At Apple, the customer comes third.

Photo: Yelp

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.

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  1. “The system will send a Specialist out to meet you.” Welcome to the system.

    I don’t use Apple products. But I once stopped in the Apple store with my stepdaughter to buy a new charger. (I don’t know why she didn’t just buy it at Target. Because we were already at the mall, I guess.) After an experience similar to yours in the sterile land of wooden tables, I felt cheeky enough to pay for my purchase with cash. You could almost hear the system’s gears grind together. My Genius probably still tells his friends about the idiotic customer who paid with cash.

  2. As always, interesting post, Josh.

    Your experience was, of course, far less than desirable. Wait times and dissatisfaction have become common issues for Apple Stores–a result of their Apple Store and Genius success is that they are now struggling to manage the volume. Complaints are rising.

    I think the missing part of your evaluation may be that the Apple Store experience was, at one point, so good–and so differentiated from the competition–that although you felt “third” in this instance, this was a direct result of the store succeeding at putting customers “first.” I am a Samsung fan (and own my third of their phones), but there is no hip Samsung Store for me to hang out. There is no queuing system for that brand. No geniuses. When I have a problem, I search online, because there is no “there” for Samsung as there is for Apple. (And Sprint, my provider, tends to have tiny little stores–little more than counters to sell things–and my success rate at getting problems solved is close to nil.)

    To get the point where you felt as you did about this experience, Apple first put the customer first in launching a product that leapfrogged the competition. While others (like Microsoft) created kludgy tablets and difficult-to-use phones, Apple created tech marvels that changed people’s expectations of what mobile computing could be. Then, Apple put the customer first with a store network that seemed contrary to the experiences and strategies of other tech providers. (Gateway was shuttering their unprofitable stores as the Apple Store debuted, and it caused many to scratch their heads and predict an Apple failure.)

    So, Apple now needs another customer evolution because their stores are victims of their own success. But, you may want to view the entire path that led you to your iPhone, to become a loyal Apple fan, and to that hip, spacious store before you suggest Apple put you third. Apple puts customers first, and you found a step the journey where they fail to do so, so that’s a problem to be solved, but I don’t see the entire brand struggling with its customer focus throughout the entire customer journey, do you? (If so, let me welcome you to the wonderful world of Samsung!)

  3. I love your blog and am a regular reader. Unfortunately I have to call bullshit on you here. It is fine for you to have your feelings and expectations for service levels. (Good luck finding better than Apple however imperfect you may find them)

    However this article is fundamentally your opinion (stated as fact) of Apple and Apple employee motivations. Specifically that they don’t care about the customer. Their products, stores and employees are driven to focus on customer delight and failing to do so (as in your case) is something of great concern internally.

    I am a former employee of Apple although not in the retail stores. I know that Apple and Apple employees agonize over trying to delight customers and this article feels hurtful to me even now.

    Give feedback, be constructive but don’t attribute motives of others when you don’t know them.

    1. I didn’t say they don’t care about customers. Nor did I say that their employees don’t care about customers. It’s clear that they do.

      What I said was that their systems are designed to optimize the efficiency of employees over the time of their customers.

      I don’t attribute any motives to anybody. I just observe the results of their policies.

      This is a choice. It reflects the values of the company. They can do better, but that would mean that employees would be waiting around. That would be inefficient. And they have chosen not to.

      The manager I spoke with on the phone explained it fine. She cared about me. But she defended the system. I am hoping that she has a conversation about it with the Apple store people, since they can do better.

      1. You make the blanket statement that ‘At Apple, the customer comes third’.

        To my mind ‘values’ is the same as motivation.

        1) The design of products at Apple start with a focus on the person (more than just a customer) who will use them. The value is to ‘delight’ that person. This is a distinguishing focus of Apple products. Huge amounts of focus and energy goes behind that value. The products are the embodiment of that value. Of course the job is never done and there are hits and misses.

        2) Having Apple Stores was entirely driven by the desire to provide superior services and connections with end customers. The motivation/value is entirely focused on customer experience.

        3) There are trade offs in the real world of resourcing and the vagaries of customer flow in a retail environment. You negate all the other customer focus values of Apple because you think Apple should have even more staff waiting around so that there is no wait time in all instances. You are taking one personal experience and then making blanket statements of Apples motivating values and the order of them. Providing low cost battery replacements in store for millions of older phones is a huge task.You can also make store appointments online to minimize waiting.

        You can say that Apple is not living up to their values in your mind but, you cannot say that the customer is valued third – it is simply incorrect.

        In an Apple Store, if you are in a wheelchair, hidden underneath one of the tables is a slide out, lower, table which is specifically there so that a person in a wheelchair can be served by an Apple employee sitting at their level with their device at hand. I saw this the other day in an Apple Store and was blown away by the caring and customer focus that had obviously informed that capability.

        Despite Apple’s primary value of customer focus, there is always room for improvement.

        1. Fair enough.

          Frankly, I’d only ask for one real improvement — setting better expectations for that second bit of waiting.

  4. I like their products overall, but I had a similar waiting experience at the store (It implies that your time is not valuable.). They were very helpful, polite, and engaging, and I really appreciate that. But I wondered how they’d described me — with snark or respect — it gave the “geniuses” a certain edge over me because my appearance had been logged and discussed among a group of invisible strangers. As a woman, as a woman of a certain age, that’s personal and unnerving, and implies prioritizing employee over customer — I’d rather they give me a number, or better, a special, fun buzzing device. I’ve heard them described as a design company first (branding/product design — from the logo to the device to the box). Makes me understand why they choose black USB ports to be put against a black background, requiring a flashlight to find them under the desk (design over function). Still trying to figure out why my magic track pad uses batteries (design over function). Love the feel of the products, but they’re breakable and not waterproof, so you always have to encase them in something else that destroys the effect (design over function). And if I’m not mistaken, they’re the ones with the ear-splitting, tin can-on-a-string, on-hold music (company over customer). Feedback is feedback. The message any company sends through their choice of actions and design of their products communicates priorities without words.