Is Apple customer-centric?

I notice that we often talk about and collapse customer service, customer experience, customer loyalty and customer-centricity. Should we? How are these related? What is the distinguishing feature of customer centricity? Apple – is Apple customer-centric? Come walk with me and let’s use our imaginations to conduct an experiment.

Imagine this scenario: you walk into your favourite bar

Imagine that your drive to your favourite bar in your shiny new sports car. The car park is spacious, it is well lit, there are plenty of spaces, your park and head for the entrance. You happen to enter the bar at the same time as a stranger – you are a regular and you have never seen this person before. Upon entering one of the people working in the bar (employee) recognises you, call out your name and tells you it is great to see you. Fantastic, you feel great you have been recognised as an individual.

By the time you arrive at the bar, Joe, the bartender has your favourite drink ready for you at your favourite seat. You great each other, you catch up on stuff – work, vacations, sports, friends, family – whilst you are sitting there at the bar drinking. Whilst you are doing that you cannot help but notice that the stranger has ordered the same drink (that you are drinking) and he is being a charged less for his drink. You ask Joe: “What is going on? Why is the stranger getting a better deal than me?”. Joe, in his friendly voice and caring manner tells you that as you are a loyal customer and company policy is not to offer ‘discounts’ to loyal customers. Why? Because the loyalty guru’s have told management that loyal customers will pay more and should be charged more. You counter: “But Joe I’m a loyal customer! Shouldn’t I get the same or even a better deal than this stranger?” Joe gets your position and says “Yes. And my hands are tied. It’s company policy. Sorry!” You don’t like what is so (the policy on not offering the same deals to loyal customers like you) yet you do like Joe. Joe cares about his customers, he cares about the job he does and he is great at what he does including connecting with customers. You are willing to overlook that policy largely because of the way that the bar staff treat you (‘service’) and your experience – all of it.

As you sit there drinking you look around and you get why this is your favourite bars: it is to do with all of the experience. It is easy for you to get to this bar – it is in the right location. It is easy to park and your car is safe. The bar is attractive from the outside, so attractive that it draws you in. The layout of the bar appeals to you – the space, the way that the space is structured, the colour/designs, the furniture, the seating etc. And this bar seems to play just the right music and at the right volume level. Furthermore, this bar attracts your kind of people – you feel comfortable, you feel at home here. Last but not least, the bar staff are welcoming – they remember you, they are pleased to see you, you know them and they know you. Yes, a great experience!

It just so happens that you have a hard day. Life is not working out as you expected – there is trouble at work and you have just got some bad news about your health. The alcohol and the bar – the entire experience – is helping you to relax. So you order one drink after another and throw them back. Joe’s paying attention and he politely asks you to slow down as you’ve just got your shiny new sports car and you have a bit of a drive to get back home to your wife and three children. You pay no attention to Joe. Your order another drink and then another drink. You don’t notice it but Joes does notice – you are drunk. The next time you order a drink, Joe refuses to give it to you – he tells you that you are drunk, that he does not want you to drive home drunk – he knows that you will drive home . You don’t like this, your protest, you demand and still Joe does not budge. No problem you have a smartphone and you are ready to do take on this pesky employee who is not giving you want you want.

It so happens that this bar is part of a franchise owned by a big enough company that is social media savvy. You know that and so you take out your smartphone and tweet about the lousy service that Joe is delivering to you. Delight: your tweet is picked up. The Customer Service team rings you back immediately. You tell them about how you are a regular, loyal, high spending customer. You tell them that Joes is refusing to serve you the drinks that you want. They ask you to pass your phone to Joe. The company policy is to be responsive to customer needs when it comes to selling and making money. So Joe gets a telling off – he is breaking company policy – and is reminded about what is expected of him in his role. Joe hands you back your smartphone and gets busy giving you your next drink. You’re happy. Then Joe tells you that this drink and the next one, if you want that next one, is on the house – to compensate you for the poor service. Now you are delighted. You think: “Wow, this company really cares. What great service. Not only did the company sort out your problem immediately, it also said sorry by giving you free drinks.”

Whilst Joe was on the phone and being reminded about company policy – he was reminded on the need and importance of upselling and cross-selling. So after you have had your two free drinks, Joe notices that you are particularly happy. That is his moment to execute the company policy. He invites you to order drinks for all the people in the bar, pointing out that this will make you popular. That is exactly what you do as it occurs as a great idea. You’re happy so why not share your happiness. And it is so easy to pay – this bar is advanced the payment is automatically charged and deducted via your mobile phone! No need to bother with money or credit cards. So you drink some more and some more until it is closing time.

As you are leaving the bar Joe is thinking to himself “He’s drunk – he’s totally drunk and in no fit state to drive”. At the same time Joe knows you and is certain that you will attempt that 30 minute drive back home. Joe is thinking about taking your keys from you so that you cannot drive. He is thinking about ordering you a taxi and putting it on the company’s tab. Then Joe remembers the telling off that he got earlier in the evening for breaking company policy. Joe is also present to the fact that he needs this job – he cannot afford to lose it. And Joe knows that the company policy is not to intrude on customer’s lives and liberty – certainly not when it costs money e.g. taxi fare. So Joe, being fully aware of the fact that you are a family man and fully aware that you are too drunk to drive home says nothing. He stands at the door wishes you good night, watches you fumble into your car and drive away.

In the middle of the night your wife gets a call, she learns that she is now a widow: you had a crash and no-one made it out alive, not you and not the three folks in the other car.

Questions to consider

Did the organisation orchestrate/deliver great service – from the folks in the bar, the folks manning the Twitter account and the Customer Services folks that rang you back and sorted out your issue with Joe?

Did your organisation design and deliver a great customer experience – location, car parking, exterior design, interior design, recognising and greeting a loyal customer, responsive/personalised service, speedy service reovery, making it easy for you to pay?

Did the organisation act in a customer centric manner – knowing your needs/wants as an individual, acting on your needs/wants to deliver what you want, not putting obstacles in the way of you getting your needs/wants met, making it easy for you to buy the drinks, enriching your life by supplying all the drink that you wanted to drink?

I have a finally question for you. If you widow and your children (all three of them) knew (see, hear, experience) what had occurred in the bar – the whole of it, everything – what would they say? Would they say that the organisation that runs this bar is customer-centric?

My take on service, customer experience and customer-centricity

Customer-centricity, in the sense in which the man on the street understands this, is in a completely different category to service and customer experience. For customer-centricity to show up as customer-centricity in the world of the ordinary human being we have to consider our relationship, our obligation, to our fellow human beings. In short we have to consider and grapple with Ethics: right and wrong; our rights and obligations when it comes to conscious beings as opposed to stuff. Is it ok to enrich ourselves at the expense of another? When is it necessary to submit to the demands of our customers? When is it necessary to refuse the demands of our customers? Notice that whilst Ethics may play a role in customer service and customer experience it does not have the same significance. Ethics is secondary here (customer service, customer experience) whereas it is primary when grappling with the question of ‘customer-centricity’. Put differently, when you are grappling with the notion of ‘customer-centricity’ you absolutely have to grapple with Ethics; it is possible to grapple with customer service and customer experience without grappling with Ethics.

Apple, whilst a master of customer experience, is not customer-centric

I am clear that Apple makes great products. What makes those products great? Apple has grasped the importance of the user experience when it comes to using consumer products and designed these products to provide an easy / delightful user experience. I am also clear that Apple is great at service especially when it comes to the Apple stores. Furthermore, I am clear that Apple gets the importance of the Customer Experience and is great at crafting and orchestrating a good/great customer experience for most if not all of its customers.

Is Apple customer-centric? For my part, I have never thought of Apple as a customer-centric organisation. As I have argues above, to the ordinary wo/man, the question of customer centricity brings along with it, like the two sides of a coin, the question of Ethics, of morality, of right and wrong. Apple is a great organisation and it fails greatly when it comes to Ethics. First we have the issue the around Foxconn and the treatment of workers (fellow human beings) in Foxconn factories. And now we have a lawsuit filed by US department of justice claiming that Apple ended price competition after seeing success of Amazon’s $10 ebooks. How? By colluding with five book publishers: Hachette SA, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster. Let’s be clear about this: price fixing breaks the law and price fixing so as to increase prices is not what most customers would think of as ‘customer-centric’. If you are thinking that I have got this all wrong then please enter into a conversation with me and help me understand where I have gone wrong.

Final thoughts

“If Apple can do so fantastically well without being customer-centric then is it necessary for companies to be customer-centric?” That is the kind of question an economist or strategically minded business executive will ask. I ask a different question: “Do you and I want to live in a world that is dominated by the Apples of this world for whom we are simply wallets to be emptied?”