How Apple Is Blurring the Line Between Marketing and Service

Pete Blackshaw Explains Why Consumer-Facing Brands Can Benefit From Better Customer Interaction

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
"How can I help you, and where would you like to go?"

In this simple greeting, there's a huge question: Are the greeting and the experience that follows marketing or service or both?

In the last couple of months, Apple has boosted the number of "concierges" who greet and direct shoppers as soon as they walk in the door of its retail stores. Apple has always had employees at the front, ready to help, but this time it is positioning an eager-to-please offensive line a few steps from the doorway.

These employees don't wait until you look utterly confused to ask you what you need. They intercept you -- though not intrusively and always with a smile. The concierge in the orange shirt, Apple writes in its popular website, "is your guide to the Apple Retail Store, ready to answer your questions and point you in the right direction."

What's going on here and what can we learn? First, it goes without saying that Apple is redefining and reshaping the retail experience via the company's growing roster of stand-alone stores. But there's something even bigger going on here, akin to how online show retailer is turning the traditional rules of e-commerce upside down.

Things once considered the dark side of Apple, such as tech support, are on the verge of becoming strategic assets, with the Apple Store's geek-stocked Genius Bar able to tackle just about any issue or concern your have. And the process of planning that interaction is more akin to scheduling a haircut or spa treatment than calling those inaccessible tech-support lines.

In my most recent interaction, which centered on a broken video iPod, it took me about 15 minutes to get to my seat at the bar. After multiple rapid-fire tests, the Genius helper concluded my well-exercised MP3 player was toast and laid out a rather simple replacement process. Along the way I tossed in a few unrelated questions, which he gleefully, patiently answered.

Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, there's an unmistakable "service is marketing" mantra pervading every aspect of the Apple Store. And that's something every brand, even those not as shiny as Apple's, can learn from. The opportunity to solve problems, find solutions and even address "the darn thing doesn't work" emotional pain-points all lead to a higher impact-marketing and sales proposition. While not every marketer has a Steve Jobs-inspired vision, every consumer-facing company has problems that can be converted into opportunities to inspire loyalty.

In the case of the "service concierges," they are not waiting for problems. They assume you arrive at the Apple Store looking specifically for something, and in most cases they are right. And even if serendipity is your cup of tea, they'll help you navigate that experience as well. What's important about this front line is not just the help these employees provide, but the halo of service they create. They are there if you need them, a reality that brings more confidence to the overall shopping experience.

Joey Dunn, a University of Cincinnati video-production student who enthusiastically helped me out in the front of the store, noted he's not driven by sales commissions or even pressure to credit a sale to the particular store. "As long as it's helping Apple," he noted. He did acknowledge that employees receive discounts on products, although he refused, with state-secret mystique common to Apple culture, to say just how much. "Let's just say they take care of me."

More important, their presence reminds consumers that the Apple brand has authority, expertise and, of course, a certain level of geeky yet accessible passion that lures fans to the brand.

"They hire people who are extremely familiar with the product," explained Pat Henry, a Ford engineer and iPhone-equipped Apple enthusiast who I interviewed outside the store. "They then use that knowledge and expertise as leverage in the sales process. By doing this they can actually sell more effortlessly."

It's no coincidence that other brands are paying attention. Sony is borrowing many of the same tactics in Sony-only stores -- and others may be well-served by doing likewise. Henry, with characteristic Apple evangelism (or bias), called out a host of "opportunities" for Best Buy, for instance. "The employees simply work off spec sheets and simply don't know what they are talking about," she said.

Now in fairness to the Apple-aggrieved, the brand is not perfect and there's no shortage of tough-love from consumers about Apple 1-800 lines and other dimensions of online tech support. As an Apple user myself, I do think those have improved, but not to the level of excellence that exists at the Apple Store. I'd also be lying if I didn't profess my disappointment, even dismay, over having to actually pay a premium for faster-response (and more patient, I presume) phone support.

Still, Apple is introducing some important new lessons and questions for marketers:

  • Service is marketing. As marketers struggle to "engage" consumers, service may well be the easiest and most gratifying starting point -- and one with high sales conversion potential.
  • Problems are opportunities. Tech support is an emotional experience -- so why not capitalize on that insight by openly and enthusiastically solving problems, giving reassurance and showing compassion for the pain and frustration. A satisfied consumer might just buy something else while making the trip.
  • Employee authority and passion aids selling. When employees "walk the talk" in using the product they sell, credibility goes up -- and credibility drives persuasion. Passion and evangelism also move the needle.
Should we all take a bite of out of this Apple? Even a nibble might help.

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Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of the forthcoming book, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000" (Doubleday). He's a former co-leader of P&G interactive marketing, the founder of and co-founder of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). This is the first of a bi-weekly column looking at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control. Pete's blogs include and
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