How to mess up a product launch- and it's happening right now

 Over on BBHub, my blog about BlackBerry, I have been tracking the saga of Cingular Wireless' staged introduction of the much heralded BlackBerry 8700c.Although there's not a huge overlap between that model BlackBerry and what I tend to cover here, we are starting to see some broadband and VoIP integration into selected BlackBerry models.

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Over on BBHub, my blog about BlackBerry, I have been tracking the saga of Cingular Wireless' staged introduction of the much heralded BlackBerry 8700c.

Although there's not a huge overlap between that model BlackBerry and what I tend to cover here, we are starting to see some broadband and VoIP integration into selected BlackBerry models. More important for this post, though, the missteps I have been reporting on related to this roll-out ought to be very instructive for anyone rolling out a VoIP or broadband product or service.

Let's take a look at what hasn't exactly worked like, well, clockwork about this launch:

Cingular and BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion announced the product on November 1, and specified a November 21 availability date at Cingular Wireless stores and at Best Buy stores as well.  Just a few days before that avail date, I got some tips that because of some minor, last-minute fixes, that avail date would not be met. The date arrived, and passed, without a formal statement from Cingular or RIM.

On Tuesday, November 22, both companies announced the start of retail channel availability for Friday, November 25- the day after Thanksgiving. 

On November 25, and throughout that weekend, hordes of customers went to Cingular retailers as well as Best Buy. I received numerous reader tips that indicated some stores had a few BlackBerry 8700c's, but more of them than not did not have any in stock.

What's worse, more than a few BBHub readers told me that when they asked store sales personnel about the 8700c, they were either told the much-anticipated product would arrive "sometime next week," "I guess before  Christmas," etc - or were told by the salesperson (s) they spoke with that's the first they've heard about it.

Update: The BlackBerry 8700c became available for sale on the Cingular site late Wednesday nite- but the information that follows was true for a full month after the product was officially announced. Online was no help either. The Cingular site had (and still has) a teaser that the BlackBerry 8700c is coming, but the page title bears the name of "Electron." That was the unconfirmed and never-released code-name for the 8700c. I say "was" because "Electron"  fell out of  use in  the blogosphere  about two months ago, and is not part of the name for this product- which was officially announced a full month ago tomorrow.

And what about Cingular's call centers? I got many reports back saying that the customer service reps never heard of the 8700c, or had no clue about when such a model might be available through their channels.

I blogged that I found that rather amazing - especially since the 8700c has been public knowledge for a month, and had been widely discussed in the blogosphere for several weeks before that. With product shots.

Attempting to harness my frustration into a teachable moment, I wrote:

What I'd like to know is  why didn't a memo go out to the call centers, saying something to the effect of there's been  lots of publicity about the BlackBerry 8700c, it's listed on our site, all the blogs as well as major national newspapers are writing about and have reviewed it, we'll be fielding lots of calls, and here's what the  customer service reps need to know about the BlackBerry 8700c features and availability if they are asked about it.

I haven't even begun to talk about some of the technical inconsistencies. I received reports that some 8700c's came with the default BlackBerry browser, the other with a Cingular browser without the degree of robustness.

What lessons from this misadventure can we apply to future tech roll-outs?

Don't announce your roll-out until you are good and ready.

Don't perform your QoS testing only among trusted enterprise users, but with ordinary consumers as well.

Don't let "sexy" shopping dates- like the much-ballyhooed "Black Friday" right after Thanksgiving - govern your to-market date.

Keep your retail channel informed - not only about availability dates but product features. Keeping retail informed does not only mean juicing your district sales staff to keep their accounts in the loop, but drafting formal communications with individual kiosks and store locations. 

Encourage your retail channel store managers to educate all of their employees, both full and part-time, about the product. If a product hasn't arrived, OK, that is forgivable. But when a customer who has read a BlackBerry 8700c review is juiced enough to fight for a spot in the mall to pick up the product, h/she is entitled to some info. Info for them, sales opportunity for you.

Please keep your online product site current with the latest info. Sometimes, this can be done down to the individual store level. Borders stores manages to do this for tens of thousands of books and many hundreds of stores. Look up a book, specify your store location, and you will be able to tell if the title is in inventory or no. Oughta work for consumer electronics as well.

Keep a steady flow of information to your call centers about forthcoming products, their availability date, and product features. Distribute help files, cheat sheets, whatever. Cingular does not have such a huge inventory of handset SKUs that this info couldn't be routed efficiently.

And finally, this is going to sound like Shameless Self-Promotion, but read the blogs about your product. If you want to live in a cloistered world of trusted enterprise users, that's fine. But in this day and age, Mr/Ms. consumer electronics marketer, you have to realize that enterprise user hangs out with  his friends, tells them about this cool new BlackBerry8700c his Cingular account rep told him about.

Then he pings someone like me. Journalists have this thing of wanting to spread info around. And when people read that info, and they want to know more, they are going to call you, your retailer, your distributor with questions.

If any of those vital links in the chain are weak with cluelessness, you shoulder some of the blame. Which is why I entitled my BBHub post, "Cingular didn't 'raise the bar'- they raised the FUBAR (Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition).

End of lesson. 

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