Maybe Apple isn't king of customer experience after all

by Philip Webb on 28 November 2011

As a company, Apple ploughs its own furrow. It has been a hugely successful innovator in terms of its business model and service delivery, re-inventing the way we interact with mobile devices and consume music. So it’s a surprise that the company ends up mid-table in our recent Retail Ecommerce Report. Why hasn’t a company that prides itself on providing the services and technology people crave, that commands such devotion and respect, not trumped the likes of John Lewis and Marks and Spencer.The short answer is that it performs brilliantly on some guidelines and poorly on others.

Some may argue that Apple operates by a different rule book, that their unique way of doing business can’t be judged by conventional guidelines. However, the report investigates the experience of buying and interacting with the brand across multiple channels, rather than the desirability of their products or the persuasion of their brand. The unusual level of corporate good will towards Apple products might outweigh some negative aspects of the experience of buying them, but that’s not to say that improvements can’t be made.

Here is an overview of our findings of Apple’s multichannel customer experience:

  • Mobile customer experience:

As you’d expect, the company excels with its mobile Apple Store app. It opts to put its effort into an app rather than bothering with a mobile-optimised site, which makes sense given its business imperative to steer consumers towards its unique platform for apps. However, it could do more to point customers towards the app. The retailer Next, for example, gives a choice between the app and a mobile site when customers search the web for the company on a mobile device. Apple just loads a site that isn’t optimised for mobile which is not best practice.

  • Cross-channel Mobile and In-store  customer experience:

What really stands out though is the way the company integrates the app with an in-store experience. With the app you can make reservations to join workshops or get 1-to-1 technical help. The design of the app is in tune with the mobile context of its use – ‘I’m out and about, I want to try out the new iPhone, where’s the nearest store, I can be there in an hour, let’s make an appointment…’

  • In-store customer experience:

This leads to the other genius aspect of the Apple retail experience. Apple Stores aren’t really like stores at all. They’re places to admire and try out Apple products. They’re more like demo spaces at slick trade fair stands, or the interactive areas of a science museum. At one

level this helps position them as places of consumer worship where devotees can queue up for product releases and place half-eaten apple cores at the shrine of Steve Jobs. At another level, it’s offering a successful and practical customer experience – lots of eager, knowledgeable Apple geek staff who can’t wait to answer your questions about the products. You can buy there if you want, but the idea is really to get you hooked with no pressure to buy straight away. They’re expensive, luxury items after all – so maybe you need some time to think about it… Apple stores make a confident statement that the shopping experience can be new and different.

So what is going wrong for Apple’s cross-channel customer experience?

Perhaps the way the stores are set up explains why the company didn’t do so well with the multi-channel aspects of flexible customer service. The report examines how easy it is to buy something online and return it in-store. Apple Stores wouldn’t allow me to return the lower value item I bought via the website. The bemused manager claimed it was because they didn’t stock the item in the store. But the stocking policy of the store is of little concern to the consumer. Perhaps it’s possible to return an iPad or an iPhone, but it shows the stores aren’t really designed with the more day to day transaction of money and goods in mind. Perhaps this is due to business prioritisation, or maybe it’s an oversight.

There are other aspects of the experience that don’t match up to the performance of other companies.

  • The lack of ways to manage product search results on the website. It’s true that the site sells only Apple products so perhaps search functionality isn’t that important. But a search for ‘iPhone’ yields 99 results with lots of choice combinations on colour and memory capacity but no sort or filter options to help customers drill down to the right product.
  • And, curiously, while the app does a great job of showcasing the strengths of the physical stores, the website doesn’t - again against best practice multichannel retail.

Steve Jobs was famously obsessive about the details of all Apple’s offerings but the details seem to be missing. At the risk of incurring the wrath of Apple devotees, the verdict on Apple’s multi-channel retail experience is that it’s inconsistent.

What do you think? Should Apple be considered outside the realms of our retail customer experience report due to the nature of the brand? Or do you think that they have, in fact, forgotten some key aspects that matter to customers?

Leave us your thoughts in the comments below!

Images are from Apple’s Covent Garden store information or screen shots from Apple products.

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