Apple’s Most Over-Looked Innovation

on January 1, 2014
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Do you own a computer, cell phone, or tablet? Has that device ever stopped working for no reason (or have you ever dropped it in the toilet and not told anyone)? Do you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic?

If the answer is “yes,” then you’ve probably tried to have that product (and others like it) repaired or replaced at some point. For most companies, the customer support route is thus:

  • 1. Go to the company’s website and look for the Support page.
  • 2. Hunt for the support phone number so you can talk to someone about your problem. Oh, there are different numbers based on the type of product you’re calling about? Better find the right one.
  • 3. Call the number and navigate a labyrinth of menu options until you ultimately give up and repeatedly slam your head into the “0” in the vain hopes that a real person will pick up on the other line.
  • 4. Wait.
  • 5. Wait some more.
  • 6. Go through the motions of repeating every step on that support rep’s script, including powering the device off and on again, even though you’ve already done that and you really just want to know why the “Z” key keeps popping off the keyboard and nailing you in the eye.
  • 7. Be informed that your device either just crossed over the limited 1-year warranty deadline, or that your problem, no matter how easy it is to fix, is somehow not covered and you’ll have to send the product to their repair facility at your expense.
  • 8. Wait 6-8 weeks for the company to repair it, only to have it come back just as, if not more broken than before.
  • 9. Rinse, repeat.

Or:

  • 1. Go to your original place of purchase (Best Buy, Walmart, etc…)
  • 2. Be told your product is either out of warranty or that a repair will cost you money.
  • 3. Argue with the support technician.
  • 4. Leave with one of two things: 1) Your broken device still broken, or 2) Having spent several hundred dollars to fix the problem, including an extra $50 for a “diagnostic fee.”

Most electronics companies do not operate stores in the same fashion as Apple. If they do have stores, they’re either showrooms where you can demo the latest products, or they’re mini-stores that pop up inside larger “big-box” retailers. They may have staff trained to answer simple questions about the products, but they most certainly do not have one of the most valuable benefits of the Apple Store experience: the Genius Bar. Microsoft is the only company I’ve seen that has modeled its stores after Apple’s (in some cases, quite literally), with its own version of the Genius Bar–the Answer Desk.

Before we go any further, I’m sure there are plenty of readers who have Genius Bar horror stories, or who have experienced less-than-stellar customer service, but going off of my own experiences, I can safely say I’ve never had a better experience getting a product repaired or replaced than at an Apple Genius Bar. The Genius Bar represents the Apple we all romanticize, the Apple we imagine has our backs whenever we need it. The one that says, “We’re with you every step of the way, even if you stumble sometimes.”

The beauty of the Genius Bar is in its forehead-slapping simplicity: a place to take your questions and your broken products so you can yell at a real live person about them. Samsung doesn’t give you that in the U.S., though it does have Apple Store clones in certain countries around the world, like Australia. But little is known about Samsung’s “Smart Tutors”. Are they like Geniuses, in that they are able to provide actual technical support for customers’ devices, or are they there to answer simple questions, like “How do I send a tweet?” and “How can I get my email on my phone?”

HP doesn’t have anything like the Genius Bar. Sony has showroom stores, but forget about getting your busted VAIO screen fixed. With all the imitation happening on the product side, why hasn’t a company thought to clone what makes Apple truly special–the complete experience?

Obviously, money is a problem. Opening up and running retail operations won’t work for all companies. Samsung could do it, considering its extensive line of televisions, phones, tablets, and cameras, and it sounds like it might be experimenting with its “Experience” shops in Best Buy. However, something like this might be harder for the HTCs and HPs of the world, though a company could take a page from Apple’s and Microsoft’s books and start by opening up a few stores in some key areas around the country to gauge performance.

There are other ways to offer superior customer support if you can’t be there in person. Amazon has started to think outside the box with its “Mayday” button on its Kindle Fire tablets, allowing owners to press a button and talk to a live human about their devices. Hover, the domain registrar, promises that whenever you call, you’ll always talk to a real person–never a menu. For most companies, I’d even settle for fewer menu options.

On Samsung’s support page, there are six consumer-focused support categories and six separate phone numbers. That alone wouldn’t be terrible, but how the categories are separated makes matters worse.

Mobile phones is one category and Laptop, Printer, Galaxy Tabs (Wifi Only) is another. Tell me:

  1. Are Galaxy Note 10.1 tablets considered mobile phones, or part of the Galaxy Tab category?
  2. Where do the Galaxy Tabs with cellular capabilities fall?
  3. Why not just make a “tablets” category with its own number?

On Sony’s main support number, the first thing the eerily perky prerecorded voice tells the customer is to go to esupport.sony.com first to try to troubleshoot any problems. In other words, Sony doesn’t want its call centers to be a customer’s first destination. It wants that person to flounder for a while before throwing in the towel.

That’s the case with almost all of these corporations. They bury their contact information and live help links deep within the bowels of their support pages while shoving the DIY solutions in your face first. They want you to do the leg work before you have to rely on their employees and even then, it’s no picnic. Below are some choice horror stories pulled from Consumerist:

Samsung Wants To Patch Up My Defective Phone So It Can Break Again

3 Years Is The Warranty Length, Not How Long It Should Take To Get Your Computer Back

HP: No, Downgrading To Windows 7 Doesn’t Really Void Your Warranty“–On this last one, an HP Enterprise support rep originally told the customer that downgrading to Windows 7 would void his computer’s warranty. The customer then found out that wasn’t true, but what’s maddening is that he was told that in the first place.

Apple is not without its own problems. There are less-capable Geniuses, as well as employees who may not be as forgiving or helpful as others. No customer support entity is perfect, but being able to hand your computer to a properly trained individual and have him or her look at it in front of you is incredibly satisfying. You don’t have to hope your technician is familiar enough with your device or problem and you don’t have to wade through a script on the other end of the line, as Apple has specific Geniuses designated to specific products. There’s an iPod guy and a Mac girl and an iPad dude, all of whom are presumably familiar with anything life throws at the products they’re trained in.

This brings us to the other benefit of Apple’s in-person support system. A random voice on the other line isn’t a face. It isn’t a real person to the customer, nor the support rep. However, seeing a person and talking to him or her one-on-one adds a sorely-needed dose of humanity to an otherwise inhumane process. The Genius can see the horror in the customer’s eyes when she realizes she just lost all her photos. The customer can see that the Genius is doing everything in her power to make her client happy. I’ve had several occurrences where my laptop was just outside of its warranty and the Genius I’d spoken to had waived a fee or replaced a broken power cord free of charge just to make sure I was happy. Those little things make a difference and it’s evidence that Apple isn’t just ahead of its competitors in the consumer electronics space, but in the customer support space as well. This is a huge phase of the product life cycle that needs to change across the board.

Today’s tech companies need to provide easy and clear ways for customers to receive support for their devices. Traversing the Wild West landscape of telephone menus and online support forums isn’t how loyalty is won, nor is having to deal with the ineptitude of non-official support services. These tired practices don’t instill confidence in buyers when making their purchases. I know that when I buy a new Mac, iPhone, or iPad, I’m not only getting a high-end machine, but also a high-end support experience with it.

That’s not to say all companies should open retail locations and Genius Bars, but if they are going to provide only telephone- and/or internet-based customer services, those services have to be as streamlined and user-friendly as possible. They should want their first lines of defense to be the last, not the first of six or seven.

And yes, I understand Apple does not have stores in every country, nor in every city in the U.S., but its presence is definitely felt and its support philosophies extend from the Genius Bar to its other support avenues all over the world. Apple Stores may not be everywhere, but the steps the company is taking to push customer support forward are not being followed almost anywhere else.

People can (wrongly) lament the lack of innovation in Apple’s products all they want. They can cry about how their Retina iPad minis don’t have TouchID, or how their iPad Airs are still too heavy to hold in one hand, but they need to check their priorities. When their tablets and phones and computers break, there is a company behind them to fix them. There are real people to talk to in-person who can hopefully come to some consensus about how to solve these problems. Customers don’t have to wait for return postage in the mail, they don’t have to hope their devices make it back to the repair facilities once they mail them out, and if the problems are easy to fix, they can most likely have the services performed on-site while they wait–or have the device swapped out for a new one entirely.

Without us even realizing, Apple revolutionized customer service by doing what it does best: thinking like a consumer.