Apple: A Genius Way To Treat Customers

Shop containing a Genius Bar – this wasn’t the one

(This story is four years old.  I just never got round to publishing it but it’s a Friday).

A few nights ago I was working at my PC when my 15 year old daughter came into the office and waved her new iphone at me.  The charger cable was slightly twisted and it looked like a nematode worm with a rupture.  It definitely wasn’t working.  It was 9 pm at night, and we were due to leave to get on a train so she could make a long journey, early next morning.

She was distraught that she might not have a working phone with her.  I tried to argue that seeing as I would accompany her to the train, and a friend would meet her off it, the need to have a phone for the time in between, was minimal, especially seeing as trains very rarely strayed from their intended course.  All, of course, to no avail …

So the next step was to see if we could fix it.  A brief Google search showed lots of images of exactly the same problem.  There were also dozens of discussion threads with comments along the lines of “this is the sixth ‘lightning’ cable I’ve had to buy – Apple knows about this problem, why doesn’t it fix it ?”.    And there were videos explaining how you could cut the cable, find the break, and reconnect the wires.  That at least might enable us to recharge it, allowing her to remain ‘connected’ while she got to a shop to buy a new cable.  A lot of fiddling about ensued and by midnight, it half-worked but not well enough.  So there was nothing for it but to change our plans to visit an Apple Store an hour away, first-thing in the morning.

Having read that Apple sometimes simply agreed to exchange the cables, knowing that they were made fault-prone  (ie ridiculously fragile considering their function), and that sometimes this simply involved showing the box, we took the phone, box, evidence of purchase (it was only a month old), and mangled cable.  All we wanted was a new cable.

We found the store and walked in.  I’ve since read that someone should have been waiting at the door to explain to first-time visitors that the apparently random assembly of people in coloured tee-shirts, no visible counters and softly milling customers, all had a hidden purpose.  But nobody did.  Quite a  lot of the Apple employees didn’t appear to be talking to any customers but they were all busy, mostly talking to each other in a motivational sort of way.

I spotted one slightly older, and larger looking Apple person standing at the back of the store on his own.  He gazed authoritatively across the room and was apparently doing no more than flexing his muscles or maybe some sort of secret jaw Pilates.  We went over to him and managed to get his attention by standing quite close until he stopped talking on his earpiece phone, which explained the jaw movements.

I tried to explain what we wanted.  He cut me off half way through the first sentence.   “Appointment ?” he snapped imperiously from behind his immaculately groomed half-beard, giving us a disdainful look.  “Sorry ?” I responded, not knowing that this shop required appointments.  Indeed not realising that despite being in a large Shopping Mall and full of stuff apparently for sale, it wasn’t really a shop at all, or didn’t want to think so.

“You need an appointment – join that queue”.  He indicated a random looking queue in the middle of the ‘shop’, where people were lining up to talk to a young man in long gingham shorts who was do something with an i-pad.  Now I’d got my eye-in, things started to become clearer.  There were people quietly waiting everywhere, many filling out personal details on screens, or answering questions so that apps or some other thing could do something online that might solve some invisible problem.

I tried to think what the scene reminded me of.  The patient, often hopeless looking visitors, the positive uniformed employees, the sense that the latter were very in charge by being ‘helpful’ .. it wasn’t ‘retail’ or ‘service’ it was more like a gathering to follow the script of some invisible Authority.

The Ministry in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil perhaps ?   Those old black and white photos of Muskovites queuing with optimism to buy something, anything, in Soviet era GUM stores ?  Or, what I’ve heard Indian tax offices or railway stations used to be like ?

The man in Gingham shorts looked like he had been specially selected for the most stressful job in the ‘shop’ because he was tall but quiet, stooped and unchallenging.  His eyes rarely lifted from the screen.  He had an expression like a mournful squirrel looking for lost nuts on a slow moving computer game.  He reminded me of one of the wizards from Harry Potter, gamefully trying to engage with the ways of Muggles, never giving up, never quite connecting but not noticing it either.

By now we’d been there about ten or fifteen minutes.  No long but really long enough to buy a cable if we had to, or rather had had the opportunity.  In front of us was a 30-something mother with her young daughter tugging at her.  Her phone wouldn’t charge.  Why couldn’t she see someone now ?  No she couldn’t come back then as she worked shifts in a hospital and couldn’t take time off work.  No she lived too far away, she had to get a bus.  She’d already taken time off to come here, and so on.  I tried not to listen.   You could hear the despair in her voice.  Beaten by her need to have the phone working, in the end she accepted what sounded like a distant appointment and left.

Did we have an appointment ?  No.  He would make us one, with Phil (not his name I think) on the table right over here, who was “doing cable swaps today”.  I guess the words ‘broken’ or ‘faulty’ or ‘failed’ are scripted out in the Apple training.  “Doing cable swaps” sounded like something you didn’t realise you wanted but having been introduced to it on an office bonding trip, might quite enjoy, a bit like a free zip wire experience in an adventure park.  The appointment was for about three minutes time.

Having given my name, I was invited to sit on a special chair, possibly to increase the sense of control, possibly to make me feel like a Superhero which is apparently the Apple customer strategy.  Or maybe just to tidy things up a bit.

Our Genius Phil turned to us next.  First a check with the appointment on his device, to make sure the handover had gone to plan.  Ah. He diagnosed the problem immediately.  Our cable was broken.  Indeed it was.  Severed in fact.  No longer connected to the bit that went in the phone.

“That means it is recorded as damaged” he explained (or words to that effect), tapping his screen.  We agreed.  It was indeed damaged because we’d tried to repair it.  Before that it was broken.  That had invalidated the guarantee.  We were not surprised.   The Genius said nothing to suggest that we had been stupid enough to try operating on a fully functioning power cable but sensibly left the possibility open.

Could we buy one ?  Was that possible (or would it require an other appointment,  possibly an email of absolution from the Vatican or Palo Alto ?)  He’d fix us up with help from Jeb (standing about one metre away).

We left the table and entered what I now realise was the Sales Zone.  Was this another appointment ?  Jeb was all smiles.  After a quick check to enter my email into his device (something about having a longer guarantee), we bought the Lightning-to-USB cable for £15, making a mental note to maybe get its next replacement from a company like Belkin.

It seemed we were free to go.  The whole thing had only taken about 25 minutes.  We had a brief look at a new case for the iphone but they were about £35 and my daughter advised that she could get a cheaper one from a supermarket.  We got one for £10 in Sainsburys.

No Tea

Yeas ago a frustrated advertising executive charged with improving the image of the nationalised British Rail, famously invited his clients, who were more concerned with relationships with the Trade Unions and ‘running the railway’ than they were with passengers, to his offices.  They were made to wait.  Invited to sit on uncomfortable furniture.   Given cold tea in chipped cups.  He made his point though I don’t remember what happened next.

Apple isn’t like that of course.  There’s no tea for a start.  The staff are full of Appleness, in a preppy (this is England) pseudo American sort of way, hinting at time spent in the ‘States or wishing to be closer to Cupertino.  “He wasn’t American was he ?” my daughter asked me, doubtful about the strange accent of our Genius.  No but he clearly wanted to give the impression that he might be.  Maybe to himself.

Indeed Apple is more like GUM than BR.  Faced with no choice but the unthinkable risks of attempting defection, staff and customers collude in telling themselves that they are having the best of possible experiences.  Read any of the many vituperative exchanges that break out online when an Apple customer dares to question The Product, and you can feel the power of the Brand, even through a screen.    Believers descend on those who have strayed and smother them like antibodies on an aberrant antigen.  Apple doesn’t have to organise it, hope does it for them, hope that the dream will (one day) be matched by the reality.  Who cares about a badly designed cable and its costly replacement when the Bigger Picture draws us towards the horizon ?

There’s lots of online debate about Genius Bars.  One Apple Antibody points out that although it’s not obvious to the un-initiated, they are mainly for tech-support unmatched by other IT retailers.  You wouldn’t expect to see a doctor without an appointment, so why expect to see a Genius without one ?  But what if you only wanted to buy a plaster ? Would you expect to have to make an appoitnment to visit the pharmacy (= Drug Store) ?  And what if it’s an emergency doctor you need ?  Apple it seems, doesn’t do urgent just because it is.

And if the tech is so great, how come it needs so much ‘support’ ?  But those are questions only asked by non-believers.   Hands up.  I used to have a Mac.  Several in fact. I wrote a book on the first, a 1980s musuem piece still in my loft.  All went well until it went “boing” and crashed, taking the book with it. I had to write it all again and you know what ?  It was better the second time.  That’s the mac genius I guess.

Then I went to work in an organisation that only used PCs and after a short struggle with IT, capitulated.  I said goodbye to my much loved little Powerbook (grey, lumpy).   Before that I used to run a media charity and Mac (Apple) actually gave us a lot of (then even more expensive) computers.  Media folk visited just to look at them.  I remember that in true eccentric Apple style they arrived unannounced and were almost left outside in boxes, on a London pavement.  Later they were properly stolen from our offices by a gang robbing to order.

Real Genius

So decades later, am I just a grumpy old apostate, out of step with the Genii ?  Is there really anything awry with the Genius Bar experience ?   My fifteen year old seemed to think so.  “They aren’t geniuses, they’re just hipsters” said my daughter.  “They are not even proper geeks, they’re just pretending to be”.   Perhaps that’s it.  It has an authenticity deficit.

There’s a little electrical shop on Tottenham Court Road* in London resembling something out of Bladerunner.  It’s one of several in the street run and owned by a fraternity (all men, and it seems, many related) of British-Asians who appear to be actual wizards, able to do almost anything electrical, incredibly quickly.  These shops sell and fix dozens and brands and do anything from installing components to unblocking phones.  My phone (a cheap blackberry) developed a fault a while ago and as I was walking past, I took it in.  Within about one minute they had prized it to bits, diagnosed the problem and giving me the SIM card, suggested I get a cup of tea and come back in five minutes.  I did, and it was fixed.  I’m not sure how they did it but I’d call that magical.  Real genii, it seems, don’t need appointments.

(* For non UK readers that’s the road in where the café scene takes place in the movie Deathly Hallows).

My old mended Mac, recently rescued from the loft in order to amuse young visitors.  We tried plugging it in.  A lot of smoke emerged from the back.  It smelt strangely organic: a mouse nest maybe?.  Then with a loud ping and a small flash, it finally died for a second time.  Electrowaste I guess.


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2 Responses to Apple: A Genius Way To Treat Customers

  1. Tony Jaques says:

    The really sad thing, Chris, is that we LET THIS HAPPEN.

  2. I know this article is fu?l of tongue-in-cheek irony, laced with a little old fart cynicism, but the seeds of Apple’s demise are here. The Emperor is not wearing any clothes!

    A few years ago, android became the leading software for all mobile phones, but there was no fanfare, because the profit for this more open system was associated with many secondary developers.

    For a while, Apple have the perceived top spot due to a marriage of design, functionality AND public image. As others catch up with the design and functionality, the public image will be slowly eroded and go to the same museum as Nokia.

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