How important is the customer experience to Apple?

Remember, back in 2001 when everyone thought Apple was crazy for opening retail stores? Now, almost 18 years later, the world’s most profitable company looks like they will have the last laugh.

What Apple knows well is that they cannot really rest on their success in the past to ensure future success. They need to continue to innovate and keep the customer experience on top of mind if consumers are going to continue to pay a premium for Apple products over increasingly formidable competitors both at home and abroad.

Going into retail was Apple’s initial innovation, which was soon followed by the Genius Bar (technical support), then followed by the open concept layout of their stores. Despite this innovation, for some of us, the Apple store was losing its charm and felt more like we were being herded to various queues, surrounded by crowds, rather than having a positive experience. They needed to do something to continue their retail success

I started thinking more about this when I was recently in the Apple store with my wife to replace her iPhone 6 with an iPhone XS. We went to the Apple store in one location but then ended up following-up at a different Apple store to get the actual phone because it required an ID for the cellular account and I forgot mine at home. I couldn’t help but observe how their flow had changed from my last visit.

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At the first store, we were greeted before we even walked into the store. I must have looked determined, because when I was about 15 feet from the threshold of the store, one of the sales associates was already waving “hi” to me. He asked us what brought us to the store, talked to us for a few minutes to assess our need and then handed us off to another sales associate. The sales associate’s responsibility was to help us with our device of choice. Once we chose the phone, it was retrieved from inventory by a third associate, called a “runner”.

Observing the same dynamic at the second store, I did something my wife only reluctantly tolerates – I began talking to the sales associate about her training and the flow of the stores. Just to note, I have done this an embarrassing number of times, most recently also shopping at Lululemon and comparing notes with a friend who works for Madewell.

According to the sales associate I spoke with, Apple changed their workflow with one objective in mind: keep the customer company throughout the process of making a purchase. Once customers are initially greeted, they are then led into 1 of 2 queues: one for service and one for sales. Customers who are “just browsing” are left on their own. The sorting process prevents associates from wasting their time with customers who were just in the store to wander around.

For service, the queue is straightforward: If you had an appointment, they honored the appointment and hand you off to a technician. If you did not have an appointment, they would schedule one for you, thus moving you to a different queue. The annoying part of the technician queue was that you needed an appointment to be seen, which could be weeks from now. Not super helpful once you have purchased your device.

The sales queue is more complicated than the service queue: Based on your input to the greeter, you are then sorted by product and are directed to meet a sales associate at the correct product display/demo table that houses the product you are interested in purchasing. That person then stays with you for the remainder of your experience at the Apple store. While the sales associate used to also pull the desired item from inventory, Apple has now chosen to hire runners to pull products from inventory, ensuring that the sales associate remains with the customer until the purchase is complete. My math suggests that they had to add staff in this model.

This begs the question: Why? Did Apple have trouble with customers leaving while the associate is going to the back to retrieve the item from inventory? Is this somehow a faster experience for customers? What is this new system about?

My view is that this change is all about making the purchase of a premium product a premium experience. The sales associate now functions both as a concierge and troubleshooter for any issue the customer may have with their new, beautiful, device. The sales associate can also make sure the device is set up correctly, limiting return visits for technical service that is really more about the user’s competency with the device. The associate could also up-charge some subscriptions or accessories, although, truthfully, I have not witnessed them doing that behavior.

Apple, like many other companies, is focused on getting their customer service system right as much as they are in getting their products right. Paying attention to the experience of buying an item or interacting with it in a physical place is crucial.

Apple is not the only example of a company making the purchase of a premium product a premium experience. Recently, my wife and I bought a Peloton (incidentally, we love it). We bought it after walking into a Peloton retail location in our neighborhood. The sales associate, Danny, gave us a memorable experience, answering many questions (we didn’t go to the store with the initial intention of buying anything), and setting up time for us to try the bike, taking a class in a private room in the store with plenty of water and clean towels. We went back three times before we made the purchase, each time with no pressure. Delivery was also easy, featuring complete set up and orientation to the bike, right in our home by a two-member delivery team.

A positive experience with these companies doesn’t happen by accident.

In business, it is critical that we not only pay attention to the product, but the experience people have in accessing that product. In health care, we have a lot to learn from retail regarding how to match clinical (product) excellence with experience excellence.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Businesses design the shopping and customer experience with a similar focus to how they design their products. A lot can be learned from companies, like Apple, who take the retail experience seriously.