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.

Customers are not your top priority

TrainsThere is this myth that IT (or any service provider) should be utterly focused on customers; that a customer obsession is the secret sauce to IT success; and that unhappy customers mean we in service have failed.

Railroads don’t bear this out.

Railroads in the USA have fought tooth and nail with their customer base for decades.  After the Second World War, freight customers decided the railroads were screwing them. Government legislation progressively regulated and price-controlled the railroads into the ground, until the whole system was on the verge of collapse.  Only de-regulation with the Staggers Act in 1980 freed the railroads to operate economically again and put them back on track (sorry) to their currently-thriving state.

And now the customers are complaining about freight rates again…

Meeting the needs of the business

If railroads were customer-obsessed – as the modern fad would have it – then they would provide all sorts of specialised rolling stock tailored to their customers needs / wants.

It certainly didn’t start out that way.

Originally a customer could hire a boxcar, reefer (refrigerated boxcar), flatcar, gondola, hopper, or tankcar.  That was pretty much the choice: not tailored to the customer, just a choice of a few basic shapes. Was a hopper car or boxcar shaped that way because the customers wanted it?  No, they were that way because they worked best internally for the functioning of the railroad. All sorts of loads fit uncomfortably in gondolas or boxcars, but that is what the customer got regardless of any complaints. Automobiles were chained on flatcars and car parts struggled in and out of boxcars for decades before the specialised rolling stock came along.

As the 20th Century progressed, railroads built special rolling stock to meet customer needs: automobile carriers, the aircraft body-parts carriers, trailer trains.  But you still couldn’t really say they were customer-focused.

The trailer train is a case in point: the Santa Fe railroad worked closely with the Hunt trucking empire to develop “intermodal” rolling stock to meet a customer need: to transport truck-trailers cross-country on special flatcars.  But the trailer train design was about moving truck-shaped loads on a railroad, not making trucking easy.  They still needed to drive the trailers carefully onto the flatcars and chain them down (and eventually they craned the whole thing on!).

When railroads introduced covers for coal hoppers, it wasn’t about looking after the customer’s coal – it was because coal dust was destroying the rail ballast.  Until then the railroads were perfectly happy to have a percentage of the load blow away and the rest get wet and icy.

In recent years, railroads have realised the best profits are in large volumes of single loads in dedicated unit trains, instead of mixed freight, and as our societies have become bigger and more industrialised warranting those unit trains, specialised rolling stock has become more common: for coal, ethanol, automobiles, logs, and of course containers.

But in general, railroads have always built general-purpose rolling stock that best suited their purposes not the customers.  Customers had to make do, with some highly profitable exceptions.

Finally, the container took the customers challenge away by introducing a standardised unit of shipping and now both parties are (generally) happy, but that didn’t stem from any railroad initiative to please the customer.

Customers are the source of revenue not the masters of the business

Railroads spend billions on infrastructure development every year (most of which is not driven by customer).  A railroad will occasionally run a rail line up to a big customer, but most of the time lines are laid for geography first and being close to economic density second.  Individual customers need to (re)locate close to the railroad or arrange local freight.  If a customer wants a branch built up to their coal mine, power plant, or factory, they usually have to build it at their own expense.

Railways are as quick to cut services as to provide them, depending on their own interests.  Governments have to legislate to force railways to run passenger services, and have done so for half a century in most countries.

The fact is, railroads are focused on moving stuff as efficiently, economically and reliably as they can, with enough surplus to keep up the massive infrastructure investments, for maximum profit.  The customer is only there to pay for it all.

Airlines are the same.  While a few airlines like Emirates differentiate themselves by chasing the customer who wants to be cared for, most airlines today clearly regard economy passengers as “self-loading freight”.  Emirates has long been accused of all sorts of unfair government support; they burn petro-dollars as a PR flagship for a “progressive” Dubai.  Most airlines (and their governments) can’t afford those levels of service anymore and instead simply stay competitive.

Telcos are a third example, with telco customer support being legendarily bad (although New Zealand Telecom have made leaps and bounds to improve).

Customer service level is a business decision

What do all these industries have in common?  They are commodities, in a race to zero on price.

You can rave all you want about Apple or Zappos.  These are companies who have chosen to differentiate themselves on service quality.  That is a conscious decision on their part, and certainly in Apple’s case they charge like a wounded bull to pay for it (and scam on paying taxes in your country too, unless you live in Luxembourg, but that is another article).  I don’t see Google, Amazon, Samsung, Microsoft, or HTC going broke, despite the fact their support sucks.

The level of love and attention you give your customers is a business decision.  It is a dial an organisation sets from “scum” to “master” depending on the strategy and current state of the business.

The governors of your organisation make the decision as to how important customers are, hopefully for good business reasons. The executive managers decide how that translates into levels of customer care, and that translates into service policy.  It is not for any of us to decide otherwise.  If you over-service the customer you are wasting money and putting the future viability of the organisation at risk.  This is true whether you work for a commercial business, a not-for-profit, or public service.

New Zealand Telecom lifted its game because its service had become so utterly awful as a monopoly that the government decided to deregulate and break Telecom up.  They had nowhere else to go: they were universally hated and they were too bloated to compete on price or agility.  Their competitors continue with the staggeringly bad support because they know it doesn’t cost them much business (see my case study about bad customer service).

Railroads are the same.  They know they need to deliver reliably and they know they need to listen to customer’s needs.  Some of the small railroads even specialise in customer service.  But in the main it is all about cutting a hard-nosed deal on price.

Don’t get confused…

Don’t confuse listening to needs with customer love. Any canny organisation follows its market: that is pure self-interest.  Railroads built specialised automotive rolling stock only after decades of complaints about dents and dust.

Don’t confuse good service availability with customer love. The only thing customers want from railroads, airlines, and telcos is that they work reliably.  We bitch about their rudeness and uncaring attitudes but we don’t switch because in the end it all comes down to price (or lack of options).

So don’t be led astray by vendors, analysts, pundits or consultants who tell you to spend more on customer care; and don’t let anyone tell you that you are failing in your job if your customers aren’t inviting you to barbeques at home.

Our job is to meet the goals of our organisation and to protect its ongoing viability.  We do as much for our customers as we need to, as we are instructed to, in order to achieve those goals.

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