Consumers often associate a brand with its sensory elements – what we can see and touch. The sensory aspects create emotional connections that form the building blocks of a brand. But a successful brand requires many moving parts to operate in sync, and not all of them are obvious to the customer. My recent experience with Apple illustrates the point.
I live in a house of Apple fans. My wife, daughter, and I all own Apple products because they are user friendly and well designed. We’re also Apple stock holders. But even one of the world’s most valuable brands commits its share of misfires. In 2013, I bought a MacBook Pro that turned out to be a lemon. The unit suffered one malady after another, ranging from a broken track pad to frequent hard drive crashes. Each time I took the unit to the store for repair, the Apple service technicians were responsive and skillful, but the moment they fixed one problem, another would appear like an annoying mole in a Whack-A-Mole game.
Days ago, after the laptop experienced a meltdown, I visited the Apple store in Oakbrook, Illinois, and asked to speak to the manager. I explained that the MacBook was plagued with problems but that I wasn’t quite ready to buy a new one. Was there any kind of accommodation Apple could make even though the MacBook’s warranty had expired?
As it turned out, she could make an accommodation, and she did. After consulting the laptop’s extensive repair record, she replaced it with a new MacBook Pro at no cost. The moment the technician brought out the sealed box containing a silver laptop, my heart sang. When we unboxed the unit, I was so excited I snapped a photo for my Snapchat followers. The technician helped me get everything set up in the store. Problem solved! I went home a happy customer with my faith in Apple products restored.
The emotional appeal of opening up new laptop, feeling the smooth surface, and getting used to the touch of the new keyboard was a sensory experience and a victory for the Apple brand. And yet, many moving parts needed to work in sync for that moment to happen, some that were visible to me, and some that were not. Let’s break it down:
- The manager possessed customer empathy. She listened to my problem and apologized for my bad experience. Her empathetic manner set the right tone. Behind the scenes, someone in Apple HR whom I may never meet made a smart hire.
- As empathetic as she was, the manager also needed a way to verify my complaint. Sometimes customer unhappiness results from user error or negligence. Fortunately Apple’s technicians have a policy of meticulously recording every service issue behind the scenes. The store manager was able to see for herself the machine’s trouble-ridden service history.
- The manager was empowered to replace my laptop at no charge. She did not have to spend the evening checking corporate policies and getting permission. As a result, I didn’t have to wait for hours or days to learn the final verdict. And she was not the first Apple employee I’ve met who has the authority to make judgment calls on the spot. Her ability to do so is a reflection of Apple’s culture.
- The replacement product needed to be in stock for the magical moment to happen right then and there – which requires effective logistics management behind the scenes. If you’ve ever heard the “Sorry, the part is not in stock” line as you are on the cusp of making a purchase, you know what a letdown it is when you realize you’re in for a wait. For me, waiting for a resolution was unacceptable. I need my laptop to do my job as a writer and consultant. My laptop is my office.
- As I noted, the packaging added to the experience – the equivalent of the attractive design of a new Shinola watch that creates an immediate emotional appeal.
- The technician possessed empathy, too. He gave me a tour of the new MacBook, pointing out a few of its features that are different than my old one, and he helped me set up the new unit. In fact, all the Apple technicians I have worked with over the past few years have possessed tremendous empathy.
And many other important elements came into play that evening, which I almost take for granted, such as the ease of scheduling a repair appointment in Apple’s Genius Bar; the attractive, warm layout of the store; the comfortable furniture; and the spacious desks that make it possible for you to hang out while you’re waiting. Being able to comfortably sit and read or chat while you’re at the Genius Bar certainly softens the blow of having to get a repair done.
The layout of the Genius Bar also encourages collaboration between the technician and the customer. It feels like you’re sitting at your dining room table at home when you’re at the Genius Bar. There is no barrier between you and the Apple employee. No desks. No registers. The design creates an approachability that puts you at ease – a little detail that acts as a calming influence when you’re experiencing a service issue.
At the end of a long day, driving to the store to return a broken product is low on the list of things you want to do. But the inviting Apple store environment helps restore your spirits. At the same time, just to make the store welcoming, Apple needs to employ designers and retail specialists behind the scenes. Here again, unseen elements — the employees responsible for the store design and management of the Genius Bar — affect what I experience.
Finally, there is the variable over which Apple has no control: me, the customer. Ultimately the Apple brand comes down to my perceptions. And perception is reality. After getting my new laptop, I had a decision to make: how did I feel about what happened when I got a new laptop? Was I going to take the attitude of “Well, that’s the least they can do,” or was I going to be so happy that I’d blog about my experience? It has been said that your customer owns your brand, but businesses can pull many levers to influence a customer’s brand perception. Apple pulled all the right ones.
Now it’s up to Apple to reinforce trust through the reliable performance of my new laptop.