Customer Service Belongs to Operations, Not Marketing

How Apple Turned Problem-Fixing Into a Promotional Tool

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Have you ever been in an Apple retail store that wasn't crowded? There's a buzz in them that 's half movie premier and half bargain basement sale, yet there's new stuff to see only infrequently, and I don't think a promotional price has ever been glimpsed on a counter top. Yet the places have been packed even as our economic recovery has emptied other stores. Those Apple products sure must be the hottest things since sliced bread.

Maybe they are, but the buzzing stores are more the result of a brilliant piece of stagecraft, along with some customer-service decisions that every CMO should emulate over the presumption that social media is the way to deliver it. Apple does service in spite of technology, which enables it to turn a potential problem into a consistent benefit.

Here's how Apple does it:

  • People are in the stores for customer service, or at least a majority of them are, between appointments for the Genius Bar or walk-ins with questions for floor staffers. Apple encouraged this crowding by moving its customer service/tech support function onto the retail floor.

  • It calls its numbskull customers -- and not just the wiz kids behind the counter -- geniuses, because really smart people want to use Apple products. Some consumers just need friendly help, which they get very publicly at the bar. Would-be customers see this and are pleasantly reassured.

  • This transforms customer service into a promotional tool, making customer experiences more about enabling opportunities than fixing problems. The physical and conceptual openness of the Genius Bar creates a social context for this Apple approach to customer experience. The resulting buzz is positive, at least mostly.
Contrast this with the way support is handled elsewhere in the retail tech world. Best Buy's Geek Squad is isolated in its own little section at which the penitent must present their malfunctioning selves. I used to think that those staffers in M.I.B. white shirts and black ties were cool, but it sets them apart, as if only they are qualified to comprehend the errors of devices or users. They offer no real-time help, but instead take equipment and disappear into the temple, after working out the financial expense for buying their ministrations, of course.

You may buy something shiny and cool, but doing so could get you consigned to the Geeks. And there's no guarantee that they'll be able to figure out why one of a zillion different pieces of hardware or bits of software won't work. It's not a terribly encouraging offer.

How about all the service miasma that gets reported on Twitter? Something doesn't work and there's no obvious or easy way to get it fixed, so consumers post complaints and get apologetic replies from brand monitors (all in 140 characters or less). They're still stuck trolling FAQs, which may not work, or must dive into forums where the only guarantee is that they'll probably find other customers who are complaining about the lack of solutions to similar problems. That's about it, barring luck or "extraordinary" gestures from brands to fix the thorniest problems -- or the problems posted by people with the most online followers.

Service as a reward, not a right or benefit. It sure sounds like a convenient if not outright lazy way of putting out the brightest fires that are set by customers who've been handed lit matches by their brands.

Unhappy Apple customers Tweet, of course, but nowhere near as often as customers of other technology brands. As a matter of fact, Apple is all but absent from the kvetchsphere of social media (though I've noticed it felt compelled to start @AppStore, which means Flash compatibility isn't far behind). This isn't as radical as it might seem; only recently have we convinced ourselves that customer service is limited to the fixing-problems business. This has happened in large part because we marketers have discovered all of the P2P communicating going on across social-media platforms.

But service isn't a communications problem, and marketers can't provide it. Service belongs to operations; it's what your business does, not how you brand it. You're kidding yourself if you think your social monitoring reveals anything that your operations folks didn't either explicitly and purposefully cause or otherwise know would happen. All you can do is tell them how badly those choices sting. To claim the capacity to do anything about this reality through the communications tools available to you might play well at the next marketers' conference, but it's not the truth.

Apple knows that the truth for its brand is driven primarily by operations, which then enables its marketing. Its stores' approach to service, however imperfect, preempts or otherwise channels complaints by putting its service bay on the retail floor, which changes the dynamic in ways no online communication could. It makes its stores seem likely they're always buzzing, which is an immensely powerful marketing tool, too.

It's proof that even tech geeks are capable of genius.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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