Making the Genius Bar Better

Seth Godin wrote up a little post on his web page talking about his experience at the genius bar and some things he’d like to see changed. As I spent almost 3 years behind the bar, I thought I would answer some of his concerns.

Sorry to Seth for the liberal quoting, but I wanted to answer things in full, so for a lot of it I had to quote long sections.

Problem 1: The geniuses at the Apple bar treat ipod owners like g5 owners. The guy in front of me in line had not one, not two, but three machines with him. He was shlepping $10,000 worth of hardware. That doesn’t include the fact that a heavy Mac user buys a new machine every year or two, and if she runs a company, buys 20 or 200 at a time. An iPod owner, on the other hand, has an expensive toy that he can certainly live without for a day or two. Why is a genius spending his time wisely when he futzes with an ipod for fifteen minutes while the guy with three Macs just sits there? The trivial solution: Envelopes! Give anyone with a broken iPod a postage-paid padded envelope. Have them fill out a form online (see my idea below) and drop it in a mailbox. The mail takes the broken ipods to cheap locations where they are quickly triaged and replaced.

Well the first thing to mention here is that there are a lot of ipod owners who are in fact g5 owners as well. That guy with the ipod problem may in fact be a purchaser for a fortune 500 company who recently stocked his office with 200 G5s and bought everyone at his company an iPod for christmas. His future purchasing decisions may in some part be based on his experience. Bottom line is, it’s extremely hard to prioritize issues based on product alone.

A mail in program already exists for iPods, and if customers call for support before coming into the store, they will be directed to it as an alternative, but people in general won’t use it. They usually want immediate attention to their problems, and if at all possible, and immediate solution. They don’t consider their problems to be any less important than the guy with the G5, and frankly many iPod owners would take offense to (and by that I mean throw a fit in the store) having their issues pushed down to lower priority.

Problem 2: For a computer company, Apple is doing a lousy job of using a database to track their very best customers. In order to get on line to meet a genius, you need to type in your first name into a queuing system running on all the machines in the store. Shouldn’t the system where you reserve your slot with the genius be able to figure out who you are and treat you accordingly? Aside: As long as we’re talking about consumers and treating people with respect, it’s essential to remember this: people don’t remember how long it took them to get service. They remember what the wait was like. If i were running the genius bar, I’d keep the people waiting superbusy. First, I’d use one (or more) of the many Macs in the store to have people type in their serial number, name, problem, etc. This is all currently done by the genius, which wastes everyone’s time. More important, it would make the customer an active part of the repair process, which would make everyone more engaged and happier.

The problem here is, how to you decide importance ranking. Who is more important? The person who bought their machine yesterday and is threatening to return it? The person who has a G5 but wants to be show how to use mail? The celebrity who’s ibook has a cosmetic issue? The person who’s lost important data due to a HD failure on their iPod and needs advice on who to send it to? The Genius bar sees a huge variety of people with a large selection of machines and problems. Every one of them thinks they are the most important customer. How to you deal with them fairly?

There is a system in place for buying preferential treatment in place, it’s called procare. You may not agree that spending another $100 should buy you priority over others, but what system would you create in it’s place? Like I said earlier, it’s incredibly hard to prioritize customers, and often times, the balance is dictated by what will keep you doing business that day. If I have a rude customer demanding my attention by screaming in the store, that customer is getting moved way up in the priority scale because they’re messing up my business. They may not get the attention they want, but they’re getting higher priority. If I can get an iPod fixed in 15 minutes so I can dedicate half an hour to solving your problem uninterrupted, I’ll do it.

People don’t remember how long it took them to get service? I beg to differ. They certainly do remember, and I have the customer sat surveys to prove it. What is true is that different people have different thresholds for waiting. A busy executive that is dropping off a machine before heading to his golf game doesn’t want to wait no matter how you distract him. He’s going to resent it no matter how short or entertaining you make it because there’s nothing you’ve got that can make it interesting. Making him fill out his own service ticket is probably only going to piss him off more.

There’s a good reason that very few service establishments have you fill out your own tickets. Usually most of the information customers provide is useless to solving the problem. Good data gathering from a customer is priceless in a repair business and can mean the difference between a 15 minute resolution and 3 days. Good techs talk through most problems and gather tons of data before even touching a machine. Customers don’t usually know what data is relevant to their problem and what is useless. After they have filled out this description of the problem, and I start asking them more questions, they have a tendency to resent the redundancy of re-describing the problem. Most customers hate verbally describing a problem more than once. Depending on a good description from a customer without guidance would be folly, and would probably cause more trouble than good. While you may see it at time saving, often it’s a roadblock to getting good work done.

For iPods, I’d go a lot further. It turns out that there are only three or four things that are wrong with 99% of all the iPods. So why not have a computer-assisted diagnostic station that people could use to reboot or diagnose their iPods with no help at all? Sort of like self serve gas. If, at the end of the process, the machine agrees that the thing is dead, it would print out a receipt and boom, you get a new one.

Should Apple spent time and resources developing these magic machines, or instead dedicate that time and those resources to fixing those 3 or 4 things that commonly fail? Truth is, when there are only 3 or 4 things that commonly fail, those things are usually fairly quick to diagnose and fix or replace. iPods are fairly simple. While it’s true that Apple could go a LONG way toward simplifying and speeding up the paperwork process, little of that could be handed off reliably to customers.

“What! I have to wait a week? Can’t i just pay the difference in the price and upgrade right here to a new model?”

Where do people get this expectation? Portable players, like everything else, depreciate from the moment you buy them. A used player is not the same thing as a new in box player. Why do people think that they should be able to trade in a used player for its full new in box retail value towards a better product? Apple offers in store returns and exchanges and even paid upgrades for up to 10 days (this might have changed to 15 since I left). How long do you feel they should extend that out to? 30 days? 3 months? At what point does Apple start to loose money?

When a product fails, people are disappointed, and Apple does its best to make the service process painless. But exchanging a 3 month old iPod for a new one, or an upgraded one would make it hard to make any money. If you want to upgrade, get your iPod fixed, sell it to a friend, and buy a new one. Piece of cake.

“Could we treat our best customers better?”

Probably. How much better are we talking here? Are we talking about loosing money by treating them better? How far are we willing to go?

Maybe a better question would be: “Are we doing our best to meet every customer’s needs without putting ourselves in the poor house”

“Can we change the story people tell themselves in between the time trouble starts and the time it’s gone?”

I’m not sure what you mean by this. Everyone tells themselves a different story based on their circumstances. Apple wants to make sure that people understand that Apple is going to help them get their issues resolved to their satisfaction. Beyond that, I’m not sure Apple is interested in changing people’s feelings, or their inner-dialogs.

“What are we doing that we’ve always done, instead of what we should do?”

It’s a big assumption to make to think this isn’t already going on. It’s trivially easy to throw out these kind of questions, and it’s an entirely other thing to begin a whole re-evaluation of the customer experience and investigating different process management solutions. These kind of questions always smack of bullshit management feel good self help books to me. Perhaps a better question here is:

“What steps in our current process stand in the way of our stated objectives for service”

As a note to Seth, and anyone who takes a dim view of the computer service industry: Service is insanely hard to do well. Customer satisfaction is routinely pretty lousy across the board for a variety of reasons. It’s easy to stand on the sideline and throw out flippant advice on how you’d do things differently, but when it comes right down to it, most of that advice is ill informed and falls down quickly on application. If anyone feels they have some revolutionary way to handle customers and service, there’s a billion dollars to be made out there. Go for it.

That’s not to say Apple couldn’t improve. It certainly could. But when it comes right down to it, when your machine breaks down, it’s going to be an inconvenience. And no matter what improvements you make, there will always be a vocal section of customers that will be unhappy with it. There will also always be upper management who see service departments as money losers and black eyes on the company who reduce funding and head-counts, increase burn out of good techs and view the majority of service requests as needless overhead.

What makes the process improve is simply posting something like, “man I waited a long time at the genius bar to get help”. Apple sees a lot of this and improves head-counts and tries to find ways to speed up the process. Offering specific ill-informed advice simply makes them roll their eyes.

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