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.

Book Review: Be our Guest

Disney is known for excellence in customer experience at their parks, hotels, and on their cruise ships. The company formed The Disney Institute so that other companies could learn from Disney’s approach. While a Disney Institute summit may set you back over $4,000, a lot can still be learned from its considerably more affordable book, Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service.

beourguestLike Starbucks and The Ritz Carlton, Disney has a well-defined, self-reinforcing, and rigorous system for customer experience. Disney’s “magic” is delivered through its organizational knowledge of guest psychographics combined with demographics (Disney calls it “Guestology”), its simplicity, and the complete integration and alignment of its system. Disney’s core purpose (like a vision statement) is defined as “We create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages everywhere”.


Disney invests time, talent, and treasure in its efforts to not only know who are their guests (demographics), but also what their guests expect and want to feel (psychographics). While demographics are important and relatively easy to access through existing systems, psychographics are even more vital to delivering a superior customer experience.

Disney looks at the mental states of its customers by evaluating all of the parts of their experience through 4 dimensions: Needs, wants, stereotypes, and emotions.

Applying this principle to another business, like in an urgent care, for example, this matrix would resemble something like this:

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This analysis is a helpful tool to get a chance to match your service offerings to the perceptions and emotional states of your customers. Disney implements processes to respond to its guests’ emotions throughout their parks and resorts. For example, Disney was the first to entertain guests who are waiting in long lines to help them be less bored and pass the time quicker. Since guest needs, wants, stereotypes, and emotions can change over time, Disney revisits this framework often to match their systems to guest expectations.

The lesson here is that knowing your customer, not just who they are but what they expect and why they expect it, is an essential component of building a superior and lasting customer experience. Another essential component is making sure your system for responding to these factors is actionable by the employees (Disney calls them “cast members”) who are expected to bring it to life. This is accomplished, in part, through simplicity.


Disney’s customer service system has only two components:

  • The Four Quality Standards
    • Safety
    • Courtesy
    • Show
    • Efficiency
  • Three Delivery Systems
    • Cast
    • Setting
    • Process

The four quality standards are listed in order of importance, giving cast members an idea around prioritization. These standards are deployed up and down the organization and are reinforced through constant training and coaching. To build a culture around the two components, Disney uses its own language to refer to customers, employees, and attractions. Further, cast members are given guidelines, not scripts, for them to use to deliver consistent service to guests.

Part of the art of the four quality standards and the three delivery systems are what Disney calls, “Think globally, perform locally”. Doing so allows individual hotels or resorts to integrate their own flavor and uniqueness into Disney’s approach to service delivery. Disney empowers its cast members by soliciting their feedback as well as recognizing and rewarding performance.

Disney’s cast can also then focus on the three delivery systems, including seeing themselves as a part of a larger whole and responsible for themselves as well as the setting and process. That is also where integration and alignment become important.

Integration and Alignment

The Disney Institute defines integration as, “the work of aligning and distributing your service stands over the three delivery systems of cast, setting, and process” (p. 185). Integration is a way to, “build a service organization greater than the sum of its parts” (p. 185).

Disney has built-in accountability to its components of service through its emphasis on integration. It ensures that Disney is staying true to its core purpose by making sure that its cast, setting, and processes are always accounted for in everything they do. It also makes sure that the three delivery systems are developed with the customer needs, wants, stereotypes, and emotions of the guest in mind.

To make Disney’s guest experience consistent and reliable, the leadership is committed to this model and includes new initiatives through the lens of integration to provide context for staff at all times. At other companies, initiatives often appear disparate and unrelated due to the lack of context. By using an integrated model like Disney’s, companies can usually avoid this type of cognitive dissonance.


Healthcare organizations can learn a lot from Disney and many have worked with the Disney Institute or read books like If Disney Ran Your Hospital. In order to successfully follow the ways of Disney, the leadership of the organization needs to agree to an aligned model that they will always use as context.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Learning about your customers, developing a simple system for delivering to their expectations, and creating integration and alignment around those elements is how Disney creates its “Magic”. Doing it in your organization requires the same level of intentionality and discipline.

Be our Guest is available for purchase on Amazon for $24.99 (does not include Prime discount)

Book Review: The Starbucks Experience

Joseph Michelli is a talented author who has written about many companies that have developed systems and processes to deliver exceptional customer experiences in a consistent and reliable manner.

So when he featured Starbucks, I couldn’t wait to read it. Despite (for the most part) giving up coffee approximately 4 months ago, I still look for excuses to take meetings at Starbucks. I am a big fan of Starbucks’ founder and former CEO Howard Schultz (and possible 2020 Presidential candidate), who has written two books himself about Starbucks, Pour Your Heart Into It and Onward.

the starbucks experienceI love having meetings at Starbucks because after reading Schultz two books, I admire how his vision became a reality. Schultz changed both how we consume coffee, which previously viewed as a 10 cent commodity, and how the coffee shop became the “third place”, or a regular hangout besides home or work, for many people. Starbucks is now just as Schultz had imagined it, in all its reality and splendor. But, to get there, it wasn’t easy.

Putting aside Schultz’s personal struggles in creating the Starbucks we know today (you can read his books to get the inside scoop), creating the systems and processes to implement the customer experience he wanted to create was especially difficult because because of the hyper-customized nature of Starbucks’ drinks. The design of the product and the experience made scripting and rigorous memorization both useless and impossible.

Starbucks designed a system is called the “Five Ways of Being” to implement the customer experience:

  • Be welcoming
  • Be genuine
  • Be considerate
  • Be knowledgeable
  • Be involved

To support the system, Starbucks’ key processes are articulated in the “Green Apron Book”, which every Starbucks partner (the internal Starbucks jargon for employees) carries around with them.

Starbucks leadership understands that when it comes to delivering a consistent, reliable, and, at times, an exceptional experience, their main audience is the staff, not the customer buying the coffee. Starbucks actively markets to its employees in a manner that emphasizes and reinforces the “Five Ways of Being”.

Examples of this include using real-life mistakes that have happened in the past and asking partners to articulate how some of the strategies in the Green Apron Book could have prevented the error. Further, baristas receive regular updates in a newsletter called “Conversations and Connections”, which share customer stories and how the stories reflect the Five Ways of Being. Finally, Starbucks uses a board game to help train partners in how to empathize with customers based on their body language and subtle verbal cues to better anticipate and meet the customers’ needs.

These examples also reflect Schultz’s mantra, “Retail is detail”. In Starbucks, there are very few accidents from the way the stores are laid out to how the drinks are made. One of the goals of Starbucks leadership is for people who are traveling to find a familiar experience at both their regular Starbucks and the one they are visiting on the road. To bring this idea to reality, Starbucks sweat the details of hiring, training, empowering and establishing regular reminders for the team.

Next time you go to Starbucks, look for the attention to detail in the experience. In Onward Schultz articulated how the smell of Starbucks is a vital part of the experience. This is just one example of the types of details that get the attention of, and are then implemented by, great companies.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Starbucks is famous for their environment and service. Starbucks has a clear vision, system, and processes that are as consistent, reliable, and as high a quality as their product. Starbucks actively markets to their team to bring Schultz’s vision to life every day by paying attention to the details. 

The Starbucks Experience is available for purchase on Amazon for $28.00 (does not include Prime discount)

There are No Accidents


“There are no accidents” – Master Oogway, Kung Fu Panda

Does anyone else love Chick-fil-A sandwiches?

I remember going with my Mom to Columbia Mall in Maryland and stopping for samples of Chick-fil-A nuggets in the food court. Years later, tasting that delicious recipe again brought me back to my childhood.

While I don’t own a Chick-fil-A franchise and am not affiliated with the company in any way (including any controversial political views), I do admire their approach to not only their product – chicken sandwiches – but also to service. When you arrive at any Chick-fil-A restaurant, there are some service elements that you assume will be there, like the cashier’s always saying, “my pleasure” when you say thank you for extra sauce or a refill on a drink.

But, how do they deliver that experience every day at every location? The answer is that it is deliberate and not done by accident.

Take a look at the Chick-fil-A Service and Hospitality training video posted on YouTube:

In this video, each element of the guest experience is described both from the perspective of the team-member and of the guest. It makes service very easy to understand. The narrator says, “Just like we have a tried and true recipe for our crave-able Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich, we have a tried and true recipe for our service.” The recipe consist of what the company calls the “Core 4” and the, “3 required second mile service behaviors”, which they explain both in words and in practice.

Ingraining and aligning these universal behaviors in a large organization is no easy feat. But, Chick-fil-A has managed to deploy it across their restaurants almost universally. This happens because team-members understand what is expected of them and re-enforce these behaviors among each other. What Chick-fil-A and other companies known for their excellent customer service (Starbucks and The Ritz Carlton come to mind) have figured out is how to create standards that are universally accepted and encouraged not only from management but peer-to-peer.

This system is deliberate and strategic. The goal is provide an excellent customer service experience along side an excellent product and these companies have figured out how to deploy an experience in addition to a product.

For most businesses, they have employees that create an excellent experience and then the next shift comes in and the experience is completely different. Has that ever happened to you? Maybe you go to a restaurant one evening and have great service, only to come back the next week and have poor service. When I see that happen, it feels to me like on of my experiences was probably “by accident”. I really just do not know whether the accident was the good or the bad experience!

That is why it is so important to build reliability into the customer service experience. To do that, many companies emphasize not only behaviors, but values, and room to use those values to deliver the customer experience in new and innovative ways. This is only done through an intentional and deliberate hiring, orientation, training, and engaging leadership model.

TAKE-AWAY: In successful businesses, there are no accidents. They deliver an excellent experience carefully, deliberately, and nearly universally without variation. In our organizations, we must create systems and culture to deliver the desired experience every time. Our customers deserve it!

The pizza or the box?

Call me crazy, but I’ve always liked Domino’s pizza. I remember growing up and sitting in my father’s camera store and enjoying some of their thin crust pizza while the hours passed waiting for the store to close. We kept kosher at home and never ordered in, so having Domino’s was a real treat.

Admittedly, Domino’s was a go-to for me during finals when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland. As I was cramming and stress eating, I’d order Domino’s to my dorm room, always the same order: a medium thin-crust pizza with pineapple and cinnastix (again, don’t judge).

Aside from the nostalgia and pure habit, it was clear that the quality of the food was suffering. The pizza would usually arrive lukewarm and just edible enough not to send it back. The product itself was nothing special.

It turns out that I wasn’t the only person feeling this way. In the 2000s Dominos was facing stiffer competition from Papa Johns and other fast-food restaurants. When competition started to impact their business and marketshare, they asked a very important question: is our problem the pizza or the box? In other words, is our marketing the problem (the quick(er) fix) or it is that our product is the problem (much harder fix)?

Here is what they found out:

The answer was that the pizza was the problem. They had a sub-par product and that’s why the competition was starting to eat their lunch (no pun intended). As you saw from the short YouTube video, in 2009 Domino’s re-did their entire pizza recipe, essentially starting over to make a new, better tasting, pizza. The initiative was marketed as, “Oh Yes We Did”. The company owned the fact that many customers thought the pizza was terrible, enough for them to start from scratch.

I have to give kudos to Patrick Doyle, the CEO of Domino’s during this turnaround who left the company at the end of June. The results speak for themselves:

The lesson from Domino’s is that there comes a time where leaders have to ask the simple but important question: Is it the pizza or is it the box?

We have to ask this question in business all of the time. If we want to grow revenue or increase marketshare, should we start a new marketing campaign or is the issue that our customers are not recommending us because our product is terrible? As most of us know, word-of-mouth is still the most effective marketing.

The good news is that thanks to sites like yelp, google, facebook and others, we don’t have to pay for expensive focus groups (although I am a big believer in the need to do research and sometimes focus groups are, in fact, more helpful) to know what our customers are saying about us. For better or for worse, we can know whether customers are having a 5-star or a 1-star type of experience with our business.

I’ve been in positions in the past where we had to face the tough reality that we had to fix our “pizza”. Often, leaders have to go through the 5-stages of grief before they can fix the issue. Leadership groups often have grown so connected to their product and believe in it so deeply that changing it seems like heresy. But once they accept that it doesn’t represent the business well and can get better, possibilities open up (financial decline helps create urgency as well).

When we addressed our product and improved the customer experience at the urgent care centers, we saw instant results and a strong turnaround in the making. Changing the experience fundamentally was a good choice at the time and improved our revenue by more than 50%. It takes experience, judgment, and some luck to understand when you need to dig-in and fix your product or when marketing is really the issue.

Never rest thinking your product will always be superior. Give the customers credit. They will tell you when it is time to work on your “pizza”. I once knew someone who always said, “If they only understood, they would agree”. To me, that is a non-empathetic, about to go out of business mentality.

Don’t be like that guy. Stay hungry and listen. It is our job to listen and understand.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Listen to your customers. They will tell you if your product is failing them. If it is, jump in and change it. Let them know you listened to them. They will thank you for it and come back to you for another try.

If you were on the edge of your seat to see how the Domino’s customers who were most critical in their focus group reacted to the new pizza, please watch this video: