Apple Customer Satisfaction: It’s the Experience

Apple (s aapl) has once again received top honors among computer manufacturers for customer satisfaction, and not by a small margin, either. The recent American Customer Satisfaction Index survey (PDF) has Apple beating their closest competitor by 10 points, something with which the creators of the survey are very impressed. Apple hasn’t always been so lucky. There was a period of time in the 90s when many were wondering if there was even going to be an Apple Computer anymore.

Since that time, though, along with the return of Steve Jobs, Apple has made slow and continuous improvements to the Apple experience, something that encompasses every part of owning an Apple product. From the quality of the packaging to booting OS X, Apple makes owning a Mac a different experience from just owning a computer. One of the most important aspects of owning a Mac is the quality of the construction. In my mind at least, plastic has been considered “cheap” for a long time, and metal considered “well built.” A lot of the toys from when I was a kid were made out of metal, and they lasted. Now they’re made out of plastic, and fall apart.

The latest unibody aluminum MacBooks are precision engineered, solid, and feel worth their weight. It’s almost like Apple designs with blinders on, ignoring what everyone else is doing and focusing on what they believe is best. So far, Apple has been very resistant to release a low-end computer. Even the tiny Mac Mini is at least twice as expensive as a low-end Dell. It’s not that Apple doesn’t have an interest in the low-budget market, it’s that Apple refuses to create a product that doesn’t live up to their expectations of what a Mac should be. The Mac Mini is relatively inexpensive, but it is also a high-quality machine. The iPhone and iPod Touch are excellent examples of Apple’s commitment to quality. How easy would it have been for Apple to release both machines with cheap plastic cases and screens? They would have been able to reap the profits of the low cost of manufacturing, but at the price of releasing an inferior product, and the long-term cost of lower customer satisfaction. The iPhone is one of the most well-made pieces of electronics ever. As John Gruber said, “There is no better phone, at any price.”

Creating great products is only useful if you can tell people about them, and be able to tell the people who are most likely to be customers. Apple’s marketing is the result of an evolution of several years. Apple uses product placement in high-rating television shows and popular movies, ads on TV that demonstrate the functionality of the Mac, or poke fun at the competition in a tongue-in-cheek way, but the real Apple marketing are the thousands of blogs and web sites (this one included) that are dedicated to all things Apple. It seem natural to me now to read Mac-related news, but there are relatively few Lenovo blogs, or Dell blogs, or Acer blogs. Most of this is because PCs are fundamentally the same. They all have the same basic components, and run the same software.

Macs have always been different, although they are not quite as different now as they used to be. Macs also lost the popularity contest with businesses to Microsoft (s msft) and IBM (s ibm). The company from California that started the personal computer industry was, in the 90s, pushed out of the office by big, faceless companies. Apple was the underdog. Luckily, people like underdogs, and Apple gained a cult following that persisted through its darkest of times, when there were rumors that it was going to be bought out and dismantled. Most of this happened while Steve Jobs was off creating other insanely great things, like NeXT and Pixar. When Jobs returned, he made some drastic changes at Apple, and began the slow, steady climb that has brought them to the top of the customer satisfaction ladder. They went from being the underdog to being the comeback kid. Apple is an American success story.

Apple’s stigma cannot be explained by generous return policies or coverage. Both Dell and HP offer more lenient return policies, each allowing 21 days to return the product compared with Apple’s 14 days. HP and Dell also offer accidental damage protection, something lacking from the otherwise excellent AppleCare. On more than one occasion I’ve had a claim denied because the damage was considered “accidental,” and therefor not covered. However, for what AppleCare does cover, it provides excellent support. AppleCare will repair your Mac, answer questions about software, and replace faulty parts. If you scratch up your install disk, AppleCare will replace it. The unique thing about AppleCare is that it covers not only the hardware and operating system, but all other Apple software. If you want to know how to import a movie into iMovie, call AppleCare and they’ll be happy to walk you through it.

When you buy a Mac, you join a club. It’s more than simply owning a computer, it’s being part of the entire Apple ecosystem. Each part of each product is tied together to provide a seamless experience that brings together your electronics so you can get on with the business of living your life. Take photos, make movies, write a book, and do it all without worrying about how. This is the real reason for Apple’s customer satisfaction. Apple is a success story, and when you buy a Mac, in a small way, you become part of that story, too.