Retail Can't See the Apples Through the Trees

Say what you will about Apple and I can say plenty but if there’s one thing they understand better than anything else, it’s tailoring the user experience. Perhaps nowhere else is this more apparent than in their branded retail stores. Sean Sands from the awesome Gamers With Jobs wrote an interesting piece on this subject. Like myself, he’s a die-hard PC guy but as his wife is in graphic design, she’s a heavy Mac user. After an unfortunate incident involving fruit juice and her MacBook’s keyboard, they were forced to make haste to their local Apple store for assistance. What Sean describes next is what sounds like a blissful masterpiece of customer service design and execution. If you want more of the details, check his article out, it’s a good read.

I’ve never bought anything from an Apple store but I have been in them and seen how they operate and it is very impressive. My employer also does some work for their Canadian locations and I’ve heard our staff comment on how much better customers are treated there. Some say that it depends on the store and that in others, the “Geniuses” are actually anything but overall, I think they definitely aim for a high standard. A few years ago, I worked for another electronics retailer with just a few more locations, Best Buy or more specifically, the Geek Squad. In my two and a half years there, I went through several job titles and sets of responsibilities but through all that, I was in positions where I was interacting directly with customers. I always made a point of being friendly, courteous, knowledgeable and if I couldn’t answer a question, saying so and doing my best to get the information needed. I tried to inspire this behaviour to my co-workers but as I spent more time at the company and learned of its real goals, I knew this was a fleeting pursuit. My morale dove off a cliff shortly thereafter.

In the modern retail world, the stated focus is on great customer service but in reality, the focus is on selling you as much stuff as quickly as possible and trying to provide a good service experience along the way. If you don’t, customers in general have short memories and are being accustomed to expect being treated like cattle so they won’t ultimately mind much. The general corporate mindset of today is “meet your numbers no matter what, we’ll deal with what happens after the quarterly results later” and that reflects in the average retail experience. Apple understands very well that if you treat your customers like gold now, the loyalty and respect you earn from them will provide greater returns in the long run than simply fleecing them as much as possible and shoving them out the door. Apple’s astounding success in recent years is all the proof we need. Granted, there is a lot more to Apple’s image and success than how their retail experience is and many have tried and failed to prove up to now that just “being like Apple” isn’t at all a simple thing to do. It’s also much easier to hit your revenue and profit numbers (make no mistake, Apple stores are as heavily metrics focused as any other) when you’re selling computers that cost several hundred dollars more than they should on average.

With the tsunami of new customers Apple is acquiring in general, other retailers can’t afford to ignore how their experience compares to the Apple store. Not only can people go there for Apple products, they can go there for Apple products instead of another brand they also sell. The key is getting people to shop with you instead and Apple is proving that to many people, the lowest price isn’t necessarily all you need. Retailers do have the means to change their culture to be about putting the customer first and letting the profits flow from that. I can think of a few off the top of my head:

  • Taking away commission sales but also paying a good hourly wage with a strong bonus incentive based on customer feedback and not just sales targets. When you’re paying someone to sell electronics so little that they’ll never be able to afford to buy what they’re selling, it’s rare that you’re going to get an enthusiast who is passionate and knowledgeable about the product.
  • Employee training on how to make customers happy, not on how to just find ways to weave more upsells into the conversation. Make sure they know it’s OK to not know the answer to something and say you need to get more information.
  • An easy to access, fast and current information resource on the products you’re selling and a way to ask for answers if you don’t know something. Being able to access the consumer facing web site on the cashier terminals isn’t good enough. Having a chat-based salesperson support staff with fast research skills would be really good.
  • Better (i.e. not horrible) warranty and return programs. Anyone who has had to have something repaired or replaced under an extended warranty plan knows what I’m talking about. The experience is horrendous and only because it’s cheaper for it to be that way. Your margins are already very high on these programs, accept a little bit less and get properly trained people and a consistent, reliable and fast service pipeline.
  • Make the salespeople and techs partners, if not the same job. At Best Buy, the techs hated the salespeople because they always overpromised and created unfair burdens on them and the salespeople hated the techs because they were often rude to customers (due to being stressed out) and never got things done quick enough. The culture needs to change so that both types are taught to work together and that one’s actions affect the other’s. Ideally, the entire staff should be skilled in both trades so they can interchange easily but that’s a tough undertaking.
  • Sell them the product first and all the other stuff after. The biggest problem at big box retail is that the experience has not become about selling you the product you need but all the overpriced accessories, warranties and setup services to accompany it. That’s because the profit margins on these additions is often orders of magnitude greater than that on the product itself. One of my old Best Buy managers used to say “If you don’t sell something else with this computer, it cost us more to pay you to complete the sale than we made from it.” This needs to stop. There’s nothing wrong with recommending stuff the client might need but if you make that the focus of your sale rather than getting them the right product, you’re burning potential loyalty.
There is of course one major problem that all of these issues share: They’ll cost a bunch of money to fix. In the current business climate of “next quarter is all that matters”, this is a hard step to take. Nonetheless, it’s what Apple does and they’re one of the biggest companies in the world so haven’t they already proven there’s merit in it? Fixing systemic problems sometimes requires some hurt up front but in the end, I think a strategy like this is better for the customer and ultimately, better for the company. Simply put retailers, you’re not beating Apple so you’d best join them while you still have a chance. I don’t see anything that’s going to make me switch to Mac any time soon but if I was, you’d be damn sure I’d be buying it from an Apple store and not from Best Buy.
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