When a Business Model Goes Rogue
In 2005, Peggy and I flew into Madrid. We don't speak Spanish and the taxi driver from the airport spoke no English. We handed him the address of our downtown hotel. He studied it and was obviously puzzled.
The driver entered the address into his GPS system, but he still could not figure out where we were going.
We told him to start driving. Peggy pulled out her BlackBerry and turned it on to find a message waiting for her: "Welcome to Movie Star." This was BlackBerry's Madrid affiliate and instantly we had cellphone service.
As we were tooling down the highway toward the city, Peggy dialed our hotel. The phone was answered by a person at the front desk who spoke English. Peggy explained the situation and then handed the phone to the taxi driver, who was told (in Spanish) where the hotel was and how to get there.
Without Peggy's BlackBerry, the driver would have pulled over to study his map, perhaps called his dispatcher and (if he did not have an ego problem) asked a police officer or fellow driver. All the while he would be happily racking up euros on his meter.
Thanks to BlackBerry, we had just experienced 21st century communications at its easy-peasy best.
T-Mobile Goes Off the Rails
Peggy travels a lot—both as president of the Target Marketing magazine group and as a U.S. representative to the World Curling Federation. As a busy executive and association representative, Peggy needs to be in constant touch with the office, with sales reps on the road, with her curling colleagues and her family.
In 2011 she was ready for a new smartphone.
Compared to the razzle-dazzle of the new cellphone technology by Apple, Droid and Samsung to name a few, her l'il ole BlackBerry was primitive. Because she bought her BlackBerry at T-Mobile—and it worked beautifully overseas—she went back to get an upgrade.
The T-Mobile Store
I accompanied Peggy to a T-Mobile retailer in Philly. The smartypants sales kid spoke tech-spiel and was frankly dismissive of Peggy who was more than twice his age and probably made six-times his income.
We walked out and found another T-Mobile store. Peggy told the sales person she travels internationally and we would be going to Moscow.
No problem we were told. T-Mobile works just fine in Moscow.
What kind of phone did Peggy want? Peggy liked the BlackBerry service, but the Apple iPhone was hot and BlackBerry was not. Media coverage of Research in Motion (RIM)—makers of BlackBerry—predicted catastrophe.
Peggy finally decided on a Droid, and was given absolute assurance it would work in Moscow.
It did not work in Moscow.
In late August 2013, Peggy went to World Curling Federation meetings in Copenhagen. Her flashy T-Mobile Droid did not work in Denmark. She wanted to call me but had no service. We emailed instead.
As readers may remember, late in the summer I was the victim of a home invasion.
The perp got my wallet with $500 cash, all the usual credit cards and I.D. documents, plus my antique Samsung cellphone.
Because I am a lone wolf who works out of the house, I don't need a smartphone for email, Internet or snazzy apps. So we went to the T-Mobile store to get me a plain vanilla phone enabling me to make and receive calls.
How AT&T Destroyed T-Mobile
At T-Mobile, I asked why Peggy's Droid not work in Copenhagen.
The young sales person said that T-Mobile had been bought by AT&T. Domestic and international services are now separate.
For Peggy to have used her Droid internationally, the phone had to be "unlocked" by T-Mobile. When Peggy got to Copenhagen, she would have had to go to phone store to get some kind of card to insert in the phone to make it work.
The sales person also told us this convoluted, screw-the-user system is in place for all American cellphones with one exception: BlackBerry, which works everywhere.
Being a nut for details, I wanted to know precisely how to make Peggy's phone work in Europe. So when I got back to the office, I hit the computer.
In 78 years on this planet, I cannot remember a worse presentation of product information. Welcome to the deep weeds of big corporate communication bullshit. From T-Mobile's website in unreadable light gray mouse-type:
Stay connected, worldwide.
Planning a trip and want to use your T-Mobile phone or device while you're away? Get information and tips to help you stay connected, even when you're far from home.
How international roaming works, and why your device matters
• Four frequencies (850/900/1800/1900 MHz) are used for wireless services worldwide. 3G frequencies include: 2100 3G; 1700/2100 3G.
• Each phone has a radio transmitter-receiver that works on one frequency (single-band) or on more than one frequency (multi-band).
• Since frequencies vary from carrier to carrier and country to country, you'll need a device for international roaming that works on the frequency where you're traveling. If you have a "quad-band" device, it will work virtually anywhere there's a wireless signal.
How to check if your current device has international roaming capability
To check if your device supports international roaming:
• log in to My T-Mobile for personalized information about your device's band support, or
If you're traveling to Canada or Mexico, any T-Mobile phone will work.
Techie gibberish—all of it!
I scoured the Internet for information on how to make a U.S.-based T-Mobile Droid phone work in Copenhagen. Finally I came across an explanation from the Rick Steves' website:
Getting Your US Phone Unlocked: Most mobile phones sold in the US are electronically locked to work exclusively with the carrier that sells them. However, any GSM phone — which all use SIM cards — can be unlocked for use with other providers (remember, some phones from Verizon or Sprint don't have SIM card slots). Just call your provider, ask if your phone will work in Europe, and see if they will send you an unlock code. If they agree, you'll receive a long code that you can punch into your phone. Some providers are willing to give you a code after you've been under contract for 90 days, while others wait until your phone's contract has expired. (Sometimes they won't do it at all, though companies seem to be gradually loosening up on this.) You can also go through back channels to get an unlock code (either on the Internet or at a back-alley mobile phone shop), but this is less reliable and in some situations may even be illegal.
Buying and Using SIM Cards: Once you have an unlocked phone, you'll need to buy a SIM card to make it work anywhere in Europe. A SIM card is a small, fingernail-size chip that stores your phone number and other information. With an unlocked phone, you can buy a SIM card at your destination and have your very own European phone number at local calling rates. I've bought SIM cards for my unlocked phone in two dozen different countries, and it's become a convenience I can't live without.
While some online companies in the US sell European SIM cards, these tend to be outrageously marked up (to prey on nervous travelers who don't realize how easy it is to buy SIM cards in Europe). For the best deal, just buy one when you arrive in Europe. Each country has various service providers, all of whom sell their own SIM cards. Since these companies are very competitive, they're pretty much the same — just look for the best rates. SIM cards, which generally cost around $5-15, come with a European phone number and starter credit. These days, mobile-phone companies are working hard to attract customers, and you'll often get the SIM card free when you buy calling credit. I've even bought a few SIM cards that came with more credit than the cost of the card (for example, a €5 card that includes €7 of credit).
Takeaways to Consider
- If Peggy had her Droid in 2005—rather than a BlackBerry—we'd still be driving around in that Madrid taxi looking for our hotel.
- AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile utterly degraded the customer experience.
- No excuse in the world exists for the preposterous hoops T-Mobile forces international travelers to jump through.
- What should be required? A single phone call to alert T-Mobile you're going to Copenhagen—or six countries in Europe or wherever—so please enable my Droid. Make it so.
- This is no different than travelers alerting the folks who issue credit cards and ATM cards of their overseas plans.
- When communicating a corporate message to consumers, never-oh-never run it by people in the office to make sure it's readable and makes sense. These are your colleagues. They know the business cold. At T-Mobile, all the claptrap above would make perfect sense to company insiders. It's gobbledygook to the average consumer.
- Instead, try all copy out on outsiders and customers. If you confuse them, they'll tell you. This simple rule will save you from customer anger and confusion before you go public.
- Do not skimp on world-class copywriters when communicating with prospects and customers. This goes for all outgoing correspondence: emails, letters, billing and renewal series, instructions for use, thank-you notes, guarantees—everything!
- For me, the real story here is BlackBerry. The system worked seamlessly for Peggy back in 2005. Yet reports coming out about Research in Motion (RIM)—BlackBerry's creator—are dire.
- Yet, according to the T-Mobile sales rep, BlackBerry is the only device that works everywhere. As such, it has a killer USP (Unique Selling Proposition—the copy platform that separates it from the competition and makes it mighty desirable for international travelers.)
- Give me a list of proven upmarket prospects and international travelers plus a marketing budget and I'll save BlackBerry.
- From where I sit, the entire cellphone industry is in the hands of bean counters, techies and other utter incompetents.
- The cellphone industry motto: "We make the rules. You follow 'em bub."