What follows is a customer experience cautionary tale, illustrating the kind of lapse that can happen even at a company with a global reputation for being customer-centric. I suppose if it can happen at Apple Stores — meant to be a beacon of customer service — it can happen anywhere. But take note: beyond the caution is a tremendous opportunity, for Apple and other retailers.
I recently set up a Genius Bar appointment at my local Apple Store, for 9am sharp (when the store opens). I was the second person to take a seat at the Bar. While waiting — and waiting — for my Genius to show up (about 15 minutes) two or three groups of Geniuses came to the bar, looked intently at some device together, discussed, looked some more — but never said a word to me. When the Genius helping the first customer got done, he began tapping on his iPad. I was just a few feet away from him. After a few moments, I announced, "My man, I'm feeling invisible." The Genius, with a wry smile and hardly looking up from his iPad, assured me someone would be with me shortly. At that early hour, the store had many more blue shirts hanging around than customers. Yet at no time did anyone say, "Are you being helped?"
Since then I've mentioned the episode to two friends who themselves are avid Apple users. Instead of responding with, "Wow, that's never happened to me," they immediately related their own "Bad Apple" story.
Coincidentally, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal reports, among other things, that the last head of Apple Stores (post Ron Johnson) had changed the emphasis from customer service to sales and cost cutting. That's an old story in the business world, that typically doesn't end well — and one you don't expect a firm like Apple to illustrate. Sure enough, it's resulted in declining customer satisfaction, and Apple Stores' famous per square foot sales (the highest in retail) has declined this year.
Apple is now looking for someone to head up its retail operations, but some candidates have expressed wariness, saying that the company's top brass lack clear plans for the stores. Here are some suggestions to help Apple Stores fulfill their original promise, and get beyond it to a new kind of relationship with customers:
Build Real Community
I'm not talking about a social media effort of some sort. I'm talking about the real thing, live and in person. Apple now has more than 400 stores worldwide, an unmatched level of penetration into local communities. Those local communities, of course, contain legions of passionate Apple customers who are doing amazing things with Apple products. The stores, together with these customers, are potentially a customer community-building resource that could dwarf anything that Starbucks is doing.
Find Your Local Rock Star Customers
Instead of pushing the blue shirts to sell, push the stores to attract local "Rock Star" customers, who will in turn, introduce new life, and new motivated buyers into the Stores. In particular, find the customers who are doing amazing things with movies, gaming, workflow productivity, design, blogging, presentations — whatever your customers are most interested in. Find ones who are articulate, who like helping others, are appealing in appearance and demeanor. No doubt many of these folks already like to affiliate — perhaps they're blogging and drawing strong audiences. Get ready to deploy these customers using your Stores as a base. And don't worry about the cost of finding and engaging such folks. First, they won't be hard to find — these natural advocates have a way of making themselves known. They're always interested to build their "social capital." Second, when you invite them into your community building events, you'll find that they'll do amazing things to draw audiences and customers, and they won't cost you a thing.
Organize Live Presentations by Your Rock Stars
The Apple Store in my neighborhood is open from 9am to 9pm Monday through Saturday. That leaves wasted time and space. Why not try a morning commute presentation at 7am on "Seven Ways to Dramatically Increase Your Productivity." A Genius might be able to make such a presentation, but much more effective would be a local Rock Star entrepreneur — an impressive "peer" of other creative and successful customers — presenting cool things he's doing to improve his productivity using his iPad and iPhone. Then many more local entrepreneurs and business people would likely show up. Or try a "Late Show" (9 pm) by a local Rock Star developer showing how he's created amazing Apple-worthy Apps. You get the idea. And by the way, you can be sure that as soon as a high-profile customer knows he's been invited to present at an Apple Store, he's going to let all his friends know.
About Those Video Screens
During my extended wait time, I couldn't help but be struck by all the screens behind the bar containing staid looking Apple content that I had no interest in. Another wasted opportunity. Perhaps the most attention-grabbing business communications today are videos by customers showing how they're using new products they've purchased: Teenage girls on a shopping spree. Skateboarders showing their moves. Researchers showing how they conducted the experiment. And of course, Apple users showing the cool things they're doing with their iPhones, iPads or Macbooks.
Why didn't I see any of this during my recent visit? Also, if Apple were to start having interesting events in its stores, it could get fabulous video of those, too. Show customers who come into your store that it's not just a store, it's a community gathering place with all kinds of interesting things going on. Such activities will get local customers to sign up for your email lists so as not to miss out.
Orient the Customer Experience Around What Customers Can Accomplish
When the first Apple Stores were opened, they were organized around the firm's product lines as well as the things customers would want to do with the products — such as importing and editing movies. I don't see this in today's Apple stores. They look more like product displays you'd see in an ordinary retail store — iPads here, Macbooks there, iPhones to the left. I should see something that shows me how to Photoshop pics on my iPad; or how to configure Apple products for my kids; or the top 10 things I can do with my Mac/ iPad / iPhone to organize my life. There could be a couple of community tables in the store, with daytime presentations on these topics.
Such measures would, of course, require experimentation. But the results could be well worth it. There are three areas of huge, latent wealth that the Stores could play a central role in tapping: First, all of the capabilities and expertise that we Apple customers are carrying around. Second, going beyond the use of the physical Stores as mere ABS (always be selling) machines to build them into hubs for customer communities. And third, activating and leveraging the hundreds if not thousands of local Rock Star Apple customers who would jump at the chance to get involved, and to help build such communities. When this potential is unlocked, the devices would almost sell themselves.