I need to declare an interest up front. I’m writing this on a Mac, I have an iPod, an iPhone and an iPad. My first ever computer was an old Macintosh and, after years of corporate life which forced me down the PC railroad, I was ecstatic to get back to the Church of Apple. Lately however, while still a believer, I’m beginning to experience some doubts and now I’m wondering whether Apple’s got just a bit too big for its rebellious nonconformist boots. Here’s why.
To me the big appeal of the Apple brand has always been the way they made things so easy. They took care of the horrible technology and all I had to do was show up and be creatively inspired (or more often not!).
When I had to use a PC after enjoying my first 2 years on a Mac, I nearly cried in despair. I couldn’t understand the complexity of all the directories. Everything was just so difficult and apart from the stupid time-wasting Solitaire game that came as part of the Windows package, I found it all a bit too much for my tiny brain. But needs must. I learned and eventually Windows became second nature, albeit a frustrating a complicated experience.
In contrast Macs were so great because they are intuitive. They work in a very easy to grasp way – they’re almost human! Certainly the user experience is human. Dragging things into folders to tidy them away. Clear and obvious icons. Nothing to worry about but what you wanted to create. And everything so aesthetically pleasing. Little wonder they became such a huge hit with creative people. The badge of honour of the non-business person. My friend Douglas Atkin in his book The Culting of Brands devotes a whole chapter to why Apple is a religious experience for creative people.
But now things are changing. Firstly the wonders of Apple’s almost perfect technology have been dealt a heavy blow by the debacle of the iPhone4 and its wonky antenna. This has come on top of some initial problems with early iPads around wireless capability. The iPad itself is arguably a contradiction of Apple’s own successful Mac vs PC advertising – unlike the fully loaded Mac ready to run when you take it out of the box, the iPad won’t run Flash, has no camera and no USB slot. I’ve never been a Flash fan and I don’t really care about the camera but I really do want that USB slot.
I don’t have an iPhone4 but iPhone 3GS is actually a pretty lousy phone. I can forgive that as I love the apps and the compatibility with everything else Apple I own. But why do I hardly ever get a decent signal? why does it keep dropping texts? why will it only re-try to send them manually? – and why does that battery last less than a day?
All these points could be temporary blips to be sorted with the next generation hardware and none of them counter the fact that Apple keeps on coming up with game-changing developments in every category it plays in. From iTunes and the iPod which opened up the digital music market, to the Genius Bar which transformed the retail experience, to the way Apple encouraged developers to populate its mobile devices with a plethora of applications that make the user experience so special.
But – and it’s a big but – there is a real risk that the wonderfully human experience of the Apple brand is also being trashed by a customer service experience that is anything but perfect. A Mac RAM and drive disaster caused me to have to go to not one but three Apple stores in quick succession. First of all I have nothing but praise for all the staff I met there – fantastic friendly people who went out of their way to help me and who have restored my Mac to working order – and a special thanks to Alfred at Westfield who convinced me to invest in an external hard drive just before my system crashed – he must have been hired for his psychic powers – he certainly saved my bacon!
No, my problem is the way you have to fit Apple’s idea of customer communication. You can’t use the Genius Bar without an appointment – no matter how willing you are to wait hours for a cancellation or a gap in the schedule – at least that’s the story in the London stores especially Westfield. You can book your appointment online but you can’t cancel it. This means the stores don’t know if they’ll get any no-shows and hence can accommodate the poor suckers who do turn up on spec.
The store phone numbers are a joke. I called the Westfield store 8 times across 2 successive days and each time got a recorded message that I was Number 9 in the queue, a ranking that didn’t improve no matter how long I hung on the line. I called Brent Cross four times and each time I navigated the call system I was greeted with the words “The other person has hung up”. Sorry Apple not good enough! I’d rather talk to someone in a Bangalore call centre than be unceremoniously dumped after navigating my way at my expense through your multiple choices. When I raised this with the lovely store staff they said “Well we’re really busy and there’s only one person upstairs answering the phone”. Excuse me Apple this is the 21st Century! Maybe call answering technology is not to your taste but a non-Apple experience that results in an answered call is better than the blind anger and frustration that results from your abject failure to answer the bloody phone!
Look this is a bit of a rant. I do love Apple. My Mac is now fixed and I’m so happy to have it back after a week on my HP laptop with its constant downloads of updates and interruptions and muddled directories and my inability to find anything I’m looking for. But as someone who believes in brands and has long rated Apple as one of the best of them, this is your yellow card Steve! A brand is not just about the physical product, breakthrough ideas and fabulous styling: it’s also about every touchpoint with the consumer. Most Apple fanatics have huge reserves of goodwill towards this most iconic and cultish of brands, so please don’t abuse that Apple – that way lies the graveyard of once great brands.
Funny that Apple always stood for creating (Think different!) and now with iPhones, iPads et al is this a move to consuming? And maybe the consequent flood of mass market consumers is what’s causing the human customer experience to look as though it’s in need of some creativity.