Last Sunday afternoon, I was returning from a family camping trip to Maine and encountered what can only be described as blood-curdling hideous traffic. My children, who had spent much of the day in the sun, were exhausted and…to put it mildly, cranky. Fortunately, I had two iPads charged up and loaded with some of their favorite movies. All would be fine…
Except one of the iPads failed to play any of the movies! I pulled over. I Googled the problem. I called friends. I prayed. No luck… Needless to say, the rest of the trip was tough. After two bathroom breaks, one stop for drinks, another stop for ice cream, and 180 painful minutes of total transit time for the 75-mile journey, we successfully arrived home in tact. Irrational as it was, I directed my frustration at Apple.
That evening, I logged on to book an appointment at the local Apple Store to meet with a Genius. No dice. The next available appointment was almost a week away. Hmm, that’s odd. I’ve had technical issues before but they usually can accommodate a visit to the Genius Bar within a day or two. Was this a sign of Apple’s success as its customer ranks swelled? Or perhaps an indication of diminishing product quality? I couldn’t tell, and frankly, didn’t care.
The next morning at 1001am (the store opened at ten o’clock), I walked into a relatively empty store that had about 20 staff on duty. Greeted at the door by a friendly face to whom I explained the problem, I was rapidly directed to another person who was taking same-day Genius Bar appointments.
I waited in line for 10 minutes behind other irate customers, only to be told “It will take 90 minutes or so to see a Genius.” While waiting, I had my first and only positive surprise of the whole experience. Someone came and got me after about 20 minutes. Hurray!
The “genius” who tried to help was anything but. He was overconfident, condescending, and entitled. At one point while he had nothing to do, I asked him if he could check my iPhone to see why it was having trouble holding its charge. “You’ll need to get in line for another appointment.” Here I was sitting in front of him, he had nothing to do, I had nothing to do, I had a problem, he may have had an answer, but he wouldn’t help.
A typical bureaucratic reaction given the size to which Apple had grown? Possibly. About a decade ago, I wrote my dissertation about the tradeoff between scale and differentiation and this seemed to be a perfect case in point. As Apple grew, it was losing the magic touch of making a customer feel special. I felt like a number in a system, whereas five years ago I remember a very different retail experience. The blunt reality is that I know I am a number... I just don't like being made to feel like one.
Oh well, it’s ok, I had plenty of iPad-related questions. “The HD movies I own take up a ton of space on an iPad. How can I download SD versions to maximize the number of movies I can fit on the iPad?”
I was met with a blank stare, so I asked again. He responded with “Are you asking me if you can download something you didn’t buy?” He then answers bluntly, “No, you can’t do that. If you bought HD, you can only download HD…I’m certain.” Certain?!? That’s a bold statement, I thought. He reiterated: “Absolutely certain.”
Next question: “It’s frustrating for my children to see all the videos I’ve purchased on the iPad. Is it possible for them to just see the ones that are on the device?” He pauses, thinks, seems to search online for something, and comes back with “Nope. All iTunes purchases are stored in the cloud and they all show up in the videos section so you can download them. There is no way to do what you want.” I explained to him that friends of mine managed to do it… to which he rapidly replied, “Well, maybe you should ask them.”
Needless to say, I stopped asking for help. Instead, I called my friends and spent 10 minutes fiddling to figure out how to do what he said wasn’t doable (FYI: I succeeded!). I then asked another employee about downloading SD versions of HD movies. She spent somewhere between 25 and 35 seconds showing me how to do it. Very easy once explained, and absolutely doable!
The one thing my “genius” actually did do was to determine the iPad I had wasn’t working. Resetting it to factory settings was the only action that would work (so he claimed); after he deleted and reset the iPad, I spent several hours reinstalling apps and downloading videos. It's totally unclear to me if any of this was actually necessary.
All in all, the whole interaction was beyond distasteful. It also got me wondering, has Apple simply been too successful to maintain the quality experience its customers have come to expect? Are they able to scale and also stay differentiated?
As for my specific experience, it’s just one data-point, I admit. Maybe I just drew a bad apple? But perhaps my data-point is an indicator of a worm within the apple…silently eating away at the differentiated experience that typifies Apple. The thing is, success often sows the seeds of failure. Wall Street demands growth, employees demand growth, and after years of growth, the law of large numbers presents a formidable challenge.
While it's possible my experience was completely anomalous and the Apple machine still works perfectly, it might also be possible that my Genius Bar experience is an early warning sign of greater issues forthcoming. Having a dedicated group of Apple zealots working at the Genius Bar is a strategy that simply won’t scale. New recruits are less likely than prior generations to be as passionate about the brand and are potentially less knowledgeable, quite possibly turning the Genius Bar from a source of advantage into a vulnerability.
I’m beginning to hedge my bets: I recently bought an Amazon Kindle Fire and have been pleasantly surprised. But I also purchased an Apple Watch.
I continue to be a fan of Apple products (I recently purchased an Apple Watch)…in no small part because the entire Apple ecosystem effectively “locks” you in through seamless integration, ease of use, etc. It's really nice to have my content synced across my phone, laptop, iPad and even TV, for instance. It's also hard to find a better system (at this point). But the high expectations built into the cult of Apple seem destined to disappoint. The question is: Will it matter?