Customer service at scale, part I: Why I'm an Apple customer for life

Image lifted from The Iphone Blog
Image lifted from The Iphone Blog

Yes, I can probably be classified as an Apple fanboy. But if you know me, you know my allegiance doesn’t come easy. For my purposes, Apple produces the best computer and phone technology available. But there are lots of companies that produce good technology — It is my human interactions with Apple that make me a loyalist. My experience in buying the new 3G S Iphone is one of, if not the most memorable I’ve had:So we all know that Apple did an exclusive devil’s deal with AT&T, who will be the counterpoint part II in this series on customer service at scale. (For that reason, I’ll be shortcutting some of the AT&T story here, and will link to the second post in the series when it is published.) I had three iPhone lines with AT&T: Two (the one for my wife and the one our sales reps use to demo our iPhone App) were due for the originally announced upgrade pricing. Mine was not, although after I preordered, AT&T revised its policy, making it eligible. At any rate, I ordered 3G S phones on the eligible accounts, planning to port one to my line, something AT&T had publicly said was kosher.
The two iPhones arrived via FedEx yesterday, and when I plugged mine in it was, unsurprisingly, tied to the sales phone line and not mine. I called AT&T to resolve, and although they had no business issue with what I was doing, after almost 90 minutes on the phone, they were unable to successfully assign one of the SIM cards in my possession to the new phone. They directed me to an AT&T retail store.
I should note that my line transfer scheme was not that unusual– something many were doing, as indicated in Apple support forums. It was also completely avoidable, as AT&T had changed its policy in the short term between my order and the product release, making it unnecessary, but unavoidable, post-order.
After nearly an hour wait at the AT&T store, the rep there almost smugly told me that all I needed was a new sim card, which he provided post-haste. He assured me it would work, but said that if it didn’t, my only recourse would be with Apple. I left hopeful, as my existing phone stopped working as soon as he activated my new SIM, something that hadn’t happened while on the phone with AT&T.
But, on returning to my office and trying to activate, it was still tied to the wrong number.
I went online and saw that the first Genius Bar appointment available at a local Apple Store was three days away. I gritted my teeth and went down to the store to wait.
I arrived to find that they were not taking anyone for the Genius Bar so they could focus on iPhone sales. Although the lines were shorter than last year, there were about twenty people waiting at 5 PM; five cops guarding the door; and a full store.
My meaningless test of Iphone 3G S video on the way home from the Apple Store

I explained my issue to one of the employees running the line, noting that waiting the whole weekend without cell service or access to my iPhone apps was not a good solution (compounded by the fact that my AT&T U-verse service was down, leaving me with no home phone). A manager overheard me, pulled me aside and started trying to solve the problem.
I should note that in addition to the iPhones in my hand, I was carrying my MacBook — not as any kind of explicit “I’m a great Apple customer” chest-thump, but as an opportunity to get work done while waiting in any lines that materialized. Still, it may have impacted the manager’s reaction. It should have.
From the start, the manager made clear that following standard decision paths, they couldn’t help me. I had bought the phone online and protocol was to return online purchases to rather than the retail store. And the problem was really AT&T’s problem, although Apple could solve it by starting over with a new phone.
Still, she walked me to the back of the store and made an attempt to scan a return on my packing slip for the new phone. No dice.
She asked where I bought my old 3G phone. When I told her that I’d bought it at an Apple Store, she went to the computers and tried to find it in their system. Wasn’t there.
Still, she didn’t give up. She asked enough questions to make me remember that the physical unit I had was given to me at the Apple Store as a no-questions-asked replacement when the phone I bought had a malfunction (something that I’ve found is unique to Apple as regards technology replacements). She looked it up and found it in their system.
So, what she did was take my 3G phone as a return, replacing it with a 3G S. This wasn’t easy– she managed it through machinations that included creating a gift card in the value of the phone return. While she was working on that, I chatted with several of the staffers who thought based on where I was sitting that I was an undercover cop. Regardless, it was clear that despite a long and stressful day, all of them were in good spirits and maintaining high energy.
After setting up the new phone, she patiently waited while I plugged it in to my laptop to confirm that the right number was recognized. When it worked, she jumped up and down with a smile and high-fived me.
I started the day with a new iPhone 3G S and an old iPhone 3G. Because of the specific solution she improvised and tested along the way, I left with two new iPhone 3G S units. I asked was she sure she wanted to do that. She smiled, winked and shrugged: “My goal is to get your phone working and that’s the only way I can do it right now. And I’m sorry you’ve had such a hard time. It’s OK.”
I was in the store less than a half an hour.
Now you might dismiss this as an example of a single great manager, or even as an employee going renegade. But this is just the most recent and most dramatic example of what I’ve seen consistently from Apple: They may make bad deals with AT&T; they may have an opaque and frustrating app development approval process — but at the end of the day, every Apple employee I have ever encountered has taken the attitude that job one is taking care of the customer, and fast. No matter what. Even if the solution required isn’t in the handbook.
And, as I mentioned at the outset, Apple makes great products. Yesterday was an opportunity for me to forget that due to frustration with activation. Instead, I’m enjoying my lightning-fast new iPhone and am rededicated to doing business with a company that for years, has always gone out of its way to take care of me. I realize that may not be purely magnanimous — I hope it’s not. It’s just good business.

NB: My extra 3G S is for sale here.

Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.

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