BrainTrust Query: The A.P.P.L.E. Way

Discussion
Jun 20, 2011

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt from a current article from Insight-Driven Retailing Blog.

The Wall Street Journal just did an interesting deep-dive on the Apple retail stores, interviewing current and past employees and obtaining some of their training manuals. One of the things that stuck out for me was the fact that they aren’t really relying on some technology advantage – it’s about carefully controlling the customer experience. For example, they use the acronym APPLE as follows:

A – Approach customers with a personalized warm welcome.
P – Probe politely to understand all the customer’s needs.
P – Present a solution for the customer to take home today.
L – Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns.
E – End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return.

Nothing high-tech about that at all. Each employee receives at least 40 hours of training to ensure they know the products and understand how to treat customers. They are not on commission and earn a typical $9-$15/hr or around $30/hr at the Genius Bar.

And the results are an impressive $4,406 per square foot. To put that in context, compare it to Tiffany at $3,070, Coach at $1,776, and Best Buy at $880.

From what I’ve read, Steve Jobs is a bit of a control freak and that definitely extends into the stores. When he first returned to Apple, he tried the "store within a store" concept with big box retailers like CompUSA and Circuit City. But he couldn’t control the user experience and thus could not adequately differentiate from the Windows offerings. This led to the eventual hiring of Ron Johnson from Target (who recently announced he’s leaving Apple to run J.C. Penney), and the two collaborated on new store formats to show off Apple’s products.

The concept was to create a destination showroom, not a retail store. Stores were a place to showcase the products and talk to customers in a very inviting environment. Apple has always been good at taking care of their zealots, and this was just an extension to the less geeky public. Back in 2001 they insisted on a point-of-sale that ran on their hardware, which is how we landed the business. These days, most of the registers have been phased out or hidden in favor of the iPod Touch mobile POS.

Other retailers have tried to emulate the model, but no one has seen success. Apple is Apple, and they did exactly what worked for their business. No one else is Apple, so no one else should copy their stores. But retailers can and should be inspired by Apple’s success and strive to find ways to improve their own customers’ in-store experience. And it doesn’t take a ton of technology.

Discussion Question: What can other stores learn from Apple’s employee training methods and customer service guidelines?

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26 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: The A.P.P.L.E. Way"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
9 years 10 months ago
I was on MSNBC this past weekend talking about these articles. David is right on, it isn’t the technology but it is the focus on the customer experience. Their stores are designed to speak to the four personality styles: the Driver – newest and most status at the front; the Expressive – see all the ways you can personally connect and share with the world via our technology; the Amiable – it is a safe place for friends to sell to friends; and of course the Analyticals or tech geeks. It is rare to find anyone else doing all of this. Apple spends weeks or longer to make sure their employees know what their system and products are before they ever talk to a customer. Compare that to other places: fill out application, brief interview, next morning waiting on customers. All that said, Apple is Apple and their margins allow a five customer to one employee “high touch” environment. The key takeaway is how tightly scripted and trained employees can increase sales – something the… Read more »
Alison Chaltas
Guest
Alison Chaltas
9 years 10 months ago

The learning from Apple is simple: Live the brand in store. It took a technology company with the luxury of building stores from scratch to develop today’s best practices in Shopper Marketing.

Ian Percy
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

It’s the ENERGY stupid!

We keep thinking that it’s technology, the mechanistic tools, that make a difference. Millions are being spent on all this coding stuff, making customers take pictures of the product with their phones, giving customers mini-cashregisters so they can check pricing and process their purchases themselves without having to interact with a store employee, etc.

What we don’t realize is that the more we stress the mechanistic the more we diminish the energetic. Apple’s “secret” is the energetic experience customers get. And that kind of energy is free!

Go into Best Buy and you have to breakup an employee huddle to get someone to help you. Go into Apple and they meet you at the door. The fact is the retail store with the most energy wins!

Steve Montgomery
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

The APPLE acronym could be used by any retailer. It is about creating an experience that provides a positive customer experience.

That being said, I am sure I will not be the only one to comment on the second “P” – “Present a solution for the customer to take home today.” This is the only one of the phrases that indicates a push to close a sale. Written as it is it indicates a desire to help the customer find a “solution”, but it is a strong reminder your job is to generate sales.

Ian Percy
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

And another thing…

What stores will do guaranteed, is regard Apple as a “best practice” and try to do what they do. In other words they’ll look at Apple’s energy and make it mechanistic. Like the sign I saw posted behind the cash register at one store about how to treat customers. “Step 1. Smile at the customer.” I was surprised they didn’t have check-off boxes next to the list! Of course the list was signed “The Management.” And we wonder why retail struggles? Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!

Ben Ball
Guest
9 years 10 months ago
Apple’s customer service training is laudable and a good model for a positive customer experience. But after a number of experiences consulting with CE manufacturers and retailers, I think Apple has four advantages that are difficult for other retailers to emulate. 1. The product is by definition interactive. People want to play with it — and Apple lets them.2. The product is constantly changing. There is always a reason to go in the store to see the latest thing.3. The representatives in the store are devoted to both technology in general and Apple in particular. It is like having a considered expert giving word of mouth endorsement every time a customer walks into the store. 4. The format invites the customer to play with the product in a no pressure environment. Not that they don’t sell — but no one is asking your “what would it take for you to drive that car home today?” For those of us who are not quite as enthralled with technology, think of it this way. What if there… Read more »
Paula Rosenblum
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

One thing RSR’s research consistently reinforces is the notion that retailing success is not a function of focusing on “selling more stuff.” It’s an outcome of a set of thought processes, strategies and supporting technologies. Those who consistently lag keep trying to find a “magic bullet” to drive success. Those who consistently win tend to demonstrate a relentless focus on their customer.

So, I don’t think “no one else has seen success”. I think companies like REI, Nordstrom and others have seen a LOT of success…for the same reasons, but manifesting in different ways for their different audiences.

As David points out, it is imperative for retailers to re-train their focus onto creating a differentiated in-store experience. If they don’t, they risk becoming showrooms for the lowest cost on-line retailer.

This trend has been a long time in developing. Apple’s success just underscores how important it really is.

David Biernbaum
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

The A.P.P.L.E. way for customer service is so simple and easy that you would think every retail company on the planet ought to be able to follow. But in reality Apple has a couple of variables going for it that are not shared by most supermarkets and drug stores. For one, Apple sells a technical destination type of product, and secondly, let’s be honest enough to say that many of their employees are also sales oriented with above average intelligence. Still, it’s worthwhile for all retailers to do their best to teach these same types of guidelines in a way that makes sense for the types of customers they have.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Starting with the assumption that the retail store is a customer experience to determining what that customer experience should be, to determining how employees can help to provide that experience, to investing in a lot of training to make that happen, is a philosophy that works. It is also a philosophy that any retailer can follow as long as they can determine what customer experience will work for their customers in their store and then following the rest of the process, including the investment in training.

Doug Fleener
Guest
9 years 10 months ago
The point is that Apple goes far beyond customer service “guidelines”–focusing their entire retail organization on delivering great customer experiences. There is a big difference between the two. It’s easy to talk it, but a lot tougher to execute it. As someone who specializes in helping companies compete on the customer experience, I see a number of keys to Apple’s success: * Having a well-define experience* Customer-focused leadership* Extremely high hiring standards* Fanatical attention to detail* High expectations of people* The appropriate training and development to support the experience Every one of these things is about people. Apple, a technology company, got from the very start that the key to delivering a successful customer experience is in the people who are engaging the customer and representing the brand. Technology can enable the experience, but it can never replace it. I did have to laugh when the article said the employees don’t sell, but instead they’re expected to find the pain points and then help the customer buy a product that day that reduces the pain.… Read more »
David Zahn
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Picking up on what Ben Ball shared–why can’t the grocery be like he suggests? Why can’t the store provide guidance (health benefits, recipes, cooking or preparation instructions, product comparisons, etc.)? Why can’t clerks be trained to be experts and answer questions (what can I do with an avocado besides make guacamole?)? Why can’t people interact with the product (smell the baked goods, sample the cheese, sip the juice, notice how food doesn’t stick to this pan, etc.)?

I think Ben is absolutely right in pointing out how Apple approaches retailing and how the opportunity exists for other channels to use what works elsewhere and “import” it or at least improve on their own efforts in those regards.

Peter Fader
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

No one can argue with the unique success of Apple’s in-store service. But I can nitpick with the comment by Alison Chaltas: “Live the brand in store.” Apple’s in-store experience is totally at odds with the “we know better than you” nature of their product design. Want a keyboard on your smartphone? Too bad. Want easy cross-manufacturer interoperability? Nope. The list goes on.

Don’t get me wrong: Apple’s devices are amazing — best in class. But the way they design these devices is totally at odds with the way they design the customer-service experience.

Maybe this is the right way to go for other firms: limited selection/flexibility for products but amazing service to compensate for it. Hard to say if these lessons generalize, but it certainly is an interesting juxtaposition.

Jonathan Marek
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Ben Ball’s comment is dead-on. There is an advantage that Apple has in store that goes way beyond the A.P.P.L.E. acronym. And it IS technology–it’s the products they are selling and the positive interactive experience the products themselves create. Of course, these service elements are necessary (and not specific to Apple), but they aren’t sufficient.

Larry Negrich
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

What Apple was able to put into practice across its stores is staffing that is passionate about the products and about satisfying the shopper. The training investment is obviously an important aspect–as is hiring, and the product itself. It is impressive that Apple has been able to create this culture in a short time period but there is nothing magical about the process that other retailers can’t replicate. Apple’s vertical integration allows them to control the entire process so that does allow more control and faster execution. (This could also have meant they could have failed faster too.)

Without citing a specific retailer as example there are a number retail segments where passionate, knowledgeable store associates seem to be the rule including independent music stores (if you can find one), hiking stores, gun shops, coffee shops,and many fine, upscale clothing stores. There is a lot to be learned from the successful retailers in all of these segments.

Herb Sorensen, Ph.D.
Guest
9 years 10 months ago
This is great for a high dollar/high margin store, heavily dependent on staff. The same absolute commitment to customer experience is manifested in all of Apple’s products, too. I believe the philosophy is good, but translating it into a self-service environment is not so obvious. “Carefully controlling the customer experience.” This is another way of expressing what I called the Holy Grail of self-service retailing, ten years ago. “To know exactly what each shopper wants, and may buy, when they come through the door of the store. And delivering that to them right away, taking their money quickly and speeding them on their way.” It’s no wonder that Steve Jobs couldn’t get this to work at Best Buy, et al. Most self-service retailers do not really SELL anything, they are simply merchant warehousemen who stock the store in eager anticipation of the shopper coming to do THEIR thing, buying. The ‘whole lot of buying going on’ blinds self-service retailers into imagining that they are super salesmen–NOT! What is needed is brain transplants all around! But… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

“No one else is Apple, so no one else should copy their stores.”

Well, OK, that rather takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it? The real question of course is how can a company inspire the cult-like following that Apple enjoys…obviously the stores are simply the physical manifestation of that zeal.

Lee Peterson
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

To me, this is not about copying Apple, it’s about two things: A) understanding and executing the fundamentals of retail really well and B) staying on brand.

That A.P.P.L.E. list is what most retailers would call “duhs,” but who executes like them? And therein lies the problem: operational execution. Even the best fashion retailer out there can only be in part about fashion as the other part has to be about getting the fundamentals done. So, doing fundamentals well makes you special at this stage of retail in the U.S. Ouch.

Also, Apple’s brand mantra is to “Think Different.” And they do that at retail–as stated, not with knock-out tech, but by making things very, very simple and taking care of customers. Which, again, by today’s standards, is thinking differently.

Sort of a sad state of affairs that the A.P.P.L.E. list is even newsworthy and not something that’s executed everywhere and therefore a true “duh.” But maybe, thanks to this emulator, it will be from now on.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

This is the basic sales approach to finding the needs and resolving them to the customer’s satisfaction. Nothing high tech, no rocket science here. Simply basic selling skills wrapped up in a comfortable environment.

Now relate that to a typical big or small box retailer and notice anything? Could the Apple difference be better training? Maybe it’s a willingness to serve the customer’s needs better? Whichever tool it is; Apple is successful and offers a role model others should take heed and follow.

Apple puts the customer first. And the result is higher sales per square foot. Amazing how simple it can be, isn’t it?

Mark Burr
Guest
9 years 10 months ago
One can’t argue with the facts. Apple is what it is. It’s a company with an amazing quantity of loyal customers and an experience for those customers that is–to them–unmatched. The point is that it is all for those that like their products, are intensely loyal, can’t wait for the next release of the new product, and can’t wait to tell others about it, etc. For Apple, it is unmatched. For me, I’ve tried it. I can’t see it. It feels creepy. It feels cultish. But hey, you can’t argue with the facts. At one time I felt that way about Saturn cars and the experience of owning one and going to a Saturn dealership for either just a visit or for service. There were those of us that felt as strongly about them as those who feel that emotional connection with Apple. Saturn never reached the same heights for many reasons; all of which left their loyalists shaking their heads. What Apple has done is forget about the rest and focus on their loyal… Read more »
R Seaman
Guest
R Seaman
9 years 10 months ago

You can never take away the power of having the right product to sell. Apple stores have benefited from having a product line that is in high demand. All of the other components they are credited with are certainly needed to complete the sale and ensure that the buyer is knowledgeable about the product and satisfied when they get it home and put it to use.

George Whalin
Guest
George Whalin
9 years 10 months ago

Many retail observers and consultants like myself have long admired Apple’s approach to retailing. But it’s important to put their success in context. The company started their retail venture with very deep financial pockets. With highly capable management they have been able to create exciting, customer-centric stores offering highly desirable products. This success story is unlike nearly every other successful retail in modern history.

Are there lessons to be learned from Apple Stores? Absolutely! I believe the most important lesson of all is that Apple management pays incredible attention to the details. While most retailers believe they pay attention to the details, how many actually do so by teaching their associates exactly what to say and how to say it? How many invest substantial resources to teach customers how to use their products? These things help make Apple stores the envy of other retailers.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Are you kidding?! EVERY retailer can learn from Apple Store successes. Think of traditional food, department, apparel…anything: are the products as exciting as the ones in Apple Stores? Maybe. Maybe not. What CAN be as exciting are the employees. Too many retailers exhibit the “Build-it-and-they-will-come” attitude. That doesn’t generate compelling reasons to shop your particular store. Can you imagine a clerk walking through a supermarket aisle on their way to the lunch room from the frond end and they actually stop to ask you if you have found everything you need? Nope, neither can I. This ain’t rocket science, or technology. Retail MUST evolve. ‘nough said.

Mike Osorio
Guest
Mike Osorio
9 years 10 months ago

Apple’s incredible margins and focus around specific and limited product makes the job of creating extraordinary customer experiences the norm. However, the lesson for all retailers is the focus, passion and willing to invest from senior leaders that drives the consistent execution. It is not necessary to emulate everything Apple is doing. The key is to learn from them and apply SOMETHING to your approach that will make a difference in the experiences of your staff and for the customer.

RICHARD BOWDEN
Guest
RICHARD BOWDEN
9 years 10 months ago

As a lifetime retailer of electronics I must say I have spent a lot of time analysing the APPLE “way”. Apple has a fairly straightforward “plan”….great products ..beautifully displayed in a way that allows it to be easy to touch and feel ,scripted presentations which ensure a consistant presentation, and a relatively small selection of merchandise which allows the shopper and the retailer to maintain great focus on the experience.

There is one store that comes to mind when examining this style of “Customer Experience” retailing – BOSE. One trip to one of their Bose Branded stores will confirm that they also have a scripted presentation which simplifies technology and is careful not to be pushy or intimidate the customer. Compare this experience to a Bose presentation at a Best Buy style retailer….

APPLE has a wonderful formula….a formula which may not be perfect for all retailers but from which ALL retailers are able to learn a great deal.

Marge Laney
Guest
9 years 10 months ago

Apple is the poster child for in-store customer service done right and what that means to the bottom line. “Apple is Apple” so don’t try this at home, is not good advice. Apple sells computer technology as do a lot of other companies, but they have distinguished their brand with great product and they sell it with great personal service. Their great product wasn’t flying off the shelves in the store-in-store environment of the big box retailer, which proves it’s not just the product. It takes people to bring a brand alive and differentiate it from the competition. Without their people, Apple would still only have the core cult followers. Their retail stores and their in-store experience have moved them to the top position, and it was done profitably and without a single discount or Groupon. Good old fashion customer service turned out to be the trick! Who da thunk it!

Dean A. Sleeper
Guest
Dean A. Sleeper
9 years 10 months ago

The Apple circumstance is truly unique in terms of product, design etc. To be fair…the number of SKUs with which they deal is extremely low by comparison to most retail stores. That said…the unavoidable truth is that their people are more consistently capable of helping customers than any other enterprise-scale retailer I know. The expectation set by management is extremely high and those who don’t meet it, beat it.

I am aware that the challenges for hiring in other retail contexts are extreme. I realize that most won’t achieve something like Apple…but would it kill folks to demand that retail store staff be friendly and helpful? And more importantly to get rid of them if they won’t?

I love it. I think new consumers expect to be treated well and that Apple is leading the way in setting those expectations.

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