Article: Souring on Apple Stores

by on January 10, 2012

About a week ago, I came across a letter written to Apple CEO Tim Cook (via ifoAppleStore), and it got me thinking about how Apple has shifted from using the Apple Stores to build relationships and instead provide a quick way for people to get things taken care of, while maintaining the “cool” image.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been using Apple products since before the Internet was common, but I liked the initial premise of the Apple Stores—they offered a place to buy all Apple products, along with people who knew about them (as opposed to a random computer store employee that would rather you leave with a Compaq), and a place to get service locally, without relying on the sometimes unsettling Apple Authorized Service Providers. Besides, we’ve all heard stories of the warranty swap for an iPhone or iPad, or the quick fix of a Mac by a Genius.

Pitted Out

Shortly after I bought my MacBook Pro, I noticed that the aluminum around the palm rest was pitting and some folks in forums said it was a 50/50 shot that Apple would replace parts for this “cosmetic” issue. Still, my LCD had some weird splotches on it (not dead pixels, but actually in the liquid crystals themselves), so I though I could kill two birds with one stone. At that time, I lived about 45 minutes from our local Apple Store, so I made an appointment, drove down, and was told that that my top casing would not be replaced and I’d have to come back to pick up my computer, even though it was being sent via FedEx to Texas. I was more frustrated that all of my concerns were described in the actual appointment, so someone could have told me that I’d be wasting my time. Still, that’s how the game works. The funny thing was that a call to Apple’s 800 number yielded both of the original results I wanted, since I didn’t have to deal with the “gatekeeper” known as a Genius.

I understand that some people have ridiculous reasons for going to the Genius Bar, and some even have ridiculous stories as to what is ailing their Apple product. After supporting a fleet of iBooks for 11th and 12th graders, I understand that sometimes Mountain Dew gets inside a computer and nobody seems to know how that phenomenon occurs. Still, I’d like to see some consistency with the Genius Bar and Apple’s “old fashioned” support line.

iPhone Home Button: Round 1

About a year ago, my iPhone 4’s home button was acting up. Pressing it sometimes registered as two pushes, while other times registered as only one, or none at all. After calling the 800 number, the person I spoke with told me that that sounds like an issue they’ve seen before and if I was close enough to an Apple Store, I could get it swapped. That sounded great, so I made an appointment, drove up (I live closer now), and explained the situation about my phone.

The Genius who looked at it stated that it was because I had too many apps open and my phone was struggling, due to low memory. I questioned this, since I knew how iOS multitasking worked, but it seemed that I was going home with my original phone. Additionally, my iPad had less RAM than my iPhone, yet could handle all sorts of things, some arguably more complex (all of my complicated games get played on the iPad). Finally, the manager, who was wandering around, asked about what was going on and I explained. She swapped my phone, but I was annoyed about the lack of understanding and training (or so it seems) about Apple’s own products.

Just a Hobby?

While visiting my dad shortly after my iPhone experience, I managed to talk him into picking up an Apple TV. I had one for a few months, really liked it, and thought it could be a good addition to his tech arsenal. After hooking everything up, it would not turn on. Using the same cables, mine worked flawlessly (I brought it home for Netflix if he didn’t end up buying one), so I knew his was defective. The next day we took it back to his local Apple Store, and the first staff member stated that he “didn’t even know how those worked.” This led to us explaining that the device was dead-on-arrival, the steps we took to diagnose this, and that we wanted to exchange it. Two staff members later, we finally got a different one. As a precaution, we had one of them test it with the in-store display, and we headed home. Apparently the Apple TV is so much of a hobby, nobody has to support it.

iPhone Home Button: Round 2

I thought of Ramey’s comments in regards to my prior experiences at my local Apple Store. Although both of my experiences were a little ways away, it felt a little overwhelming and rushed:

Due to the overwhelming number of appointments per employee and the continued push to open more and more active queues, most interactions are now completely transactional, rather than transformational. We are lucky if we have time to ask the customer their name, nevertheless truly get to dig deeply into their lives and their issues, and further repair their relationships with both Apple and the Apple brand. As employees, we are forced to worry more about pushing business leads and reaching numbers, rather than truly focus on the customer’s problems. Everything I was led to believe in CORE training four years ago has become nullified; Apple is no longer about enriching lives, it is about enriching pocketbooks.

Still, I didn’t think much of the letter until a friend whose iPhone 4S home button was completely unresponsive. She had made an appointment at the same store that I usually go to this past Friday, and the Genius decided that her iPhone had water damage on the Dock Connector, as per the red liquid contact indicator (LCI). She seemed confused and was a little upset to hear that her phone, which she babies more than I do most of my gadgets, was not covered and she’d have to fork over $199 for a functioning iPhone. Despite arguing the contrary, they would not budge, especially since she did not get AppleCare+. Of course, I got a phone call.

She was limping along by navigating via the Notification Center, frequent restarts, and eventually turning on the on-screen accessibility controls, but was puzzled how her phone could’ve gotten wet when she is so careful. Strangely, her home button started working again, but she kept her appointment the next day with me in tow. Walking in the Apple Store was a nightmare—the amount of people would have made you think it was Black Friday or just before Christmas, an amount even crazier than a normal day at an always-busy Apple Store. Still, after fighting the crowds to get to the Genius Bar, we ended up waiting about a half hour, while just feeling like we were in everybody’s way. They really need a bigger store, or at least a designated waiting area.

Finally, a different Genius looked at her phone and was confused as to what she wanted with this appointment, so he brought a “tech” over. The “tech” stated that the policy was that if any of the LCIs were red, the phone had to have gotten wet and that was that (the headphone jack LCI was not red and he would not look at the internal ones). I asked if false positives were possible and if Apple was getting away from LCIs, since the iPad 2 didn’t have any. Apparently, there are LCIs in the iPad 2 and they never have a false positive—the “tech” said that he took his phone into the bathroom while showering and the steam didn’t turn the LCI red. After not really having any help, we left.

Hurting Relationships

I’ve noticed over the past few years that the average “type” of people at your run-of-the-mill Apple Store went from Mac geeks who truly cared about the platform and were possibly between tech jobs to faux-hipsters that work at the Apple Store because it’s the “cool thing to do”. Yes, Samsung does have a bit of truth to this. Today, it does seem to have more of a retail get-them-in-and-out-as-fast-as-you-can feel, where most of the staff are more concerned with letting everyone else know how cool they are because they work with Apple products, rather than what kept the Apple community going in the late-’90s—building relationships with other Mac users.

I hope these might be isolated instances, but it does seem that the average Apple Store has gotten more and more traffic as time goes on. Furthermore, it seems this problem has left Apple with a catch-22 of sorts. Either hire more people and expand facilities, or add more stores. If they try to grow the size of existing stores, this may not be fiscally responsible. If they add more stores, it could end up more like Gateway’s too-fast expansion. Regardless, they should make sure staff members have ample training, to actually know inside and outside how every product works, along with the most up-to-date policies and procedures.

The fact that it seems Apple has a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach with warranty coverage, and a lack of consistency across the board is not going to win any friends. With Samsung, Google, Microsoft, Asus, and the rest of the lot encouraging people to question the supposed “price premium” and pure specs, Apple really needs to focus on what set it apart—the experience. Although I still believe that Apple’s products are the best in the market, if the most accessible form of customer service, the corporate-run retail stores sours someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, I can only imagine it frustrating users who might have gotten an Apple product because of arguments from a friend or family member.

Update: A few have argued that some of the situations were isolated experiences at the couple of Apple Stores I spoke of. That could be the case, but I think the mix of Ramey’s letter and a post by Thomas Brand on Egg Freckles also reflect this:

Today’s Genius are no longer required to have the same deep understanding of the Mac OS, its UNIX roots, or classic past. They can no longer troubleshoot the same impossible set of hardware symptoms with ease while customers watch bar side. Their lack of knowledge into the depths of Apple history and lore is embarrassing for anyone who grew up with Clarus the Dogcow, HyperCard, and the 1.44MB SuperDrive. The Mac Genius who knew all these things have either moved on, or burned out. Replaced by a new generation of Genius every 18 months who are eager to take their place.

The Genius that work the bar today are different from the Mac Genius of the past. They see more iOS than Mac OS X.3 Their customers are delivered one by one using a reservation system while an assistant holding an iPad keeps order…

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I think if a shift is taking place, maybe more gradually in some places than others, this is the biggest byproduct of iOS becoming Apple’s big-seller. It’s not a bad thing, but for those who are used to the “old days” from both a customer and employee standpoint might be surprised or disappointed. It’s almost funny to think that couple years back, the biggest worry was that the iOS and Mac would merge or the Mac would be replaced.

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