The most important thing to Apple is the product.
After that comes employee efficiency.
Customers? They’re in third place.
Here’s how I learned that: Yesterday I finally brought my iPhone with its failing battery into the Apple Store in Burlington, Massachusetts.
When I showed up, the bright and happy Apple guy in the front of the store told me he could text me when they were ready for me, in less than an hour. (He looked a little nauseous when I pulled out my Samsung Galaxy 9 Plus, the phone I bought when the iPhone’s battery started failing, but it works fine for receiving text messages, even from the Apple Store.)
So I bopped around the mall for an hour. (Half the stores in the mall appear to be dedicated to phones these days; I shopped for Samsung accessories.)
Sure enough, about an hour later, I received a text:
We’re almost ready for you at the Genius Bar. Please let a Specialist know when you’re here.
I quickly returned and checked in with the guy at the front of the store. He carefully took note of what color clothes I was wearing (I’ll explain that in a minute), and told me to sit in the front of the store on one of a random collection of cube-shaped seats, in front of a huge screen.
“Who is coming to help me?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “The system will send a Specialist out to meet you.
So I sat on the cubes at the front of the store, along with a bunch of other forlorn people. I looked around. I considered pulling out my Samsung phone, but decided that the Geniuses might see that and fail to help me. So I sat and waited.
Fifteen minutes ticked by.
Just as I was ready to get up and complain, a Genius emerged from a secret door and looked over everyone in the bullpen. He looked at my shirt and decided I must be the right customer. “Josh?” he asked.
He rapidly tested my iPhone, verified that the battery was indeed spent, and put it in for service.
“You realize this phone has no SIM card?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I moved the SIM to another phone because this one had battery problems.”
“We’ll be done in two-and-a-half hours,” he said.
I left the mall and came back later that evening pick up the phone. When I arrived to pick it up, they told me to wait in a different area, then brought it out in about five minutes. It works fine now.
Then they emailed me a survey about my experience. In the survey, I rated the experience poorly, because of the indeterminate wait in the bullpen, which made me feel like a pinball in some sort of large pinball machine.
Today, I got a voice message from the Burlington Apple Store. When I called back, they put me on hold. Twice. After about 10 minutes on hold, I told the manager on the line that I didn’t enjoy yesterday’s indeterminate wait in the front of the store after being texted that the technician was ready for me. She explained that the wait was a result of their queuing system.
What’s really happening here?
Everyone in this situation was nice and helpful (even me). But let’s review what’s important to Apple.
First of all, product is important. Product is supreme. This is one way to run a business. (After all, Legal Seafoods in Boston used to have the slogan “The customer always comes second” — because the food was first.) We all understand that product is the most important thing at Apple.
But what I learned from this experience — in particular, from the second, indeterminate wait after they told me they were ready for me — is that as a customer at Apple, I don’t even come second.
Employee efficiency is second. We can’t have the employees waiting around for me. It’s far more efficient to have me waiting around for them. That’s why there is a queuing system.
I come third, after the employees and the product.
Customers are impatient. Customers make bad decisions. They don’t show up on time, or they show up early. They say phones are broken when they’re not. They’re inefficient. That’s a challenge for Apple’s system to deal with.
One gets the impression that if they could just eliminate the imperfect, annoying customers from the equation altogether, that would be much better. But when you have over a billion customers, you can’t eliminate them, so you just create a system that operates as efficiently as possible despite the foibles of customers.
Ironically, the elimination of lines and registers at the Apple store is part of the problem. If you wait in line for 15 minutes, at least you know who’s ahead of you. In a virtual “queuing system,” only a machine knows where you are in line. Your lack of knowledge is what makes the wait frustrating.
I’m glad Apple puts so much effort into its products (although with the iPhone X and its latest MacBooks, you have to wonder if they’ve lost the thread of what customers are looking for).
I’m not as happy that they feel that their employees’ time is more valuable than mine.
My son will be delighted to get my iPhone with its new battery. And figuring out the Samsung has turned out to be a pain. But if I need to get it fixed, at least I’ll know where I stand in line.