My First Terrible Experience at the Apple Store

I don’t like the term “fanboy” but I’ve had it applied to me many times due to my preference for and, admittedly, advocacy for Apple products among my friends and family. I switched to the Mac at work back in 2002 because our Mac person left, and within a few years, all of the computers I owned were Macs. I still prefer them today, although I work more with Windows on a regular basis, and I’ll admit that Windows 8 and Windows 10 appeal to me more than 2000/XP ever did.  All this is to say that I’m firmly grounded in the Apple ecosystem, both on the OS X and iOS side of the house.

I have always loved the Apple Store. I remember when ours opened up here in Knoxville, and it is still the only store I will gladly walk into at the mall. Over the years I’ve had occasion to visit the Apple Store a handful of times to have Macs repaired, and in one instance replaced – perhaps a story for another time highlighting how great Apple customer service can be. But today I want to briefly explain how bad the Apple Store experience can be, as I recently had reason to take my 5 days old iPhone 6S Plus in to be looked at.

PERSONALIZED SERVICE AT THE GENIUS BAR, RIGHT?

I made my appointment at the Genius Bar using the Apple Store app, for the first available slot, around lunchtime two days later. For the next couple of days I anticipated walking into the store for the same individual, personal attention I’d received numerous times over the years. I knew the Apple Store is crazy crowded these days, but surely, if I’m making an appointment, especially two days in advance, I’d receive the same type of customer service I always had. It is, after all, one of the things Apple has proven a real differentiator in its retail experience compared to its competitors over the years.

I couldn’t have been more wrong, although I wouldn’t realize that until about 10 minutes into my appointment. Because everything started out the same – check in with the traffic cop employee, who notifies someone via their headset that I’m here, then a helpful Genius showed up to escort me over, not the Genius Bar, as it was packed, but to the side of one of the tables across from the bar. And for a few glorious minutes, I received the kind of customer service and personalized attention Apple is famous for. Until it became obvious that my problem wasn’t going to be resolved in 10 minutes, and the Genius’ next appointment showed up. 

If you have a problem that can be solved in under 10 minutes, you may still be able to walk out of the Apple Store feeling like you received targeted personal service. If, say, you have to restore your iPhone 6S Plus from an iCloud backup (15-20 minutes, minimum), what you will experience is a sort of frantic, start and stop, hold on while I check on this person kind of triaging that can probably be OK to terrible, but simply can’t be great.

For longer than an hour and a half, I was juggled along with at least 6 (I stopped trying to keep up with them) other Apple Customers by one frantic Genius moving between at least 2 locations. He’d come over to me for a minute or three, try something, start a process that could take another 10-30 minutes, then move onto another customer he was helping. And with up to 4 of us at any one time, the squeaky wheel got the grease, or in this case the attention of the Genius, as he seemed to be caught by the couple of customers he had over at the Genius Bar several times while I waited (not so) patiently over at the table where he’d started with me.

THE GENIUS DID THE BEST HE COULD WITHIN A BROKEN SYSTEM

Even though I was and continue to be extremely dissatisfied and disappointed with the experience I had at the Apple Store, I realized then an now that the individual Genius working with me was not to blame for the situation. He was polite and seemed genuinely interested in helping me, but he is working within a system that simply doesn’t afford him the ability to truly focus on an individual customer or problem they may be having for more than 10-15 minutes. 

I worked on the HelpDesk early on in my IT career. I know how difficult and stressful it can be to help people who come to you with something that isn’t working. Imagine trying to do the HelpDesk job, but instead of answering the phone and dealing with one customer with a problem, if you don’t get the first customer issue fixed within 10 minutes, you have to start putting the first customer on hold at what is hopefully a natural pause point, to work with a second customer, then a third, and a fourth if necessary, all the while cycling between them. Every shift from customer to customer, problem to problem, must have an impact on efficiency, not to mention the inherent time to resolution increase while 1-3 customers sit there waiting to receive attention again.

Within the confines of this insane situation, the Genius did the best he could, and it was obvious either he’s naturally good at placating frustrated people, or Apple does a good job of training its employees to say the best words in this type of situation to try to mollify someone who, quite reasonably, is tired of being put off and juggled like a ball in a circus act. I don’t fault this young man for the environment in which he’s working and the decisions that someone above his pay grade made to turn the Genius Bar into a frantic, disjointed assembly line.

APPLE KNOWS HOW BAD THINGS CAN BE

The day after my terrible experience at the Apple Store, I received a request to fill out a survey for it. I did so with as much bluntness and perhaps a bit more brevity as you find in this post. I noted that yes, I was willing to discuss the matter further if Apple needed to reach out to me, and sure enough, a couple days later, I received a phone call from someone at the local Apple Store.

We had a good conversation. Not a happy conversation, but a good one. I explained my history with Apple and the Apple Store in particular, and how frustrating the recent experience was. More than anything, I tried to convey that the experience made me feel like I was just a box to be checked off. The guy I spoke with was very apologetic about that and said that wasn’t at all what Apple wanted, and I get that.

I told him that after thinking about how absolutely packed the Apple Store is nearly all the time, I don’t know if there’s a good way for Apple to solve this problem. They can’t just hire more Geniuses – there’s no room for them or additional customers. I suppose they could double or quadruple the size of the store (assuming they could get the space) but that may just be a bandaid. I suggested exclusive appointments of a longer nature by default, but realized that would necessarily extend the wait time for an appointment beyond the 2 days I had, and possibly as long as a week or more. The Apple employee noted that, especially given the critical role an iPhone and other Apple devices play in people’s lives, asking them to wait a week for an appointment would likely just result in even more walk-in customers who are unaware of or choose to ignore the appointment reservation system. He said they do their best to accommodate walk-ins, but increased wait times would make it even worse.

He asked if I was aware of AppleCare’s telephone support, and noted that many issues they help with in store can be resolved over the phone. I told him I was, but as someone with a lot of years in IT, I rarely called any type of support because for nearly anything phone support could help me with, I usually find those solutions myself on the web. I also noted the Genius had, perhaps later in the process than I’d preferred, punted and simply swapped my iPhone 6S Plus for a replacement unit – so assuming that was actually necessary, phone support would’ve done me no good.

I thanked him for calling and I’d say our conversation was cordial and wistfully hopeful, but grounded in the reality that today, Apple has so many customers, especially iPhone customers (as I was in this case), that there is only so much that can be done logistically to improve this situation.

Moments of Awesome in the Midst of Frustration

Even while I was growing more dissatisfied and frustrated with the situation at the Apple Store, I paid attention to what was going on around me. It’s not like I had anything else to do other than get hungrier as my lunch hour came and went, after all. I observed a couple of really great interactions that helped then and now to remind me that Apple really does try to do customer service better than anybody.

The first involved a customer I’ll call Extremely Rude Old Dude. This guy was mad because his iPhone 6 (maybe 6S) wasn’t sending email from his Gmail account. His tone and demeanor were really off-putting, so much so that just as an observer of the poor Genius doing his best to help him, I found myself wanting to just say, “Hey buddy, how about you dial back the attitude a bit and cut this kid some slack while he’s trying to help you?” Being raised in the South, however, I didn’t say that to one of my elders, although I did keep thinking it. Through it all, however, the Genius kept his happy Apple game face on, and never once reacted to the rudeness he was dealing with. And you know what? By the time Rude Old Guy left, his problem was solved, and he even had Reachability explained to him so he understood it was there to help him, not a problem with his iPhone. I’d like to think if this guy had been a customer of mine, I could’ve been as nice and patient as the Genius helping him.

The second involved a customer I’ll call Tech-Savvy Grandma. She walked in with a white plastic MacBook and said she was giving it to her grandson and would like to have it wiped and have a fresh OS put on it. I just checked and this model of MacBook was discontinued in 2011, and her’s could’ve been older than that. So there’s no way it was under active warranty. But this is where Apple really shines. The Genius (the one helping me, in fact) just nodded, asked her to confirm there was no data on the MacBook she needed, and went to work. He connected the MacBook to the Apple Store network via Ethernet (I assume they have to use USB/Thunderbolt adaptors for newer Mac laptops), did a NetBoot, and installed the latest version of OS X that supported that device. She left happy with service I know she couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

Will It Get Any Better?

I don’t know. I kinda doubt it. If Apple had remained just a computer company, this wouldn’t have happened. Of course, Apple might not have survived or at least thrived as it has on the basis of the Mac and iPod alone, so who knows? But given the truly enormous customer base the iPhone has, not to mention the iPad, and continued growth on the Mac side while the rest of the PC industry declines, I don’t know that Apple can fix this problem. I just know I came away from it feeling reluctant to risk returning to the Apple Store to ask for help unless I had no other option, and that is not how I want to feel about it, and I know that’s not what Apple wants its usually very happy customers willing to pay a premium for its awesome products to feel.