Friday, September 12, 2008

Gurus, Geeks, and Geniuses: Courting the computer store customer

Okay, so I love my Mac. I still think the iPod is not only the coolest thing ever invented (despite recent drops in sales and the "less than impressive" presentation of the new lineup this week), but it’s like all Mac products: sleek and beautifully designed. And I think I've made clear how I feel about the iPhone. So there, with my biases on the table, I’m still trying to weigh in objectively about the newer retail service trends for personal computers.

Gather ‘round the campfire, as the nights are getting cool and it’s time to tell those Apple Store stories from the summer…

Here goes: in the last month I've made five (yes, five) visits to four (yes, four) different Apple Stores in three (yes, three) different states. Don't make me explain. Well, okay, you can find the longer version on another blog. But let's just say that lately I've had some good opportunities to observe the "Service is Marketing" mantra in action. For anyone who hasn't had the same multi-state retail pleasures, let me assure you that the system works.

Ah, the Apple Store! The Concierge in the orange t shirt directs you to where you need to go without trying to sell any product unless you ask. While you wait for your Genius Bar appointment, you don't have to browse. There are bar stools so you can hang out until your name appears at the top of the appointment list, which you can check on the digital sign behind the bar. The Genius bar staff, with their blue or black t-shirts, only do technical and mechanical support. They will sell you what you need -- but the two Geniuses who ended up having to sell me something beyond my repair bill almost seemed surprised to ring up an item rather than print out a tech report.

Apple has a good thing going. And of course, since it's working, Bill Gates is getting into the act: recently Microsoft announced that it’s going to introduce Gurus into major retail stores to help consumers with their PC problems. The goal is to get people to “think Microsoft” – but the problem is in confusing help with sales. Most people will likely need assistance due to problems with Vista. Microsoft's new commercials with Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld are entertaining, but they seem oddly disconnected from reassuring people that the product works or can be fixed.

Consider the taxonomy of employee names: A Genius knows how to fix your problem. A Geek supposedly can diagnose what's wrong, but I'm suspicious about his or her level of training for the retail job at Best Buy. "Geek" implies something of a hacker mentality. But a Guru? A Guru gives you advice about what to do rather than doing it for you. For Microsoft, the spiritual oneness we all desire with our computers (i.e. instantaneous response time) doesn't come from the gritty work of repairing the darn thing, but in selling one that works better in the first place.

When the "Service as Marketing" mantra works, it's because (especially with new technology and computers) most people lack is the ability to fix or work the item themselves. I live with someone who has a PhD in computer science and I still ended up a the Apple Store five times...

The color-coded t-shirts are more than eye candy in the white and grey store – each denotes a job title and only some are there to sell. The Gurus don't have that luxury. As much as I believe a sales representative should know a lot about the product they’re selling, I’m much more confident when I meet someone whose job is solely to fix things and not sell you a new one.

The point here is this: in each of the Apple stores, in each of the three states, on all five visits, the experience was exactly as it should have been (even in the one where they couldn't help me). For example, I'm deliberately avoiding any iPhone temptations and even though I had to walk right by them on the way to the Genius bar, there was no sales person to push in the wrong direction. On one visit, while I was waiting for repair work, my teenage daughter spent the time playing with iPods, unhassled by salespeople. There was one section with tables that are low to the ground and have small chairs. Around the table are screens with Mac game demos running for younger children. And with a list of appointments visible on the digital display, I knew when it was my turn and didn’t have to ask, even though the concierge would check in on me occasionally.

While Gates' Guru program is using his vast resources to take a step in the right direction, it can't rival the Apple Store in the long run unless Microsoft is ready, willing and able to take over the entire store experience, from product selection to staffing to layout and merchandising. And let's not forget corporate culture.

One thing that Apple understands better than its rivals: like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, most of us don't really know how the thing works. People need non-judgmental guidance without a heavy sales pitch waiting in the wings.

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