
There are some problems that can be fixed by repairs (Apple issued bumpers for the Antennagate crisis) or by giving public assurances of replacements (for l’affaire Bendgate), but there is one option when the product is perceived as being dangerous – that of pulling it off the market altogether. The kind of damage that the exploding devices were causing should have necessitated a quick recall rather than the attempts to issue replacements or try to repair matters. “Something is suspected of exploding and you try to issue another version that you say will not explode – that’s not very clever. Take the damn thing back, make refunds. You can fix matters later,” was the opinion of one for the PR executives involved in the famous Nokia battery recall.
5. Do not hand out replacements too soon
“Saying ‘we have fixed what’s wrong’ too quickly is a mistake. Take your time before issuing a replacement – it assures the public that you have researched the issue heavily,” an executive from a mobile company told us when news of Samsung offering replacement units for the Note 7 trickled in. As the replacement units too started developing problems, it became increasingly apparent that Samsung might have tried to paper over the cracks rather than plaster them away. We know this is more of an engineering decision than a marketing one, but given the dimension of what was happening, being slow here might have been a better option.
6. Do not try to get praise for fixing your own problem
There was widespread resentment in some quarters over the manner in which Samsung’s communications department went into overdrive to publicize details of how the company was doing its utmost to recall defective units and the costs involved in the process. While there is no doubting the efforts of the company in this regard, its efforts to get positive mileage out of them were seen by many as an attempt to whitewash its mistakes and ended up having negative repercussions. Perhaps it would have been better to undertake such a campaign well after the crisis. Which brings us to the final point…
7. Sorry should not be the hardest word
One of the cardinal rules of crisis communications is : “when you think you have made a mistake, and that has endangered someone, say “sorry” first.” And while Samsung has issued its share of apologies, including one from their mobile chief, Koh dong-Jin, recently, the stark fact is that the time they took in coming, and their initial tone detracted from their effectiveness. “A simple, unqualified apology would have had more effect than trying to minimize the impact of what was happening or trying to gain mileage from the efforts being made to recall the device. It can be confusing for the company initially because they have tried their best – no one puts a bad product out in the market deliberately – but it is always better to apologize right away, and particularly so if the product is endangering consumers,” an executive involved in the handling of the 2011 Sony PlayStation Network crisis, in which credit card details of many users were compromised, told me.