Hey, RIM! Time to step it up with better BlackBerry freebies

A few games and productivity apps aren't going mollify anger over the outage. But early phone upgrades and giveaways might.

commentary Research in Motion, is that really all you've got?

After a critical outage that left some BlackBerry users without e-mail for as many as three days, RIM is offering customers $100 worth of premium apps for free . Enterprise customers also get a month's worth of technical support.

The problem is, the BlackBerry faithful stick with you for primarily one reason: your excellent e-mail service. If they wanted games, media apps and other whiz-bang features, they would have fled to an iPhone or Android smartphone already. You lose your e-mail, even for one day, and you lose your best reason for keeping a BlackBerry.

"(RIM) has to do something really substantial, something that makes people go wow," said Lance Strate, a professor of communications and media studies for Fordham University.

So here's a modest proposal: work with your retail and carrier partners to get your customers early upgrades to new BlackBerrys. For some of your best customers, hand them out for free. Already own a new BlackBerry? Throw in a Bluetooth handset or other accessory.

Sure, giving away phones sounds like sacrilege at a company that generates the bulk of its revenue from hardware, but bear with me. Such a program would buy a massive amount of goodwill from peeved customers. You could even snatch away the spotlight from Apple's latest iPhone launch .

RIM's BlackBerry DevCon conference starts tomorrow. Just think how different the atmosphere would be if attendees were buzzing about the new BlackBerry program instead of grousing about the outage.

There are longer-term advantages, too. You can lock in customers that may have been tempted by the new iPhone or the latest wave of Android smartphone. You're so proud of the latest BlackBerry operating system? Here's a great way to get more users to try it out.

Yes, your margins would take a hit. But right now, the smartphone business is all about market share, and you're on the losing end. Keeping existing customers--particularly loyal ones--in the fold with new BlackBerrys is one way to preserve your base.

Unlike other analysts and bloggers who think the outage sounds the death knell for RIM, I think there's still time to repair your image. While customers may be angry, service contracts, business ties and other impediments keep most people from leaving right away.

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A stepped-up giveaway program is another way to get some of your other BlackBerrys out in the wild. While the BlackBerry Bold flagship smartphone is performing well, the rest of the lineup has fared poorly.

"(RIM's) other BlackBerries, namely its aging Curve line and new models including the pure touchscreen Torch 9850 appear below plan," Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu said in a recent research note.

If they aren't selling well anyway, why not create incentives to get some of these devices into your customers' hands?

Hey, you're already giving away PlayBooks to developers at DevCon. Why not expand that program to some of your best customers? When the iPhone 4 launched, AT&T allowed customers to upgrade their phone after just one year. You could work with the carrier partners and provide incentives to them to enable similar early upgrades.

For now, the apps and the promise of a month of technical support--which leaves your non-enterprise customers out in the cold--just don't cut it.

"It's definitely too little, too late," Strate said. "I think they're really not recognizing the magnitude of disconnecting people at a time when we have come to expect connectivity 24-7."

Are BlackBerry customers really going to be satisfied with a free copy of puzzle game "Bejeweled" or shooter "N.O.V.A."? These are trinkets that many would have never downloaded in the first place.

"We are grateful to our loyal BlackBerry customers for their patience," RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis said in a statement today. "We have apologized to our customers and we will work tirelessly to restore their confidence. We are taking immediate and aggressive steps to help prevent something like this from happening again."

But you can't guarantee that customers will be safe from another outage. Despite your claims of superior reliability and security, your network has suffered from its share of problems, including a previous e-mail and messenger outage just last month.

Your customers will be a lot more understanding if they're using a new BlackBerry. RIM, it's time to step up your game.

About the author

Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan.

 

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