A new iPhone launches without me.

When it comes to iPhone launches I have seen them from multiple sides, consumer, employee, and, this year, developer. There are a lot of negative comments about Apple and at&t that fly around during the an iPhone launch from people who don’t know much about the process of launching a product, having been on all sides of an iPhone launch I’m uniquely qualified to paint the whole picture, for people who haven’t been there. Here it is:

My previous job was as a Customer Care Trainer for Convergys Corporation. (I’m currently a Support Engineer for WebFaction and a developer of Mac and iOS applications, among other things.) Here is a bit of background about Convergys (you are welcome to look them up on Google, their site convergys.com, and Wikipedia), Convergys is an outsourcing company for different things Human Resources Management, customer care, customer service, payroll, and just about anything else you can think of outsourcing (provided you have enough money). There are quite a few different departments that have different functions, even though my NDA is up I’m still not going to go into that, it’s bad form.

The part of the company I worked for was in charge of Customer Care, meaning call centers. In the call center I worked in, our project was the at&t wireless division for postpaid customers. That is anyone who has a postpaid account but doesn’t have a company status or doesn’t get a discount on their service for working for a company.

For the 3 years that I worked as a trainer an iPhone was launched each year. Many people have had to deal with at&t customer care for those 3 iPhone launches and hated every minute of it because they thought agents were incompetent and/or stupid. I’m going to discuss how an iPhone launch looks from the inside of a call center.

Here are the different phases:

1. The Apple announcement
2. The Unknowns
3. The Complaints
4. Launch Day

1. The Apple announcement

Apple announces their wonderful, magical, revolutionary product.

We all watch in wonder as Apple reveals the greatest product we have ever seen and that it is going to be available only on at&t’s network. Great, wow! That will be fantastic for business, those of us who had at&t already were incredibly happy: we could get one at a discount like with every other device, right? No one we talk to has any information about the product or knows anything other than what was in the Apple announcement.

2. The Unknowns

We start getting calls for the (new) iPhone immediately, but, we don’t know anything about it. Thousands of these calls ended up with irate customers because we were “stupid” and/or “incompetent”.

Here’s a quick overview of of at&t’s training process:

First, at&t has to get the information from Apple, this takes time. I’m not quite certain on the amount of time because I didn’t work for at&t directly. Once at&t gets the information it goes to the curriculum designers who then turn it into a training course depending on the amount of material and the suggested delivery method it may end up in a couple of different forms: Self based, Instructor led, or a combination of both. Once the course design is complete an Instructor Guide and Participant Guide are created, the material is then sent to the Training Council. The Training Council is made up of incredibly smart people, lawyers, and pedagogy experts who then review all of the material in the course and guides.

The Training Councils’ feedback is incorporated into the course and guides and sent for review again. (Apple and at&t are very similar, right?) Once the course is approved it is scheduled for Master-trainer training. The Master trainers then deliver the training to the trainers in their various call centers via speakerphone and screen sharing.

Trainers, then, after being certified can deliver the training to the rest of the call center. The logistics for training an entire call center of 300+ people for a training, no matter the length, is frightening. Call centers are a Statistician’s wet dream, there are metrics for EVERYTHING and they all impact each other in some way (the metrics not the Statisticians). Depending on the client, not meeting certain metrics is monetarily punishable. The biggest metric with most clients is SLA, Service Level Agreements, which say “your center will be filled with X number of agents, X number of hours, with less than X% variance”, training time comes out of that SLA. Clients are reasonable and allow for a certain number of training hours per month that are used up with “other” training that has already happened, additional training always come out of the SLA.

To add to the problem of lost revenue and not meeting financials, is scheduling. Call centers are composed of, mostly, 2 types of people: lower-class middle aged people and uneducated young people (possibly students). This means that they all have their specific schedules that can’t bend for anything. Even though all agents want to get off the phone for training as much as possible, scheduling them for it is nigh impossible.

Did I mention that there are normally 3 – 5 trainings and they all have to be completed in a very short timeframe, less than a week in some cases? The activation training, for the first iPhone, didn’t come until the day before. We had no idea how the activation was going to work until the day before the first iPhone launched. Training 10,000 people across the country through multiple outsourcing partners is an incredibly daunting task. If you don’t believe me, try it.

3. The Complaints

As soon as people get off the phone with at&t for the first time or visit the Web site and get nothing the Complaints phase starts. People start bitching and whining about everything, their incompetent wireless carrier with the retarded agents they have to deal with. I’m not going to cover for all of the agents that work for at&t because there are those “retards” who either don’t care or just suck at their job.

Next complaint is almost always the price or the required data plan, the lack of “updated features” or .

I’ll let you in on a little secret about phone reception issues: THEY ALL FUCKING HAVE THEM. Almost every phone there is, if you hold it incorrectly, will lose reception, sometimes completely. The Samsung Sync one of the best sellers for at&t in 2007 had the antennae at the bottom of the device which is right where people hold flip phones, guess what? If you put your hand over or on the bottom of the device you will lose service.

Some of the training I did was device specific, the Samsung BlackJack, Sync, BlackBerry Pearl, AT&T 8525, Palm Treo 680 and 750, and a couple others, they all had the same problem to some degree. Cedar City does not have the best coverage area with at&t so training on the phones was difficult. One of the trick I learned, that seems to work on all devices is to hold the phone with 2 fingers, in the air, sideways. In most cases the “bars” will increase by 2, if you are in a low coverage area. Try it, it works.

4. Launch Day

An iPhone launch, in the service industry, is about the closest you can come to hell. The first iPhone launch was especially bad. All of the unknowns combined with a device manufacturer that had some control in the way the device was launched made it a very trying experience. Being a Trainer I was only required to take production phone calls for 4 hours a month to stay fresh, I usually did 5 – 7 hours depending on my class and administrative load.

Being the good Trainer, I volunteered to take phone calls for 6 hours on Launch Day; it was hell. Since the activation process was something magical happening in Cupertino there was basically nothing we could do. Being able to do nothing is extremely frustrating; it is doubly frustrating for customers who just spent ~$700 on a device that had never existed and the wanted to use. Spending 20 minute making sure there is nothing I can do from my end then sending them to apple to wait on hold for another hour or 2 before getting to someone who could help hurts for a control freak like me.

iPhone 3G was a much better launch, things didn’t blow up as much. The training was a little easier since it was mostly just feature education and updated specs. iPhone 3GS was even easier, the complaints that got worse were the ones about customers not being eligible for upgrades. The upgrade eligibly thing is a hard thing to understand because of all of the metrics that went into it. My thoughts are that upgrading to a new iPhone from an iPhone should be allowed at the normal 2 year contract pricing, sadly my pay grade didn’t get to make decisions.

The launch of the iPhone 4 was much different, I watched from a developer perspective. Instead of the dread at another WWDC where a new iPhone would be launched, I was excited to see what new magic would come from the conference, instead of new price plans to learn there were new APIs. It was a very different feeling to sit back in my chair and watch (on Twitter) the launch of the newest iPhone without me having to do anything.

There is a tremendous amount of work that goes into launch any product, ask any developer. Launching a product that spans multiple companies that have never worked together is an insane amount of work. I’m thankful for all of the work everyone has done to get things launched as well as they were, with the amount of work I put in thinking about everyone else is incredible. There could have been improvements to the process but that can be said for anything.