An Open Letter to Angela Ahrendts

Re: Low Hanging Fruit – Apple’s Declining Retail Standards I understand you will (in Spring 2014) take over responsibility for retail operations at Apple. In my view, you cannot arrive soon enough. I am sure that, between now and your arrival, you will receive unsolicited advice from many interested bystanders. I am writing to you today to provide you with three examples of how the current Apple retail experience can remove the magic from a loyal Apple fan and cause him to consider converting back to The Dark Side.

The iPad Air

It hasn’t yet been released in Hong Kong (where I live) but the reviews suggest it’s a pretty good product. Goodness, it didn’t even have to be that good for me to buy it – I have all the iPads released so far and therefore there was a high probability that I would pick up the iPad Air even without the positive reviews released yesterday. So let’s consider me A Guaranteed Sale (as of yesterday at 8am).

The Reservation System (Hong Kong Style)

Here in HK, Apple announced a reservation system for the iPad Air. By booking through the Apple website, it was possible to reserve one – only one - iPad Air for collection on 1 November at a local Apple retail store. This is very sensible and attractive to those of us who are too old/doddery to queue overnight to lay one’s hands on a new device. So, at 8am on Wednesday 29th October, I was one of the lucky ones to be on-line and ready to order my new iPad Air. 128GB or 64GB? So many exciting decisions! At 8.01 am I received my SMS confirming "Your reservation code is E6******". A great result! I proceeded to select my options (indulgence – I went with 128GB) and looked to check out. But…wait…no stock available? In any configuration (colour/memory size)? How can that be? I have a text message confirming a reservation code! And it is only 8.07am! There must be a mistake. Let me call the Apple Store phone line and sort it out.

The Apple Store Phone Line

Less than a minute later I was on the telephone talking to my cheerful Apple helper. I explain my predicament. "Oh no Sir, you must be mistaken. We will not begin selling the iPad Air device until midnight on 1 November. You can only order your iPad Air then". I explain the reservation system, and we walk through the pages on the website until my cheerful Apple helper can understand that Apple was indeed making the iPad Air available for reservation on 29th October (albeit with collection on 1 November).

"Oh. I now understand. But Sir, you must understand that I was not aware of the reservation system for the iPad Air and I cannot help solve your problem. The retail stores operate entirely independently of the Apple Online Store".

Say what?

"Yes, I know that they share the same website, but in fact the Apple Online Store and the Apple Retail Stores are entirely separate divisions. I cant help you out with your reservation problem because that is operated by the Apple Retail Store."

Uh- huh. So, I accessed the reservation system through the Apple website, but you are telling me that the Apple website has two, completely self-contained retail channels? And that your Apple Online Store right hand is unable to assist with my problem because it relates to your Apple Retail Store left hand?

"That’s correct, Sir. You will have to visit the Apple Retail Store to resolve this problem".


The Apple Retail Store

By the time I arrive at the Apple Retail Store, I am somewhat bemused. I have encountered two customer-unfriendly issues seemingly at odds with the Apple "It Just Works" branding. But surely my friendly blue-shirted genius can sort out the problem.

"Ah, well Sir, I understand you must be disappointed. We have a lot of disappointed customers here!"

Not a great start. To give my Genius the benefit of the doubt, I think he meant to say that he has a lot of customers disappointed to miss out on those excellent Apple products.

"You see, the SMS you received does not mean that we have a device reserved for you. It simply authenticates that you have a HK phone number. You still have to compete with the other thousands of people who are all logging on simultaneously to reserve our wonderful new iPad Air. You have missed out this time, but you can log on at midnight on 1 November and try your luck on the Apple Online Store!"

Excuse me? I received a text message which told me that I had a "reservation code" (Apple’s message). Are you telling me you sent out more "reservation codes" than Apple had devices to sell?

"Yes Sir. That reservation code is just one of the many steps you need to take in order to reserve our magical new iPad Air. You also need to select your device and pay for it before other customers make their selections. It’s just the way our system works. I know you are disappointed, but so are a lot of other customers!".

But that’s ridiculous. There was a one device limit for each reservation. Why would Apple send more "reservation codes" than it had devices? Surely, a person receiving a reservation code can have a reasonable expectation that (s)he will be able to reserve a device, even if it was not in a preferred configuration?

"Oh no, Sir. You don’t understand our process. Let me explain again…etc etc "

Low Hanging Fruit

Angela, I have to tell you that Apple Retail has caused me a great deal of irritation in the past 24 hours. Enough to make me scowl when I type the word "magical". Enough to make me wonder whether I should check that new Windows 8 device from Nokia. Why? Because simple, foreseeable and avoidable mistakes by Apple Retail have soured my view of the Apple brand:

1. The "reservation code" that I received from Apple lead me to believe that I could collect a device on 1 November. That expectation was created by Apple. If all Apple wanted to achieve was to authenticate me as a HK resident, then it should have sent me an "authentication code", not a "reservation code". Foreseeable, avoidable.

2. Apple should not distribute more "reservation codes" than it has devices to sell. There is a one-device-per-customer limit. If Apple intends to deliver an excellent customer experience, then why would it distribute more reservation codes than it has devices? Surely Apple realises that, by creating an expectation (with a reservation code), Apple dashes those expectations when it notifies a customer that Apple has insufficient devices? I would have accepted without question a message telling me, at 8.01am, that I was too late to reserve a device. I find it much more difficult to receive a reservation code at 8.01am and discover no availability at 8.07am.

3. Make sure that Apple’s right hand knows what its left hand is doing. If Apple must, as an organisational matter, split the online store from the retail stores, then at least ensure that staff in each arm of the Apple Retail organisation are aware of what is happening in the other side of the Apple Retail organisation. Otherwise, your staff look like idiots.

4. When a customer identifies a problem where it is possible – just possible – that the Apple machine is broken, ensure that your staff do not insult or further irritate your customer.

I know that Apple has a lot of customers, and that many of the complaints that are made will be irrational, unreasonable or simply unfounded. It makes sense to fob these customers off with platitudes. However, every now and again, a customer is going to identify an issue which your average Genius might be expected to conclude that Apple’s actions are damaging its own brand. In these scenarios, it is a really, really bad idea to repeat, ad nauseam, a cheery "thank you for your feedback! We always welcome customer feedback. Thank you!" Patronising one’s customer does not fix the problem. It simply exacerbates it.

I could write at length about other elements of my Apple Retail experience – especially the phonecall today from Apple Retail Management - but then I would have nothing to report on tomorrow.

Angela, the Apple Retail experience is starting to damage the Apple product brand. Please help fix it.