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Customer service that doesn't suck

Apple is good—even great—to its customers, but is it going overboard?

The Apple Store in Pudong, China (Photo: courtesy Apple)

Several weeks ago I was the mortified owner of an iPad 2 when the screen cracked and splintered after it fell from my lap during a meeting. I had the feeling my wife, who had spent $950 to get it to me for my birthday, would be less than impressed. I immediately booked an appointment at an Apple Store “Genius Bar” and arrived wallet in hand, correctly predicting the iPad wasn’t covered under warranty in my particular circumstance. I was expecting to pay several hundred dollars (at least) to get it repaired. I left a half hour later with a brand new iPad 2 (though minus the birthday inscription).

For free.

In the world of customer service, there’s customer service and then there’s Customer Service. The first is the kind where there’s a lot of hand-waving and boilerplate brochureware insisting that customer service is the company’s No. 1 priority. The second kind is where you have your $950 piece of kit replaced free-of-charge, (almost) no questions asked. And you’re not famous.

Now you could make like that Ikea commercial, “Start the car” and leave it at that, but there’s a bigger question here. In the age of social media and what it’s done for instant communication—for good and evil—it occurs to me that Apple’s gratis could have unintended consequences. Yes, Apple probably couldn’t pay for this kind of advertising, but it might be paying a lot more than it would like should people get it in their heads that they’re all entitled to the same treatment I received. Is it possible for a company to be too nice?

“I suppose it is,” consumer advocate Christopher Elliott told me. “But in Apple’s case it’s making plenty of money so it can afford to be generous. I think if margins were a little bit tighter it might be instructing its employees to take a harder line.”

Peter Shankman, Geek Factory CEO and author of Customer Service: New Rules for a Social Media World, said, “The question is [is Apple] getting value as well out of giving you a new iPad? You’re obviously going to tell this story to anyone who will listen—you’re writing about it. So if they knew that to begin with then I think it’s a smart move on their part.”

On balance, I tend to think he’s right, but how far do you run with it as a company? It’s true Apple is flush with money (it ended Q2 2011 with US$16 billion in cash/securities on hand), and can almost certainly absorb a significant level of expense on its cost-of-sales line item (check out these margins and p. 41 of this balance sheet), but it’s not so much money as it is reputation and goodwill that are at stake here. For a company like Apple, whose cachet is built on equal parts image and product quality, it’s not an insignificant concern. So it’s reasonable to consider that consumers might come to hold unrealistic expectations about what the brand stands for and what it can deliver.

“This is probably the ultimate thing [Apple was] fearing when they gave this [iPad] away,” mused Adam Metz, social media consultant and author of The Social Customer: How Brands Can Use Social CRM to Acquire, Monetize, and Retain Fans, Friends, and Followers. (He wondered aloud whether Snooki from Jersey Shore couldn’t expect different treatment compared to just some girl from the Jersey shore if both walked into one of those glittering Apple stores. I wonder, too, but I’m not Snooki and, hey, I still got a free iPad.)

“It’s wonderful that these brands and companies are willing to go above and beyond and give this superstar service,” he added. “But if they’re not going to universalize that type of customer service they’re sort of opening a can of worms.”

(I tried to ask Apple about it directly, but apparently its customer service extends only so far.)

Apple is doing plenty right though, having just landed the No. 10 spot on Nunwood’s Customer Experience Top 100 list for 2011. It’s significant because only three tech companies even cracked the top 20. As David Conway, Nunwood’s chief strategy officer, put it, “Apple is in a different league than everybody else. Some of the other major providers—Sony Ericsson, LG—really didn’t get anywhere close to the top 100, let alone get into the top 10.”

He says survey respondents repeatedly pointed to the quality of the in-store staff in terms of their knowledgeability and attentiveness. “Great products, great service and great employees—those are the three things that were mentioned most frequently.”

As a consumer with direct experience of Apple’s customer service, I can’t say I disagree. And, on the occasion of what might have been an ugly scene once I got home to face my wife, I should also say that Apple’s customer service saves lives.

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