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Apple’s secret weapon: Incredible customer service

Updated May 26th, 2015 4:27PM EDT
Apple Customer Service

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Not too long ago, Brian X. Chen of The New York Times wrote a piece arguing that traditional product reviews are broken insofar as they don’t often consider the varying levels of customer service different companies provide.

“The product evaluations neglect to mention the quality of a company’s customer service,” Chen writes, “which becomes the most important fact of of all when problems or questions related to the product come up.”

This is an astute point, and especially apt in regards to tech products. Not only are tech products pricey, but addressing tech oriented problems is usually beyond the expertise of most owners. As a result, if there’s any one industry where customer service should be afforded more weight when putting together a product review or stacking two rival products against one another, it’s the tech industry.

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In this regard, Apple reigns supreme. Over the last 14 years, Apple has elevated customer service into a science. Today, the company stands shoulders above the competition when it comes to alleviating the stresses that accompany a faulty tech product.

There are a few overarching reasons behind Apple’s stellar customer service that are worth highlighting.

First off, Apple retail stores are everywhere. Across the globe, Apple has 454 retail stores, with 265 in the United States alone. As a result, Apple’s retail infrastructure provides a welcome layer of convenience for users who need to bring a product in to be examined. This is infinitely more helpful than the alternative other companies provide — tech support via the phone.

To Apple’s credit, impeccable customer service was one of the key driving forces behind the creation of Apple’s retail stores. This isn’t something Apple haphazardly discovered. From the get go, the Genius Bars within Apple stores were positioned as an integral part of the overall user experience, enabling users to seek and receive support for both hardware and software problems. Underscoring Apple’s longstanding commitment towards customer service, the man responsible for Apple’s retail initiative, Ron Johnson, once referred to the Genius Bars as the “heart and soul of our stores.”

To wit, here’s a video of Steve Jobs introducing the first ever Apple Store back in 2001. Not surprisingly, he takes some time to tout the benefits of the store’s Genius Bar.

“Wouldn’t it be great if when you went to buy a computer, or after you bought a computer, if you had any questions, you could ask a genius?”, Jobs asks. “Well that’s what we’ve got… There will be somebody here who can do service right in the store and who can answer any questions you’ve got about your Mac or about any of the peripherals or software that work with it. And so, we’re hoping this is going to be an entirely new thing.”

In contrast, when consumers purchase tech products that aren’t from Apple, sometimes even figuring out who to call when something goes wrong can be an exercise in frustration. Even in cases where a manufacturer is willing to work with you to resolve an issue, there’s the added hassle of identifying or fixing problems over the phone, not to mention the headache involved with shipping back a damaged item for repair.

On to the second point: Apple retail stores only specialize in one thing — fixing Apple products. This stands in stark contrast to a service outfit like, say, Geek Squad where those beloved geeks need to be responsible for any type of hardware or software problem that’s tossed their way. In instances where the Geek Squad can’t get the job done, they’ll typically outsource it to a third party repair service.

Recently, I was unfortunately able to witness Apple’s commitment to customer service first hand. Not too long ago, I had to sadly make an appointment at an Apple Store when my iMac went bust. It goes without saying that a faulty computer can be a harrowing experience, especially when there’s important or sentimental data on the line. But Apple’s customer service was so smooth, the employees so helpful, that an otherwise stressful situation was made a lot more manageable.

From start to finish, the process was simple, friendly, and extremely consumer focused. For starters, setting up an appointment with the Genius Bar via Apple’s online website was intuitive and easy. I was given the option to pick a specific day and a time that worked best for me.

Upon arriving to the Apple Store on the day of said appointment, the store’s resident hipster/greeter asked what brought me in. I told him I had an appointment and within 1 minute I had a seat at a table. Not more than a few minutes later, my 11 a.m appointment got started at 11:05, pretty impressive given that the Genius Bar was extraordinarily packed at one of Chicago’s busiest downtown locations.

From there, a friendly Genius took stock of the problem, diagnosed a faulty logic board as the culprit, ordered the new parts in from his iPad, and said I could expect a call to pick up my repaired machine in 3-5 days.

As promised, I got a call 5 days later notifying me that my computer was ready for pickup. I was in and out of the store in less than 5 minutes, my problem completely solved.

Tech products are bound to malfunction, it’s a simple fact of life. That said, knowing that there’s a place where one can go and have products serviced in person is tremendously reassuring, especially when some products cost a couple hundred dollars at the very least.

At the other end of the customer service spectrum, Chen’s NYT article focuses on his frustrations in dealing with Samsung’s customer service over a faulty oven he had purchased, an ordeal which dragged on for an excruciating five months.

“The entire experience made me realize that I had been blindsided,” Chen writes. “How, in my many hours of reading product reviews on websites, had I missed the part about service? I searched far and wide on the web and realized it was practically impossible to reliably research a company’s customer service quality.”

While customer service ratings do exist for some companies, these are often completely separate from the actual product reviews. This is somewhat odd when you think about it.

An executive from J.D. Power that Chen reached out to noted that the company keeps product and customer service reviews separate as to not “muddy the waters by bundling them together.”

The reality, though, is that these two items are inextricably tied together, something that most consumers don’t typically realize until something goes horribly wrong.

Apple critics love to talk about the Apple Tax, the idea that Apple users needlessly pay more for a product when suitable and cheaper alternatives are abundant. Such arguments are misguided as they tend to focus more on technical specifications while wholly ignoring other metrics such as build quality, resale value, and yes, customer service.

Incidentally, of the 60 companies that appeared on J.D. Power’s list of 2014 Customer Service champions, less than a handful are tech companies. Notably, both Apple and Amazon made the cut.

While Apple’s bank account has swelled to nearly $200 billion on the back of innovative products like the iPod and the iPhone, the company’s incredible customer service has similarly played an instrumental and pivotal role in that success.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.