Growing Pains: Trouble in Paradise?

A little while ago I penned a cheery piece on the transformation that Apple has undergone following Steve Jobs’s return to the company, citing the launch of the iMac as the pivotal moment – the point at which Apple stopped being “beleaguered” and started being “innovative” in commentators’ eyes again. And make no mistake – Apple has genuinely transformed itself in those seven odd years, with the establishment of a chain of retail outlets being a key part of this change, and one of the driving forces behind the growth in Apple’s market share (minor as it is) and, perhaps more importantly in the long run, mindshare too.

But I am now firmly of the opinion that there is trouble brewing, a state of mind brought about by a number of recent experiences, both personal and those recounted to me by friends and acquaintances, which indicate rather clearly that either Apple is straining under the pressure of growth, likely mostly caused by the iPod’s runaway success, or that it simply doesn’t care. I can only hope that it is the former.

It all sounds so hopeful – the stuff of architects and marketing departments’ wet dreams. My local Apple Store is one of Apple’s flagship branches, located just south of Oxford Circus on Regent Street in the heart of London’s West End, housed in a wonderful old stone building quite different from the brushed metal panels that characterise their premises elsewhere. Inside is an extremely spacious environment on two floors, making what was at the time of opening (and may still be) Apple’s largest retail presence. Nowhere else sells computers in surroundings like this.

So why do the staff suck so much? Why is it that every visit to the Apple Store fills me with dread and so often leaves me feeling frustrated and defeated? Two words: past experience.

I am, by way of background, one of the many unfortunates who own an iBook G3, an ostensibly sturdy machine (the case allegedly made of “the same material used in bulletproof glass”) but which either by dint of demonic possession or otherwise has been plagued by motherboard failures. When it failed in July after a period of quiet lasting almost a year, inconvenience aside, the aspect of the repair procedure I was most dreading was bringing the damn thing to the Genius Bar.

Ah, the Genius Bar.

In principle, it is a wonderful idea. Instead of frustrating customers by keeping them on hold for hours, let them bring their machines in and converse directly with people who know all there is to know about every nook and cranny of Apple’s computers and Mac OS X. Oh, and, of course, the iPod. It saves on courier fees, and adds that personal touch to the technical support experience. Plus, they can fix stuff on site, which cuts down on the time taken to turn a repair round. It all sounds so rosy.

In practice, things are rather different. Consider a not atypical scenario, where a mother arrives with her three kids in tow, having travelled some distance from the London suburbs to come to Regent Street. Her eldest son got an iPod for his birthday, and a mere three weeks down the line, it won’t switch on. A sad face comes up on the screen. Mum’s read the stuff in the paper about the issues with the battery and wonders whether this is the cause.

It’s about 12pm. She approaches a member of staff, and proceeds to explain about the problem with the iPod. Oh, wait. He can’t deal with that. She needs to go to the Genius Bar upstairs. No matter. This shouldn’t take long. She heads upstairs, and is not quite sure what to do. There are some people sitting down waiting, and others standing in a queue to the right of the Genius Bar. She’d like to ask someone, but curiously there is no-one to ask. Staff fly past on the way to somewhere else, so she decides to sit down. A short while passes.

It’s 12:10. An attractive girl in her mid twenties approaches her and asks her if she has an appointment. She replies that she does not, and is told that she needs to go and queue up “over there.” She gesticulates in the general direction of the queue. “Oh dear.” Oh well, no matter. The queue’s not too long, and this is Apple, so they’re bound to be very efficient. She rounds up the children and goes to wait in line.

It’s 12:35. They have reached the front of the queue, and a man asks her what the problem is. She proceeds to explain that the iPod won’t start up, and wonders whether it has anything to do with the battery. The man has a look at it, presses some buttons, and sure enough, it won’t switch on. He explains that he is not able to do anything, and that mum will need to make an appointment to see a Genius so that he can have a look at it and, if necessary, send it in for repair.

OK, how do I do that?
Right, well, you can make an appointment by going to any computer in the shop and going to the Apple Store Regent Street web site. This is the address.

He gestures towards a bank of eMacs arranged in a circle near floor level, and hands her a business card with an Apple and the URL printed on it. She stares at the card, slightly perplexed, and pauses for a moment wondering if there’s more. Looking up, and he’s already on to the next customer in line.

*sigh* “OK kids, come on, we’ve got to go and find a computer to make an appointment at the Genius Bar to get the iPod fixed.

It’s 12:50. Mum is standing at a computer trying to figure out how she loads the bloody web browser. One of the floor staff comes over and asks her if she needs any help. She explains that she is trying to make an appointment for the Genius Bar, and he loads up Safari and takes her to the site.

“Sorry. All our Genuises are scheduled to meet with customers. Please try again in the next hour.”

Mum is baffled. What does this mean? She just wants to make an appointment. Why can’t she do that?

She collars another member of the floor staff and asks why the Genius Bar reservation thing isn’t working, showing the man the screen. He says that you just have to keep on trying and it should work.

13:00 rolls round in the meantime and, finally, somehow, mum gets past the all busy screen. She is told that the next available appointment is at 18:30, a full five and a half hours later on, and is asked to enter her name and e-mail address if she wants to make that appointment. She cannot quite believe her eyes – what will she do with the kids in the meantime? But we’ve come all this way, she reasons, and is a resolute type, so she puts her information in.

The next screen confirms the booking, and blithely notes that appointments are not actually appointments, but what Apple calls “service intervals”, and as such do not guarantee a time when you will be seen. Mum disregards this, concluding that by then there will hardly be anyone around, and heads off back outside.

She explains to the children that they will all have to come back later, but that it’ll be OK. They can make a day of it, maybe go and see something. She can do some shopping, maybe go down to Harrods or Harvey Nicks, though the kids won’t like that. Anyway, it’ll be fine.

I will interject briefly at this point to observe only that we are dealing with the most tolerant and patient mother in existence. Most would have been angered by being told to go and make an appointment at “any computer in the shop”. Why couldn’t they take her name down there and then?

Those who made it past that hurdle would have been perplexed by the peculiar appointment system. Why is it not possible to specify a time? Why is it only possible to make appointments at certain seemingly random times of the day? Why do I have to spend ages hitting refresh in Internet Explorer on the Windows box at work until I get let through to make an appointment? I have no idea. The system is truly absurd.

And why on earth does mum have to wait over five hours to be seen? She’s already in the shop, and anyone can see the iPod is borked. What is the purpose of this ridiculous delay?

It’s 18:25. Mum returns to Regent Street with the kids. They’ve been to the Natural History Museum, which was great, because the children loved the dinosaurs, but now they are all tired and ready to go home. No matter, because they will be seen in 5 minutes, and it can’t take long.

They sit down. Five minutes pass. A girl – a different one – approaches and asks if she has an appointment. She replies that she does and is asked for her name. She responds and points to the screen, somewhat discouraged by the fact that there are four people in front of her in the list of names.

Do you have any idea how long it’ll be?
Oh, shouldn’t be too long now. Someone will be with you as soon as possible.

The two younger kids go over to the other side of the shop to play with the eMacs, and the eldest looks at iPod accessories. Mum anxiously keeps an eye on the kids whilst she waits for her turn.

19:00 and a man calls out her name. She gets up and goes over to the bar and sits down on one of the stools. “I’ll be with you in just a moment.

At 19:05 she finally gets to say her piece, and the Genius takes a quick look at the iPod and confirms that it is indeed broken. He says that it is something to do with the hard disk – mum is none-the-wiser – and that they will have to box it up and send it off.

When will we get it back?
Should be within 5 to 6 working days.
And will that be delivered or do I come and get that here?
You can come and pick it up here, but you don’t need to make an appointment.
Well, that’s something I suppose.
…OK. Well, just bear with me a moment whilst I sort the paperwork out and we’ll get this thing sent off.

It’s 19:20. Mum signs the form and thanks the man for his time. Thoroughly worn out, she rounds up the kids and traipses off downstairs to head for home.

Oh. Fan-bloody-tastic. Well done Apple. Another stellar customer experience for a disillusioned Windows user. That’s the way to drive hardware sales.*

I’m not a mother, and I don’t have any kids to accompany me when I go to the Apple Store, but the experience is generally no less frustrating, and generally manages to incorporate most if not all of the joyous experiences set out above. I went through the hurdles to get an iBook G4 checked over by a Genius so that it could have its mouse button repaired, and was most unamused when I had to fight to get one of the bar staff’s attention to get it back the following day after being rung and told that there was nothing wrong with it. In the end, I got an Apple-authorised reseller to fix it.

And when – as aforementioned – my iBook broke in July, I immediately logged on to the Regent Street web site. I knew how much of a gap there would be between my getting an appointment and my being seen, so I would have time to do a full data backup before heading over to Regent Street. I took pleasure – as all proper cynics do – in being proved right in this regard, and was, as expected, made to wait for quite some time before being seen. I believe this was the second occasion on which I bought juice and muffins in Marks & Spencer by way of sustenance before going in. You have to be prepared, you see.

When I picked the iBook up a couple of weeks later, I presumed that was it, that the ordeal was over. I sat down on one of the benches to check my e-mail and when I had finished and closed the lid, I noticed that the machine would not go to sleep. I tried a couple of times, but sleep-on-close it would not. I nabbed a Genius who was slightly less busy and who made it very evident that he was displeased by my interruption, and explained that the machine was still needing attention. I was dreading a response that would require me to make another appointment, for it was too late in the day to realistically get one, but fortunately he offered to take it round the back and fix it there and then.

This was a high point in an otherwise barren wasteland of lows. The experience did make me somewhat doubtful of the competence of the technical staff behind the scenes at Regent Street, and a mere three weeks later, my fears were confirmed – the iBook died again! This was impressive, even for Apple.

So I went through the rigmarole of getting to a Genius and vented my frustration. I had read about how some iBook owners had received replacement machines, and was hoping that given the ridiculously short span of time between the two breakages, they might offer me a replacement.

No such luck. An extensive rant which culminated in me telling a supposedly more senior member of the technical staff that I wanted the iBook to burn in Hell, and I was told that I would have to ring customer services, during which call I begged and pleaded, but was told, by an admittedly very nice man, that I had not yet met their quota for logic board failures. This was – I should add – my fifth such failure (over two machines).

I ended up taking the machine to Colyer, the Apple-authorised reseller alluded to above, who fixed it, warning me that they did not think it would last much longer. To date, it is still working, but I am not holding my breath…

This is all the more painful for me, as I had a few encounters with the shop in the posh Ginza area of Tokyo, and all were extremely pleasant, the staff doing all they could do make the experience a good one. On one occasion, a ¥20,000 (£100) repair bill was reduced to nothing because there were fingerprints surrounding the screen. Another time, one employee spent a good twenty minutes or so arguing on the phone on my behalf with a retailer which had sold me an iBook with a dead pixel and then refused to take it back.

And I am not the only one who is being disappointed. A friend of mine has now given up trying after sending in his new iPod 40Gb (bought just before the iPod range went colour) for repair four times, a truly staggering state of affairs. He now contents himself with an iPod shuffle, beaten into submission by a corporate behemoth which appears to have forgotten that it once built quality products.

But both he and I are the more understanding types. We own Macs, use them on a daily basis, and appreciate the little differences that make them great. It’s possibly the expectations created by Apple successes, like Mac OS X and the PowerBook G4, that make the service experience all the more disappointing.

More importantly though, in the grand scheme of things, are all the prospective new users, who are drawn into the Apple Store by the supposed iPod halo effect. It seems unlikely that these people will be in a frame of mind suitably charitable to try out a new operating system – however beautiful and user-friendly it is – if they have just been made to wait six hours to hand an iPod over for repair.

There are – it is clear – a lot of quality problems with the iPods, and this is perhaps partially attributable to the shift in manufacturing to China and is somewhat inevitable, given the quantities Apple is now having to churn out. The support problems related to these are increasing the strain on a Genius Bar which, in the heart of London, is already bound to be busy. But having now earned itself the position of being one of the world’s most recognisable brands, it would be a shame for Apple to ruin its reputation with shoddy customer service. After all, it sells its products at a premium because they are supposed to be better.

At the moment, I’d settle for just good.

(* For the unaware, and in light of the comments to a previous post, I would point out, mostly for the benefit of our American readership, that the paragraph that precedes the asterisk is intended as sarcasm. Just for clarity’s sake. Go back.)

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