Posted Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, at 8:08 AM
A Genius Bar employee at an Apple store opening at Via Rizzoli on Sep. 17, 2011 in Bologna, Italy.
Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images
A number of articles lately have attempted to convey the full measure of Apple’s unprecedented streak of business success. Perhaps the most mind-blowing factoid about the company’s value came yesterday from Kontra, via Twitter: At the time of his tweet, Apple’s market capitalization had exceeded that of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon—combined.
One reason for that phenomenal success is, of course, Apple’s products. Another is its customer service, namely the Genius Bar, where bright-faced young geeks win customers’ hearts and build brand loyalty that Apple’s competitors can’t match.
How do they pull off this “high-touch” approach? Gizmodo this week reported on a leaked copy of Apple’s training manual for Genius Bar employees. Sam Biddle summarizes: “Sales, it turns out, take a backseat to good vibes—almost the entire volume is dedicated to empathizing, consoling, cheering up, and correcting various Genius Bar confrontations.”
To wit, a section of the manual under the subheading “Empathy Exercise 2—Techniques” introduces “The Three Fs: Feel, Felt, and Found.” A sample conversation from the handbook:
Customer: This Mac is just too expensive.
Genius: I can see how you'd feel this way. I felt the price was a little high, but I found it's a real value because of all the built-in software and capabilities.
This tactic dovetails nicely with the section of the manual on things to avoid saying and doing. For instance: “Do not apologize for the business [or] the technology.” Instead, empathize: “I’m sorry you’re feeling frustrated,” or “too bad about your soda spill accident.”
Biddle’s fascinating post on the manual is worth reading in full. But while he reads Apple’s tactics as outlandish and creepy, if brilliant, I’d just call them brilliant. Of course the company wants employees to address tech problems without trash-talking Apple’s own products. Of course it wants them to make customers feel valued while not forgetting that the ultimate goal is to part them from their money. These are things that every company wants, and they are skills that come instinctively to great salespeople.
But when you’re a big company, it’s almost impossible to impart these skills to every single employee. Most don’t even try—they hand out a generic HR handbook that no one will read, mainly just to cover their butts. Apple’s manual, in contrast, reveals a firm so bent on maintaining customer loyalty that it will go to abnormal lengths to show its workers exactly how to behave in all situations.
The investment has helped Apple establish one of the all-time great business empires. But as Apple continues to grow, it will become harder for it to serve its customers well. The company today has some 300 retail stores in the United States, but far fewer in many fast-growing overseas markets. It’s difficult to imagine the company keeping up with demand for its Genius Bars without compromising on the quality of its service.
As it happens, the company has offered a glimpse into the Genius Bar’s future: “online specialists.” The online service, which is now available to customers in Brazil, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom, is meant for people serious about buying an iPad or iPhone. Through live chats, phone conversations, and “screencasts,” the online helpers guide them through the product’s features, answer questions, and even help them set up their new gizmos once they’ve made their purchase.
What it doesn’t offer is any tech support, which means this is not really an “online Genius Bar.” But online tech support is surely not far away. And if Apple wants to keep printing money, it had better start writing a manual for its online geniuses that’s just as devious as the one for the men and women who manipulate us in brick-and-mortar stores.