Apple Must Reinvent the Genius Bar

Last week @mgsiegler wrote a post about his customer experience at an Apple Store. While the issue that brought him to a store is somewhat unique, his recount of long lines and wait time despite having an appointment was not that different from what I have heard pop up as a complaint from friends who are iPhone and iPad users and one that I have experienced myself on a couple of occasions.

There was a lot in the post, but I want to focus on one point I agree with, which is that Apple has reached such a scale that makes the current customer service model unsustainable.

Big Retail Stores are not the Model

Apple knew they had to scale issue when back in 2012 they hired John Browett, chief executive of Dixons Retail, a large chain of electronics stores in the UK. Browett was replacing Ron Jonson who had left Apple to become the CEO of J.C. Penney. Before Dixon, Browett had spent eight years at Tesco, a leading UK supermarket.

Clearly, Browett brought the understanding of large retail companies to Apple. However, as I had commented at the time, the high-quality customer care Apple’s customers were used to seemed to be at odds with the poor customer service Dixon’s was renowned for.

So it was no surprise when less than a year after he joined, Browett was let go. During his time at Apple, he was said to have focused on reducing employees in the attempt to cut payroll costs as well as general spent on the upkeep of the physical stores. In short, Browett was focused on growing profitability by teaching Apple stores to “run lean” as apparently he was quoted saying. But Apple stores are not about profits!

Tim Cook took over from Browett until he hired Angela Ahrendts in December 2014. Ahrendts, who was the first woman to join Apple’s executive team in almost a decade was given responsibility for both physical and online retail. In her previous role at Burberry, Ahrendts was able to turn the brand around making it relevant to the mainstream while retaining its luxury status. The challenge was not that different at Apple, where the stores had to be able to deal with more customers while continuing to make you feel you were the only one that mattered.

It’s not about Selling

When you read Ahrendts’ bio on the Apple’s website, and you think at some of the stores that were launched under her leadership from Chicago Michigan Avenue to Milan Piazza Liberty, it is easy to see she is delivering on the promise of what Apple retail is supposed to be:

“Since joining Apple in 2014, Angela has integrated Apple’s physical and digital retail businesses to create a seamless customer experience for over a billion visitors per year with the goal of educating, inspiring, entertaining and enriching communities. Apple employees set the standard for customer service in stores and online, delivering support from highly trained Geniuses and expert advice from Creative Pros to help customers get the most out of their Apple products.”

At a recent interview at the Cannes Lions, Ahrendts reiterated much of the same, pointing out that shopping is moving to online but that buyers will still go into a physical store to finalize their purchase. Because of this retail has to evolve.

Although revenues generated by the stores are growing, I have always argued that Apple stores are much more a marketing machine for Apple than they are a revenue one. Getting people in to fully immerse themselves in what being in an Apple world feels like is not new though. Ahrendts added more of a community focus to it at a time when, more often than not, tech companies are seen as damaging the community rather than enhancing it.

Evolving Customer Care

While all this is great for Apple overall branding, it seems to get in the way of current customers going to the stores to get support. Existing customers, especially long-term customers, have been accustomed to turn up at the store with whatever problem they had and have that resolved without even the need for an appointment. This excellent customer service is a big part of why people bought Apple.

As Apple’s customer base grew so did the need for support, a need that can no longer be fulfilled in the way it has been over the years. As Ahrendts points out, retail must evolve, and I would add that customer care must evolve too.

The Genius Bar which for the longest time has been the pride and joy of Apple can no longer be the first option for customer support. Apple’s website encourages customers to get support via phone, chat, email, even Twitter and of course there are authorized service providers. But come on, if I buy Apple, I want Apple to take care of me, right? I want to get to a store and feel I get the attention, love, and care I feel I pay for being a “special customer.”

It seems to me that Apple should come up with something that is as caring and personal of an experience than it was back in the day when I went into a store and met with my Genius Bar guru who knew everything about me and my device.

Today, through technology, Apple can deliver the same “boutique feel” thanks to a device that knows me and knows itself. Machine learning and artificial intelligence could help with self-diagnose, and an app or even Siri could walk/talk a user through some basic testing that would help assess whether I can fix it, need to go into a store or mail my device in. The Genius would move from the Bar to my device. Setting the right expectations from the start, avoid wasting time and eliminating friction overall while creating rapport with the brand was exactly what people liked about Apple’s customer service. The feeling of buying products from a company that put its customer first and that “Cheers – where everybody knows your name” factor that made Apple’s customer service second to none. Apple can do it again this time putting its technology first rather than its store staff.

While I realize my vision is not going to be delivered overnight, I believe that, if done well, this “Genius on device” would add even more value to Apple’s products and it would position Apple’s customer care as the industry benchmark once again.

Published by

Carolina Milanesi

Carolina is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc, a market intelligence and strategy consulting firm based in Silicon Valley and recognized as one of the premier sources of quantitative and qualitative research and insights in tech. At Creative Strategies, Carolina focuses on consumer tech across the board. From hardware to services, she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as Chief of Research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, she drove thought leadership research by marrying her deep understanding of global market dynamics with the wealth of data coming from ComTech’s longitudinal studies on smartphones and tablets. Prior to her ComTech role, Carolina spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as their Consumer Devices Research VP and Agenda Manager. In this role, she led the forecast and market share teams on smartphones, tablets, and PCs. She spent most of her time advising clients from VC firms, to technology providers, to traditional enterprise clients. Carolina is often quoted as an industry expert and commentator in publications such as The Financial Times, Bloomberg, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She regularly appears on BBC, Bloomberg TV, Fox, NBC News and other networks. Her Twitter account was recently listed in the “101 accounts to follow to make Twitter more interesting” by Wired Italy.

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