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Criminal Customer Service


Yesterday, my trusted iPod Nano died. It had been acting flakey for a couple of days after many months of fail-free service. I had to reset it a couple of times recently, which is fairly uncommon. And then it locked up Sunday in the middle of a 12 mile run. I felt like my running partner was bailing on me with 3 more miles to go! After resetting once again, I got a very creepy error message saying "Use iTunes to Restore" in four languages. (This looked like the iPod equivalent of a blue screen of death.) I tried a few more times, but it would invariably lock up within minutes. I stopped worrying about it since it was slowing down my running. But with a trip to Europe coming up I was hoping to bring my Nano with me for the overseas flight. Hmmm...


When I got home, I Googled the error message which took me to the exact documentation page on Apple's site. I tried a couple of the tips there and on some related pages, but still no luck. In fact, I eventually got the "sad iPod" icon shown at the top of this page. Definitely not a good sign. The next step was to take it in for service. The support pages had links for booking an appointment at the local Apple retailer with their "Genius Bar". Surprisingly, I was able to get an appointment for the next day at 6:30 pm at the Valley Fair store in Santa Clara, which is on my way home.

I showed up the requisite 5 minutes early, and a helpful Mac Genius, Tim Oliver took care of me. He plugged in my iPod, tried a couple of things, printed out a form, had me sign it, and within 12 minutes I walked out with a brand new Nano. This service was so good, I felt like I was getting away with something. My first instinct was to flee the store as quickly as possible with my new iPod in my pocket before some bureaucratic manager chased me down with a bunch of paperwork and preferred-customer surcharges.

In the past, when I've tried to get customer service for a high-tech product, it's usually one hassle after another. Phone trees, re-entering your account number, answering useless questions and wasting time. Heaven forbid something needs service, then its even worse.

But Apple realizes what few companies do. Customer service is a differentiator. In fact, as technology becomes increasingly commoditized, it may be the only sustainable competitive advantage. Apple not only empower its Geniuses to do what's right for the customer, they make it easy to do so. My Genius didn't have to contact a manager for approval, he didn't need to look up my account information, he didn't ask me for an RMA number or receipt, he didn't grill me about what I might have done wrong. He just solved the problem for me in a way that was as expedient as possible both for me and for Apple. And to their credit, Apple has designed their systems and processes to make it easy to deliver exceptional service. That is the true genius in Apple's approach to service.

What's to be learned? Develop your systems and processes with the customer first. Make it easy for customers to find the right information and to help themselves. And make it easy for employees to help customers. The faster you can deliver great service to the customer the happier they will be and the more cost effective it will be for you. Any processes that slow things down should be eliminated.

Most companies either have no processes (if it's a small company) or broken processes (if it's a big company).  But how many companies have processes designed to optimize the customer experience?  Are your customer service systems designed to ensure that customers conform to your inner workings?  Or are they designed for the customer's convenience? 

Most companies' customer service systems are designed to deliver customer disservice.  They convey the implicit notion that you, the customer, are an annoyance.  (Oh, the irony of the statement: "Your call is important to us..." The heck it is!  If it was important, you wouldn't have me on hold for 20 minutes and keep telling me to go to the web!)  And once you do get hold of a real person, they ask you to repeat the information that you already entered "in order to better serve you."  (My most unpleasant experience to date: having to call back the CitiBank credit card to validate a transaction. They make me call them, and after I wait on hold and finally get through to a live agent, I need to answer a bunch of security check questions including in what county in Illinois did I or did I not own property more than 20 years ago. Hey Citibank, I was returning your call! Where do I cancel?  No wonder there are so many stories about how Citibank sucks on the web.)

And if you deliver exceptional customer service, not only do you win a customer, you turn them into raving fans. That's one reason Apple has such a loyal following. 

Have you had exceptionally good service from a company lately?  Write to the CEO and tell them.  Crappy service?  Same answer. Or better yet, tell the world. 


Citibank's not the only one with crummy service. How about Chase signing you up for services you never ordered:

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