Apple Store, Burlington Mall

It’s one thing to talk about providing extraordinary customer service and another to actually provide it.  I don’t know if it’s something about me, or the companies I choose to do business with, but over the last few weeks I have had a string of really bad customer experiences. From unresponsive vendors to irritable clerks at the local coffee shop, I have noticed an increasing amount of bad customer service and was actually starting to think this was a sign of the times and becoming the norm.

With so many negative experiences in my recent past I thought it was important to share a particularly good experience I had this week at the Apple Store in Burlington, MA.

The Situation:
A few months back I upgraded from a Blackberry to an iPhone. I took me a while to figure out how to type and get comfortable with the interface but overall the move from Blackberry to iPhone was painless.  After a month or so it was clear to me that the iPhone was more intuitive, easier to use and provided a better overall experience.

This past weekend, the battery life got really bad.  It wasn’t holding a charge for more than 15 minutes and the moment I unplugged it, the battery would immediately jump to the red.  After chatting with the folks at Apple over the phone, I made a trip over to the Apple Store to meet with the team at the Genius Bar and get their help resolving the issue.

My Experience at the Genius Bar:
From the start, the Genius Bar staff was incredibly helpful.  Pat was the Apple Genius who assisted me and he started the process by connecting my phone to a computer to diagnose the problem.  To our surprise the diagnostic test came back negative indicating that nothing was wrong with the battery or the phone.  Immediately, they backed up the phone, gave me a new one, and restored the original content and settings on the new phone.  This process took about two hours and during that time I had the chance to sit next to other customers and observe the interactions.

Apple Genius Bar

Apple Genius Bar

I found some of the interactions amusing, others strange, but all gave me a deeper insight into the types of requests the Apple Geniuses get on a typical night and why Apple gets consistent high marks in customer service.  Here are some of the stories I overheard:

  • A man came to the bar with his HP Tower computer (windows based) and full gear (I’m talking the tower, monitor, keyboard, mouse… everything).  He claimed to be having trouble synching his iPod with iTunes.  The technician set up the computer, and once it was turn on realized that iTunes had never been installed.  Instead of making the customer feel dumb regarding this apparent oversight, the technician installed iTunes, set up the application and had everything synched with his iPod in a matter of minutes.
  • An older lady approached the bar complaining that her Mac was having trouble connecting to her wireless network.  She explained that she was not having any trouble connecting to the Internet, but she couldn’t connect to “her network”.   The Genius recognized that she was connecting to a neighbor’s wireless network and quickly fixed the settings so it would work properly and sent the consumer on her way.
  • Someone else was having some difficulty installing Leopard.  Instead of providing step-by-step instructions, the genius sat with customer, installed the operating system and made sure everything was working properly.
  • A teenage boy explained he had an issue calling one specific contact.  Every time he dialed the one specific number, the call failed and the phone shut down.  The genius performed a hard reset on the phone and everything worked again like a charm.

What I learned:
From my perspective there are two keys to providing a positive customer experience.  The first is taking the time to listen to a customers issue.  Listening to customer issues before acting is skill that many companies overlook.  The second key is having relevant, up-to-date knowledge about and for your customers available everywhere and anywhere they may choose to interact with you.  Most organizations have a lot of the knowledge they need to deliver a superior customer experience, but it is usually incomplete, and typically isn’t  easily accessible to customers or frontline employees.

RightNow Technologies – my former employer and a provider of on-demand CRM solutions focused on customer service and support – recently published a white paper, written by Bruce Temkin, called “The 6 Laws of Customer Experience“.  I read this a couple of weeks ago and I actually got to see these laws in action last night at the Apple Store.

*The following 6 laws are from Bruce Temkin’s white paper.

Law #1: Every interaction create a personal reaction
Put simply, this means an experience that may be positive to me, may be negative for someone else.  Apple understands this and has trained Genius Bar employees to take the time to listen to each individual issue.  No matter how mundane or trivial a service issue may be, the technician treats it as though it is critical and takes the time to understand the situation of the individual seeking help.  This personal interaction helps to create a positive experience for each customer.

Law #2: People are Instinctively Self Centered
This means customers care only about what matters to them. They don’t care about what resolving their issue means to your company, what your support costs are, how your company shares knowledge or if your company is organized enough to deal with the issue.  I observed Apple handling this in a couple of ways.  First, they put highly competent, trained, employees on the frontlines in the Genius Bar.  This ensures that no matter what issue a customer has, Apple is putting their best foot forward.  Secondly, Apple makes sure that the Genius Bar staff have the most up to date knowledge they need to solve issues at their fingertips enabling them to answer almost every issue that they are presented with.

Law #3: Customer Familiarity Breeds Alignment
Let’s be clear: most companies want to better serve their customers.  I have never been in a company meeting where executives or employees discuss ways they can reduce customer satisfaction.  The problem is most companies don’t share a singular view of the what the customers needs and how to handle customer issues that arise.  In addition, employees are rarely enabled to assist customers and make decisions on how to resolve issues.  From my perspective, Apple has a very clear view of how to treat customers.  Based on my interaction their view is to show customers respect, don’t talk down to them, understand their concerns and do everything in  their power to resolve the issue.  The thing is, the staff of the Genius Bar are enabled to make decisions.  The diagnostic scan of my iPhone revealed no issues with the battery, but the technician still made the decision to replace the phone.

Law #4: Unengaged Employees Don’t Create Engaged Customers
The point here is that focusing on getting employees bought-in to the effort will results in a higher likelihood that they will “wow” customers.  It stands to reason that employees who have low morale will have a more difficult time dealing with customer service issues.  The perception I had is that all the employees of the Apple Store are completely behind the mission of the company. They are passionate about the company and products which makes them more enthusiastic about helping customers.

Law #5: Employees do what is Measured, Incented and Celebrated
This is pretty straight forward and, to be honest, I have no idea if Apple has an incentive program in place to reward employees for delivering outstanding customer experiences.  That said, if they don’t, I would be shocked.  One thing I can say about this, is it’s critical to measure the correct things.  At some other service locations employees are rewarded based on how many customers they deal with.  What often happens is that in the rush to deal with more customers, quality is neglected.  That is not the case at the Apple Store.  Employees go out of their way to spend as much time as is required to assist customers.

Law #6: You can’t Fake It
Providing great customer service is something you can’t fake.  You may spend a ton of money on marketing how great your customer service is, but if it’s bad your customers will know.  Your executives may preach about the importance of customer service but if it’s not really a top company priority, your employees will know.

I don’t mean for this to be a  puff piece for Apple.  Like every company they have their problems and I am quite sure not every customer service interaction is a great one.  However, I have grown so accustomed to having bad experiences lately I think it’s important to highlight the good ones.

Have you had any great customer experiences lately?

  • Jeff Glasson

    Great story Mike! I’ve had several great customer support experiences at various Apple Stores and its part of the reason while I’ll never go back to a Microsoft based machine. Service like that makes extending your warranty with Applecare worth every penny!

  • Dan Keldsen

    Mike – Well, I have a sneaking suspicion that your Mac Genius was my old colleague Pat Visone, who by all indications had made a huge impact on the level of customer service in the Apple Stores around Boston and into New Hampshire.

    A sure way to improve customer service is to hire the best, use them to train up the new recruits, and continuously improve the service every day.

    Contrast the Apple Store experience with say a Circuit City (oops!) or CompUSA (whoops again!) and there is one heck of a difference. In this economy, you certainly can’t afford to have customers who hate you – keep ‘em happy, and they’ll be back for more.


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  • Travis

    I would add a 3rd key to providing a positive customer experience: enabling your customer service personnel to ‘make it right’. One thing that Apple has going for them is that they enable their employees to do what is necessary to make it right for the customer. So many places I could name allow their employees to diagnose a problem, but they make it a 3-ring circus w/ 12 hoops to jump through to have the problem solved.

  • Mike

    Travis, Great point and thanks for posting. Enabling customer service personnel to “make it right” is something that many companies overlook.

  • Ed P

    Apple can provide excellent service. Sadly, they can also provide poor service. . . I took my iPhone 2g with a smashed screen in for an out of warranty service – aka swap it for a refurb for a £139 (approx $200) fee. The phone I was given was a dud – it didn’t wake up when calls or texts were received. I took it back and got a replacement, which was a dud, because anyone who called me heard their voice loud and clear. They swapped it again for another dud – this time the bluetooth didn’t work. I took it back and asked for some form of compensation for having to return THREE dud phones, and I got some shrugged shoulders and a 10% discount card good for 3 months, which I can’t use, and can’t give to anyone else. . . Very disappointed with Apple, and can’t see me buying anything Apple anytime soon!

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