Customer Experience the Apple Way

geniusYou’ve probably noticed that Customer Service has become an old fashioned term.  Nowadays it’s all about the “Customer Experience” led in no small part by Apple and it’s crew of blue shirted genii poised to help with all of your purchasing and technical needs.

According to Carmine Gallo, author of The Apple Experience, there are ‘5 Steps of Service’ that every Apple Store staff member needs to work through and these should either lead to a sale, or more importantly to Apple, to build a customer for life:

A = Approach Customers with a personalized, warm welcome       

P = Probe politely to understand the customer’s needs

P = Present a solution for the customer to take home today 

L = Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns

E = End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return

He continues by saying that ‘Apple employees are not in the business of selling computers, they are in the business of enriching lives’.

Recently I’ve noticed there have been more organizations eschewing the traditional customer service model and adopting the ‘Experience’ paradigm.  Walnut Hill Medical Centre in Dallas, Texas is creating its own steps of service complete with its very own acronym (W-E-C-A-R-E = Warm welcome, Empathize, Communicate and connect, Address concerns, Resolve and reassure, End with a fond farewell) to improve relations between patients and staff, and AT&T have been using a form of Apple’s system for a number of years.

Although its early days with Walnut Hill, AT&T clearly don’t have all the answers yet as last year they were ranked last for the third year running for value, voice quality and customer support by Consumer Reports and in November 2013 Lifehacker named AT&T as the US’ least favourite cellphone carrier following a vote by readers.

How is this different to how other companies do customer service?

In mid 2013 Craig Johnson head of Customer Growth Partners suggested that ‘Apple needs to recreate and reinvent its once novel retail model, which is now not so novel,’ (source: Daily Mail).

Perhaps this is true in the US, but back here in the UK I have seen little to suggest this in my day-to-day life.  To me, for the most part, Customer Service is still the same stale old formula it’s been for years.  Things that I would expect to be a bare minimum such as smiling, politeness and a willingness to help are still missing more often than not, so to me that approach is still very novel.

I mean how many stores can you think of where you can go in and play with the merchandise?  All Mac’s, iPads and iPhones are preloaded with apps and connected to the Internet to encourage you to try them out.  This is in stark contrast to most other stores where if you move a product more than the allotted 5cm’s an alarm goes off and you get rugby tackled to the floor by security personnel.

Is it possible though to create the kind of Customer Experience that Apple strives to offer for companies that are selling more than just a few different types of products?

It’s much easier for an Apple Genius to be clued up on everything they sell when there’s, at most, a fifth of the products on offer that there are in say Curry’s PC World.  Plus when you take into consideration the massive markup on an Apple product they can afford to not only have people trained to an expert level in a chosen area but also to hire more of them.

My experience at the Apple store

Recently I had my first ever visit to an Apple store.  This might seem odd to some of you, especially the ones who are aware of my attraction to pretty shiny things, but my family hails from Yorkshire and the miser in me always won.

I’d like to start with the good in my Apple experience but frankly there wasn’t a lot of it.  I waited a good 25 minutes loitering but not entirely sure what to do or where to go. There was no ‘Help’ point and each Apple employee was surrounded by many other slightly peeved potential ‘customers for life’ circling like shoals of piranha’s.

When I did manage to flag down a blue shirt the advice I received was practically non-existent.  Rather than probing me to understand my needs it was more a case of me prompting as to what was required.

I’m led to believe by my subsequent conversations with store managers at Apple that at this point I should have been asked what kind of work I would be doing and what I would be using the product for in order for appropriate advice to be given.

However, once I had decided on my purchase things started to look up considerably.  My shiny new MacBook Air appeared within a matter of minutes and aforementioned blue shirt then produced a handheld gizmo, which appeared to be an iPhone strapped to a card reader to take payment.  This I liked…no ‘I’ve left it behind the counter madam now if you’d like to queue for another 20 minutes someone will eventually relieve you of a shed load of money and try and persuade you to buy a bag for life and two chocolate bars for a pound’.

However it wasn’t enough to save the experience and when emailing the receipt for my purchase later that evening to the boss the message had one line…

Genius my arse!’ (For those non-UK readers out there who may not have come across this before it is an exclamation of disbelief).

The Apple way was ground breaking but where is customer service/experience heading next?

It’s reported that following the departure of Ron Johnson (Head of Retail), Apple has taken a wrong turn advising its store sales advisors to forget about Customer Experience and concentrate on the business of selling.

Never mind a wrong turn this is one gigantic step backwards.

Concentrating on what is seen as the primary need of the customer has always been short sighted.

With the addition of Angela Ahrendts (credited with the turnaround of 150 year old brand Burberry) to the top team, Apple has shown its commitment to not selling technology to the masses but to being a company that can support lifestyles by providing experiences rather than just products.

There are the obvious contenders such as Zappos and Google, but recently Samsung has invested heavily following reports of “the worst customer service ever” from consumers.  Steps to improve its reputation have included launching a worldwide customer service campaign and offering a free app that provides online support that you can take anywhere.

Hotels tend to get a bad press but Hilton makes strides by outlining exactly how they’ll take care of you. For example Doubletree, a franchise owned by Hilton Worldwide where you get free yummy cookie on arrival, maintains a CARE committee within each of its hotels that includes workers from every department and exists to monitor hotel performance and ensure that guests are satisfied. With four out of every five guests reporting an “excellent” or “good” interaction this seems to be working.

And lets not forget that Apple’s ‘5 Steps…’ model was actually inspired by the ‘steps-of-service’ pioneered by the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain.

Conclusion

Creating a model or philosophy for Customer Service/Customer Experience is fantastic.  It makes sure that everyone knows what the company is trying to achieve and where they stand.

In my experience they certainly didn’t deliver what was promised in their ‘5 steps…’ but they are clearly aware of this and are taking strides back towards where they want to be.

If you are attempting to put in place your own model don’t just assume that because something works for someone else it will work for you too.  Organizational culture, company history, who your customer is and even location can play a massive part in what make you tick and these all need to be taken into account.

In reality plain old Customer Service is of a bygone age and so much more than what consumers and customers expect, even if that’s not what they get 70% of the time.  A caller on the end of the phone will remember how you treated them far longer than whether or not you resolved the issue for them.

Every company should have something in place to show that they understand what is required of them by their customers be that in a mission statement, agreed statement of values or a formal written agreement.  We’ve all been in situations where everyone’s working to what they believe is a level of good customer experience yet side by side they all vary drastically.  Don’t leave it up to interpretation.

On that same trip to the Apple store I had the usual request from my six year old to visit the Build-A-Bear Workshop.  I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve visited and the small one has wandered around in awe. We rarely buy anything as you can get teddies much cheaper from other stores and like most parents an avalanche of toys threatens me if we add anything else.

However, it’s the experience of creating something exactly as she wants it, being able to ask any question she wants about her teddy’s back story without feeling dumb and playing teddy Star Wars with the eccentric sales assistant that means that more often than not we return.

So maybe they won’t have a customer for life but I suspect it will definitely be until the end of her childhood.