Steve Jobs, My Fruit Vendor and How to Keep Customers

A Lesson in How Transformative an Apology (and Customer Service) Can Be

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It's almost as if Steve Jobs was channeling my fruit vendor. First, they both totally annoyed their customer bases -- in Jobs' case, his Apple acolytes, in my fruit vendor's case, me.
Steve Jobs treated his iPhone early adopters as valued customers when he apologized for a $200 price reduction.
Steve Jobs treated his iPhone early adopters as valued customers when he apologized for a $200 price reduction. Credit: AP

Jobs did this by basically saying "Sucker!" to his overpaying early adopters, while my fruit vendor busily tried to persuade me to buy two pounds of tomatoes when I'd only asked for one, and went so far as to put a couple of mushy ones into the pile, as if I wouldn't notice them oozing. Puh-lease.

Then, the next day, Jobs realized: "I was a jerk!" Or at least: "People think I was a jerk!" which, in marketing, is worse. So he made amends. And if the one iPhone buyer I spoke to is any indication, all was forgiven. As the buyer, Baltimore psychotherapist Daniel Buccino, said, "At first I felt gypped. I had bought my phone literally a week before the announcement. But the next day, when he said, you know, he really botched it" -- that was enough to get back in the therapist's good graces.

As for my fruit man, he did not deny culpability (pulpability?) when I removed the bad tomatoes he was trying to foist upon me. He simply bagged up the others and, just as I was about to walk off, he presented me -- and my son -- with a free banana.

Apples. Bananas. Same story: We who'd been peeved initially were suddenly charmed by a vendor willing to apologize and treat us like valued customers. And considering that this was right after we'd been treated as totally unvalued customers just goes to show you how transformative an apology can be, and how really good customer service can change a whole relationship.

So why isn't every company doing this -- making the customer feel important or cherished or even better, right?

Part of the reason, says Dov Seidman, author of "How" and CEO of LRN, is that companies think that if they simply provide a good or service, they've done their job. But today, goods and services are commodities. It's how you provide them that sets you apart.

Seidman cites a hospital that was worried about all of its malpractice suits. It decided to try something radical: Instead of clamming up, it had its doctors start apologizing when they did something wrong.

Rather than giving ammo to its antagonists, this led to a whopping 50% reduction in lawsuits. How come? Seidman says most of the patients were just dying to hear those three magic words: "I was wrong." (Those words work magic in a marriage, too.)

And speaking of marriage, relationships -- even commercial ones -- work best when the partners feel like equals.

"I don't think 15 minutes is a long wait," said Russel Thompson, a top hair colorist in San Francisco. But if it's any longer, he'll offer a free manicure or bottle of shampoo. With this always comes an apology. Is it any wonder his customers keep coming back?

Some restaurants and doctors' offices have started taking waiting time into account too, says Elaine Berke, founder of EBI Consulting. Rather than making their patrons just sit there stewing, they'll take a cellphone number and call when everything's set. And, again, they'll apologize. If only airlines would do the same!

The fact that we have come to accept the stewardess barking, "WE CANNOT TAKE OFF UNTIL EVERYONE IS SEATED!" -- as if it's our fault we're four hours behind schedule -- just illustrates how accustomed we've become to callousness, says St. Louis University associate marketing professor Mark Arnold.

The company that trains its employees to be a little more sympathetic, apologetic and ready to treat us like people they might actually see again ... will!
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