Apple's Retail Lesson

The company's strong performance isn't just about strong products; it's about a meticulously managed customer experience.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

May 19, 2011

5 Min Read

Apple's retail operation turns 10 today. It's been a good run. The company recently welcomed its billionth visitor to its 325 retail stores. During the quarter that ended in March, it saw a record 71.1 million visitors in its stores, 51% more than the 47 million who visited in the same quarter a year earlier. Apple plans to open 40 more stores this year, most of them outside the U.S.

Much has been said about the advantage Apple has in its tight control of hardware. But Apple's meticulously calibrated retail experience matters just as much.

Offering a superior customer experience may be a goal for any business--many fall short--but there's also a lesson here for corporate IT.

The consumerization of IT, a trend that has reshaped the corporate computing landscape over the past decade, can be seen as flight from a poor customer experience. Leave employees on underpowered hardware running Windows XP, and they're going to seek better computing elsewhere, perhaps on Apple's iPad or maybe even Google's forthcoming Chromebooks.

IT managers worry about losing control as users flee clunky corporate systems for consumer ones, but it doesn't have to be that way. Apple's retail operations demonstrate that control and customer satisfaction can coexist quite nicely. In fact, Apple's management of its stores shows that satisfying customers leads to control--they remain loyal and keep coming back.

I'll offer a personal example. My 2008 Mac Pro had a near-death experience recently. The 40-pound beast survived, and the incident left me with a greater appreciation for Apple's attentive customer service.

The problem first manifested itself in the form of graphical glitches. My desktop looked as if it had been disassembled into square tiles and presented as a puzzle. A pass of the Disk Utility program seemed to fix everything.

But the following morning, the computer wouldn't start. To be more precise, it would start but not complete the boot process. The spinning activity indicator would simply freeze before the desktop appeared.

I attempted to boot from the Mac OS X system installation DVD, but that produced a crash every time. I was able to boot in single-user mode, which offers the Unix command line prompt rather than the familiar graphic interface. I tried the fsck disk repair application, as Apple recommends. Although the software indicated that some repairs had been made, the computer still would not boot into the standard Mac OS X graphic desktop.

I wasn't particularly worried that I would lose all my data, which I had backed up on an internal hard disk and two different external ones. But I became convinced there was a hardware problem when I was able to access the Mac Pro's two internal hard drives by booting in Target Disk Mode, which via firmware makes the internal drives accessible through the FireWire port.

I tried the Apple Hardware Repair application, which came with the Mac Pro's original system discs. I ran it twice, and it didn't report any hardware problems. So having exhausted my diagnostic abilities, I made an appointment through Apple's website to visit a nearby Apple Store Genius Bar. This process was far more convenient that calling to make an appointment.

Getting a computer repaired has never been easy. When I have dealt with hardware failures in the past, it has often taken weeks to resolve the problem, either through the arrival of replacement hardware or the completion of repairs.

Two Apple Geniuses helped me, and as much as I'm tempted to poke fun at them for a job title that's impossible to live up to, they were both knowledgeable and personable. They listened as I described my troubleshooting and quickly came to the conclusion that the problem was probably related to the graphics card.

After one of them installed a new graphics card ($129, no labor charge), my Mac Pro was back, good as new. The whole process took about 30 minutes. In other words, it was about as good as the computer repair experience can be.

If IT organizations can deliver that kind of experience, they're in good shape--they'll find their users more compliant and more satisfied. They will have more control because their users will be happy. That may sound simplistic but it's the core of any good IT organization.

If they can't deliver, they must look carefully into how they can make their users happier. That might mean spending money to give employees better gear than they have at home, or jettisoning that wiki no one uses because it's designed for enterprise buyers' feature checklists rather than for actual usability. That might mean reevaluating whether it's really necessary to standardize on a specific operating system, browser, or hardware configuration. That might mean looking at whether Web apps might actually work as well as desktop apps or whether a Web-based email service, with enough storage for decades of messages, serves employees better in the long run than an on-premises system with barely enough disk space to contain three months worth of messages.

Almost any IT organization can find ways to give its people what they want more effectively, without crossing policy or regulatory boundaries and without breaking the bank.

There are several reasons Apple's hardware sales are growing at a time when other PC makers are seeing their sales decline. One of those reasons is Apple's retail strategy, which has proved to be so successful that Microsoft decided it needed retail stores of its own and began opening them in 2009. Apple's strategy is based on customer service. And when executed well, it's a winning strategy for any organization.

Recommended Reading: Consumerization And Cloud: IT Isn't Keeping Up IT Managers Can't Be Drill Sergeants Can Consumer Tech And Security Co-Exist? Consumerization Of IT: How To Support All These Gadgets 2011 End User Device Survey Consumerization Of IT: How To Make It Work For You See more by Thomas Claburn

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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