Customer service isn't dead

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It’s easy today to wring your hands and really despair over the state of customer service by America’s retailers. There are plenty of examples of disinterested, couldn’t-care-less service practices that pop up every day. But things aren’t as bad as they might seem. Customer service is offered at a very high level in some places ­— just visit your friendly Apple computer store and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s refreshing if you’re a consumer and educational if you’re a retailer. First, a disclaimer: I’ve been an Apple guy since I bought my first computer 25 years ago. It was a MacIntosh SE, the third machine in the MacIntosh line. I never regretted that purchase, nor have I regretted any of the many Apple purchases I’ve made since then. Today, I’m a dedicated iPhone user — in fact, I do almost as much work for Dealernews and its website on my phone as I do on my laptop.

Back to my point: Apple has two things going for it. It knows how to meet market needs and it knows how to take care of its customers. Let’s talk about the latter.

A friend of mine, a dyed-in-the-wool PC user/owner, positively glowed recently in telling me about her experience at the Apple Store in the Mall of America.

“They were soooo helpful,” she said, as though helpfulness from a retailer had never been available anywhere before.

It turns out she was having problems with her new iPod and really didn’t expect to get any satisfaction when she contacted Apple customer service by e-mail. But she thought she would give it a try, anyway.

“I was talking with someone within five minutes of our scheduled time, and she was so nice. She spent about an hour and half on the phone with me.” There was no charge for the time.

Unfortunately, the service rep couldn’t resolve the problem. So, she made an appointment for my friend at the Mall of America Apple store in suburban Minneapolis, with a technician at Apple’s Genius Bar. Isn’t that a great tech term? “Genius” ­— that says it all.

I’ve used the Genius Bar several times, and it’s always been a delightful experience. (How often can you say that about customer service?) My friend felt the same way. Timely, friendly, helpful, economical and satisfying assistance. What more can one ask?

My friend arrived at the Apple Store and was pleasantly surprised at her reception. She was greeted immediately by an employee carrying a digital processor who logged in her arrival. Her name was posted on a digital message board at the Genius Bar and she could see that she was third in line. Within a few minutes of her scheduled time, she was called. “While I was waiting, two people asked if I needed help. I was amazed,” she says. The technician at the Genius Bar solved her problem in a few minutes and suggested a couple of interesting accessories, which she purchased.

Apple makes it easy to pay for your purchases. There’s no standing in line to deal with an overworked cashier. Each Apple employee on the floor can process credit card payments with their hand-held digital processor. There’s no waiting, and you get a printed receipt at the same time.

My friend is now switching from her PC laptop to a Mac, even though the Mac costs several hundred dollars more than the PC she was considering.

“They told me the best way was to build a machine that was basically customized to our needs,” she said. “The were so helpful and so well informed. And they answered all my questions.”

When was the last time one of your customers said that about your service? And willingly, eagerly, paid more for your product than a competitor’s because your service was so much better?

Here’s another example. A dedicated Mac owner had problems with his iPhone shortly after the warranty had expired. Some of the screen pixels didn’t work. He took it to his local Apple store, along with his credit card, expecting to shell out for a replacement.

Another surprise. “They gave me a brand new phone,” says my friend, still marveling over the service weeks later.

I’ve had similar experiences with Apple.

Three customer-buying experiences. Three great service experiences. Three loyal customers willing to pay a premium based on better customer service. Sound attractive?

First Impressions

Walk into an Apple store. It’s about products, yes, but it’s about lifestyle, excitement and imagination.

The Apple store is one giant room, with the Genius Bar located at the back and surrounded by areas dedicated to accessories and software.

The rest of the space is filled with tables loaded with products, each one hooked up and ready to go. You’re free to play to your heart’s content. And that’s what visitors do. Then, when they’re satisfied, they buy. You’ll see grade-school kids and grandparents all playing happily with products. And when they have a question, there’s an Apple rep at hand with the answer.

Just one last example. When I visited my Apple store in February, I asked an employee about the new iPad laptop. It would be available in April, he said. Would I like to sign up for an e-mail announcement? Sounded like a bit of a hassle, but he stepped to a nearby laptop that was hooked to the Internet, punched in my e-mail address, and I was good to go. I received my e-mail notice April 2, as promised.

Selling computers isn’t the same as selling motorcycles, but good customer service is good customer service, any way you slice it.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews May 2010 issue.