I was speaking with my friend and colleague, Mike Kelly, last week when he told me about his iPhone bursting into flames a few days earlier. As an iPhone owner and an Apple advocate, the part that most shocked me was Apple’s lack of immediate issues and crisis management. As Mike told me his story, I found myself writing down a page full of notes, lessons and take-aways that I felt extremely important to share with you here today. Before I get to those important lessons, here is Mike’s story:
“On August 20th, just before noon, I was walking through my living room when I heard a loud pop and crackling noise behind me. I turned toward it and saw a fire in the other end of the room with flames about a foot high and a foot wide. I quickly approached the flames to find that it was my iPhone 4 on fire. Looking around, I grabbed a newspaper from a nearby desk and used it to smother the fire, which surprisingly put it out immediately. Smoke continued for a bit and the heavy smell of burnt filled my home.
As I happened to be in the same room at the time of the fire, it luckily only had the chance to burn for about 20 seconds. The book it was sitting on was covered in black soot and the rubber bumper frame (an option supplied by Apple to get around the antennae problem the iPhone 4 had) was split and bent back near the top. The glass was smoky, looking like it had been in a fire and underneath the glass looked cooked. I put the phone on the newspaper and took it outside. I later found the paper to be burnt where the phone had been, though in a smaller footprint.
The phone didn’t explode in the sense of a great wall of pressure damaging things near it. It did, however, burst suddenly into significant flames starting with a loud pop and crackling with a whooshing sound – similar to the sound of a blowtorch. The flames were about a foot high and a foot wide and after the initial whoosh, it sounded like something really hot crackling and baking… IN MY LIVING ROOM!
The phone had been plugged in, charging overnight with a standard Apple charger. It had not been damaged, dropped, immersed in liquid, etc. and was working fine before the fire. Luckily, there was no damage to the house or contents except for the book cover and phone itself. But the smell remains and three days later the fumes are still in the house and my homeowners insurance has a $2,500 deductible, so won’t cover the cost of a cleanup.
After the fire, I was left shaking for hours. I kept thinking that, had I not been in the same room at the time of the fire, or had it been night time, it would have probably spread through a good part of my home before we would have been able to call the fire department.
To top it all off, left without a phone – which is my business lifeline – I had the most unpleasant and stressful experience with Apple.
Within two hours of the fire I called Apple at the general number, since the website gives no number for reporting iPhone fires. I told the operator that I had just experienced an iPhone fire and asked with whom I should speak. She routed me to a customer service number, which took approximately 5 minutes before I hung up, called again, and when the operator routed my call the second time, the call disconnected. On the third attempt, I got through to a person who had a comforting human reaction appropriate for the situation. They made sure I was all right, that the situation was under control (fire out, fire department or police called, etc.), then inquired if I was OK, making that the absolute priority.
When I asked what I should tell my doctor I had been exposed to (since I had breathed in all kinds of toxic fumes), she put me on hold before coming back and saying that the engineer said to tell the doctor I had inhaled burning plastic – which I later learned was not the case. What I had truly breathed in was burning lithium from the burning lithium ion battery.
Once all of these conversations were exchanged, I explained how I (obviously) needed a new phone. She then transferred me to another department that would handle this aspect of my situation.”
At the time that I spoke with Mike (three days after the iPhone fire) he had still not been given a new phone and Apple was refusing to upgrade his phone from an iPhone 4 to a 4S or a 5.
Important lessons and take-aways for your organization’s issues and crisis management
The fact that the person that Mike finally spoke with showed compassion and care for his health and well-being is excellent and an absolute must. However, the fact that three days later Mike still found himself without a business phone and Apple showed no intent to upgrade him to a newer model as a show of remorse for the situation he endured, is unacceptable. This is a serious issue. An iPhone spontaneously combusted and put an Apple customer’s home and family in danger. The way the situation happened to play out made it an issue for Apple, but it could very well have been a crisis – and Apple’s frontline team should have been quicker to react and accommodate.
The two biggest crisis management mistakes Apple made – that your organization need not repeat:
- Train your staff and frontline to be able to detect potential issue and crisis situations – and give them the power to accommodate appropriately. Once your teams are trained, you need to trust them to be responsible adults who hold the organization’s best interest at heart. Had Apple done this, Mike would have been sent a new iPhone immediately by the first person he spoke with. When a situation happens to a customer or client, don’t make them wait or fight with your customer service for proper care and accommodations.
- Conduct a risk assessment / vulnerability audit before a crisis or issue arises, and have the appropriate response and management plans in place – and your staff trained. Apparently an iPhone combusting into flames is an iPhone risk. It may not be very common (thank goodness) but it is a known risk. As a potential risk, Apple’s frontline should have been trained on the proper procedures to take when faced with this type of situation. For example:
- Mike should not have been given false information regarding the fumes he was subject to. He should have been told whether or not he needed to go to the hospital, and his medical expenses should have been paid for by Apple.
- The cleaning of toxic fumes from his home should also have been supplied and paid for by Apple.
- Since this is a potential risk, there should be an online document that customers can refer to in order to have all of their questions answered when faced with this unfortunate situation. (There currently exists no such online document or FAQ for dealing with an iPhone combustion). This document should include medical and health answers and procedures, who to call, how to make appropriate claims, etc.
- Providing Mike with an instant iPhone upgrade would have been the minimum that I (as a crisis management consultant) would have expected from this mega brand.
Remember: This may have been an issue, but issues can easily and quickly escalate into crises. But also remember that this could have just as easily started off as a crisis. Negative, high-risk situations (especially those with viral potential) need to be dealt with as quickly as possible – with compassion and empathy. This is not something that Mike asked for, nor was it his fault. It was a situation that happened to him and he in no way should have been left without a phone or appropriate accommodations for so long.
Your frontline team NEEDS to be trained and empowered to handle high-risk issues and crisis situations within minutes of them being brought to the organization’s attention. Every customer or client is a stakeholder in your organization. Valuing them with actions rather than words or inactions is a must – not just for them, but for the reputation and bottom line of your organization.
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted keynote speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa and her work here.