Lost Opportunities through "Improved" Customer Service: The Apple Store

Dear Angela Ahrendts,

You don't know me, but I'm one of your customers. In fact, I'm one of your most important customers...because I've been an Apple customer - and devotée - since 1984.

What that means is that I've lived through the askance, side-eyed looks from business colleagues and clients wondering why I wasn't "smart" enough to prefer a PC.

I lived through being called a MacHead.

I've defended the company's vertical strategy when friends and colleagues spoke of being held hostage by Apple.

I believed in Steve Jobs - and awaited his return when the Apple Board turned on him. I also believe in Tim Cook and what he's bringing to the company - including defending him to colleagues, clients and analysts when he was first appointed and they asked me why I thought he could do what Steve Jobs did...and more.

I've been through it all - and, throughout, I've held firm that Apple knows what it's doing...until I visited an Apple Store recently and found out about your new, "improved" customer service policy for the Genius Bar.

The idea is good: Staff the Genius Bar so that the stores can handle walk-in customers' needs.

What isn't good is that it has had a knock-on effect on the rest of the staff working the floor. They've turned into salespeople.

One of the great joys of the design that Steve Jobs and Ron Johnson incorporated into the Apple Store (and, yes, I was positing from the first that they were revitalizing and redefining the retail experience - which they did) was that the Apple Store was a place not just to see and touch these "magical" products. It was a place to play.

What that meant was that the folks on the floor not only answered customers' questions. They shared their own excitement about and experience of what the technology can do.

As a result, they were like mini-Geniuses. It wasn't uncommon for staff members to try to answer customers' questions. Not technical questions. And definitely not fixes when something was mechanically wrong. But User questions.

And that's what's gone. Somehow, as you conveyed the new policy about Genius Bar support for walk-ins, what also got conveyed was that the floor staff weren't supposed to answer questions anymore - at least not unless the questions were about product specs and price-points.

They've become salespeople - and that's a terrible thing.

There's no give and take. There's no shared excitement. There's no fun and sense of possibility - from the "I didn't know you could do that!" wow factors to the "Oh, is that how I fix that problem!" relief that came with talking with someone who shared your experience and had greater knowledge to offer.

I've visited - and purchased items - in Apple Stores in multiple countries and the experience was always the same.

This, too, has been the Apple Experience. Not just the technology. It's the feeling Steve Jobs engendered from the first that, as an Apple user, you were part of something more. Something big.

You could Think Different.

Evidently, not so much anymore. At least not amongst your floor staff.

This is a quick and easy fix, Ms. Ahrendts, and I hope you take care of it. Soon.

After all these years, I don't want to be proved wrong.

Yours sincerely,



Management: If You Don't Fire The Ones Who Deserve It, Then You Should Be Fired

Yes, it's as simple as that.

If you don't fire the people in your organization who deserve to be fired, then you should be fired.

Why? Because you're not doing your job.

Here's an example:
A friend of mine works in a division of a large private sector organization. In his division, there there are three specialists who have the same responsibilities serving different customer bases. 
Two of the specialists do the work. One of them doesn't. 
The two who do have always brought thought, creativity and innovation to the job. They know they're not only serving their existing customers, but actively and consistently growing the organization's customer base.  
That's their job as they see it. 
Then there's the other one. The one who shows up inconsistently and when he's there wastes time, depends upon others to fill in blanks and doesn't produce. 
He's been there - and has had that job - for years.
Here's another example:
Another friend of mine works in a large public sector organization. It's a 24-hour operation. Each shift is staffed with two to five people working in his particular area, depending upon the shift. 
During each shift, the one thing that can be counted on is that at least one of the people will either be sleeping, reading or watching pornography on the supposedly firewalled computer system. 
The rest of the work is left to those, like my friend, who aren't sleeping, reading or watching porn.
In both examples, my friends' managers - and their respective executives - know and have known about these non-performing employees for years. And for years they've done nothing about them.

Management has all sorts of reasons, of course, for not taking action. Here are just a handful of the excuses that my friends have heard over the years when they've brought the problem forward:
  • It's the union, or
  • They don't have the data required to make a case that will stick, or
  • They know that there will be a complaint made against them if they take any action (which, of course, could hurt their promotion potential), or
  • Human Resources is just so busy with everything else that they're not providing the support needed to make the case...
...or any number of other reasons that are spouted with regularity.

The outcome? Neither my friends nor their productive colleagues produce as much as they used to.

Why should they?

Even if they're recognized for their work, they're still having to clean up after the ones who are being rewarded with a paycheck for doing no work.

All of which kills morale, productivity and, for the private sector enterprise, profit.

On the public sector side, as these stories get around - which they inevitably do - they kill the citizens' trust in their government.

All because the managers didn't do their jobs.

That's why, even before any action is taken against the employees, I firmly believe that managers who do not do their jobs in firing the people who should be fired, should be fired themselves.

After all, how much value are they bringing to the enterprise? And what costs are they adding to the operating budget?

What it comes down to is: If you're a manager, part of your job is firing people. If you don't like that part of your job, go back to a non-supervisory role. You're only hurting the organization, its people and its customers by staying where you are.


Rewards and Recognition: What Are You Really Rewarding?

I have a friend who works at a university. The woman puts in hours that simply don't quit.

She's not in management. There are no bonuses and her salary is fine but nothing to write home about. 

The fact that she's exempt doesn't play into her thinking. For her, the job is the job - and her job is to do whatever it takes to ensure the students participating in her programs succeed. 

They do. 

This morning, she and some of her colleagues have a meeting with a key support provider: IT.

It turns out that the folks in IT aren't happy campers. Their problem is that my friend and her colleagues' programs sometimes occur in the evenings and on weekends...and they (IT, that is) don't want to be there. 

In their world, their hours are Monday through Friday, 8 to 5.  That's what they're paid for and that's what they'll do. 

The fact that there are technical problems and that (never say it!) they do things wrong that actually create the problems...well, that's a different story. 

All my friend and her colleagues need do is put in a support ticket. The problem will be fixed as soon as they can get to it...whenever that might be. 

They get paid more too. Lots more. 

Sound familiar? It should. After all, the same thing - and any number of versions thereof - are going on in your organization. Right now. 

What are the costs? What difference does it make? A lot. 

If you don't have turnover yet, as the job market improves, you will - and the first ones to go will be your best performers. 

In the meantime - and for those left behind - you'll have an employee population that cruises, but doesn't strive. That accepts but doesn't innovate.

All of which creates a customer base that's just as happy to look elsewhere as at you. 

It's sad but true: You'll have exactly the company and culture you allowed to grow. 

Happily, it's easy to stop this in its tracks and reverse the trend. It just takes three questions;
  • What are you rewarding? 
  • Who are you recognizing for their performance?
  • Are they creating value add for all of the enterprise - or just for themselves?
The moment you and your team start looking at the enterprise from that interconnected perspective - and begin managing accordingly - you'll find that things begin to change...including, very likely, your rewards and recognition systems. 

What will you notice most - and most quickly? How will you know it's working?

That's easy. Your metrics will tell you. 

From productivity to profits.  From employee morale to customer satisfaction. On internal surveys and social media. 

You'll know. 


Leadership for Innovation: The Value of a Cathartic Puke

Based on the recent job numbers, the US is seeing the beginning of the end of the worst of the global recession that began in 2007/2008. It's taken long enough.

What interested me from the beginning of the financial implosion, however, was the way that various "experts" had differing opinions about what was going on - and whether it was really as bad as we all thought. (For most, it was worse.)

There was one particular analyst I recall who went on at great length explaining why what was happening was a good thing. No one was enjoying it, he explained, and it certainly wasn't comfortable. But, according to him, it was necessary.

From his perspective, the financial system needed to be "cleaned out." As far as he was concerned, the only way that it could be done in a healthy and successful way was if it was thorough. Then, he explained, it could be completed and the global economy could put itself on the right track.

He called it a "cathartic puke."

Based on that expression, you can understand why, while I have no recollection of the analyst's name, I certainly remember what he said.

Mostly, however, it made me think about what it takes to lead innovation - let alone to integrate it into an organization's culture - especially an existing organization, no matter the sector or size.

Because, what leadership of organizational innovation requires is the willingness to get rid of what was simply because it's not serving you. Not any more. At least not as well as it did when whatever it is was first devised.

Organizationally, all sorts of decisions are made every day. The problem with them - from strategy through execution across the enterprise - is that they can become embedded. Stuck. The way you do business or the only way you see your business.

That means that, for internal organizational innovators, they're not only up against the challenge of generating new ideas (which isn't easy at the best of times), but when they do have new ideas, they're then up against systems and layers of management that fight - consciously and unconsciously - to keep the status quo. That's the much harder fight.

That's why leadership for innovation starts and ends with the willingness to stop doing the things that don't work anymore. That don't create the profits you need. That are keeping you from new markets and new possibilities.

It then requires the willingness to recognize that there are people inside your enterprise who will do anything to keep you and the organization from recognizing that innovation is necessary. Or to keep you from doing the cathartic puke that needs to be done...including making the personnel changes necessary to get and keep your enterprise on track.

Innovation isn't easy...even if new ideas are floating around all over the place. Executing on them is what separates successful businesses from the also-rans...or worse, the no-longer-in-business.

Leadership for innovation takes courage. You have to be brave enough to be willing to see what others see - and which you didn't. You also have to be brave enough to take the actions to turn those product and service visions into a new reality.

How to start? Try a cathartic puke.


The Inestimable Value of "I don't know."

Probably the least valued and least stated sentence in any organization is "I don't know."

That's sad - because saying "I don't know" isn't an admission of some kind of failure. It's the opening of a door to new information, ideas and vistas...the kind of vistas that change jobs, organizations and, sometimes - just sometimes - the world.

Think about it. How often have you heard a manager or executive say, "Don't bring me problems! Bring me solutions!"

But what if the person experiencing the problem doesn't and can't know the solution? What if they don't have access to the information available to more senior members of the organization?

And what about those times that an employee takes the initiative and their courage in hand to bring a solution forward...just to be shot down by being told that - for whatever reason - "it can't be done" or "that can't happen?"

How often do you think that employee - or all the colleagues in and out of your organization with whom he or she talks - will feel comfortable bringing a problem...or solution...forward? The answer: Probably never.

And what about the problem? It's not like it went away. It's still there. Looming. Impacting the work and the workers' morale - which means it's also impacting current and future product and service innovation along with the associated immediate and future profit generation.

Ah, but what about the managers, executives, directors, owners, board members and every aspiring employee who made their career by being the one with the answers?

It's even worse for that crew because the fear factor of saying, "I don't know" outweighs any organizational value the sentence may bring.

How, you think, can you admit that you don't know without admitting weakness? How, you wonder, can you say those words without putting your current position and future career at risk?

So, what's the answer? If you're senior enough and have the budget, it's easy: Bring in a consultant! That's the ticket.

Only it isn't. Too often, consultants, in executing their solutions for your organization, create other problems - often unknowable at the time, but very useful to the consulting firm for follow-on engagements. (This isn't cynicism. It's the consulting model at work.)

This is what Mark Suster, a former entrepreneur and now Partner of Upfront Ventures*, says about his time as a consultant at what is now Accenture:
I enjoyed the first half of my time at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) because I was a computer programmer and had to build stuff that actually worked. But as I rose in my career (and post MBA) I moved into a role in which I was to advise board-level executives on topics where I was expected to rapidly become an expert.
Some areas were easy because they were technical and the answer was knowable or estimate-able. But much of the work was unknowable.
The problem with consulting is that they hire very smart, young people out of top colleges who come in to evaluate data and advise large organizations but the people doing the work are often only book smart.
As a consultant you’re not paid to say “I don’t know,” you’re paid to come up with an answer. And the problem is that you know that you’re being paid a lot of money to seemingly know the answer and to almost know it even before the work has been done. Consultants spend all of their time pretending to know these answers.
So, now what? If not consultants and outside experts, what's the answer? 

It's saying, "I don't know" then opening the topic up for discussion.

It's consciously and purposefully structuring the communication in your organization - no matter the size - to ensure you're getting the input you need by asking the right questions...and then being willing to listen to the answers.

It's valuing a lack of solutions when they're unknown rather than rewarding action-for-action sake...allowing the 'hero' to look good and then get out (or get promoted) before the dangers of the 'solution' become visible.

Give it a try. Next time you're facilitating a meeting - particularly if it's with subordinates - tell them that it's okay for them to say, "I don't know." You say it, too, when the need arises.

And when that happens, ask them what they think. Because if they do know, you'll be more than happy with the results.
* If you've not already subscribed to Suster's wonderful blog, "Both Sides of the Table," I suggest you do so now!