In the name of science, dedicated solely to your education and edification, I willingly sent myself back in time. Flung through history's aching jaw, deep into the dark belly of an aging dinosaur, I painfully ventured off into a shopping mall.
Oddly, the local mall—a relic of retail eras bygone—is the only place I can witness, first hand, the future of customer service.
Or, at least the future of customer service in the eyes of the world's most valuable brand. The brand who began selling their interpretation on the future of hyper-personal computing (the Apple Watch) today.
"Welcome to the Apple Store. How can I help you?" The words pop out from behind a big smile, beaming brightly above, what other than, a bright blue shirt. But this isn't any old bright blue shirt, this one is the signature piece of an updated uniform. A uniform with the ever-so-slightest touch of refined, English luxury—courtesy of former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts. In this case—where High Street meets the shop across from the food court and next to the phone repair kiosk—"updated" means, specifically, the white Apple logo is noticeably smaller and has migrated from its former home (square-and-center) to hanging out in the neighborhood between the employee's collar bone and heart.
I never caught the greeter's name, the direct result of the store's second change. A truly tectonic shift. The signature Apple store accessory, the big, bold, white lanyards draped around every employee's neck, often copied and shamelessly parodied, have vanished in favor of an increased commitment to more personal, direct service.
Unprepared for this drastic change, I immediately felt unsettled. Glancing down at the blue shirt, thoroughly confused, I thought: perhaps this wasn't the real Apple Store, or maybe this greeter was not an employee but a rabid fan boy welcoming me to the store while he holds his spot in line for the forthcoming Apple Watch.
But a quick scan of the store confirmed this nice, though nameless, fellow was actually an employee, who like all the other blue shirts, was completely naked. His neck, that is.
The reasoning behind the change, simply put: you don't see name tags, even well-designed ones, hanging around the necks of a concierge guiding customers along a luxurious journey.
You can't expect to sell $17,000 18 karat gold watches, luxury jewelry while wearing a plastic badge around your neck.
Apple is relentless in their commitment. They intend for every aspect of their brand experience to ooze luxury, and thus the comfortable, friendly badges get tossed in favor of warm, personal interactions.
While the aesthetic is identical, this ain't your granddad's Apple store. Though technically speaking, it was the store of choice for many grandparents—judging by the people listening attentively to the Genius bar workers, diligently scribbling notes on, GASP, paper.
No, this is the new Apple Store, home of, what some Apple employees are calling, the "new customer journey."
When the news broke a few months ago that Apple was updating their in-store customer service experience, featuring a redesigned "concierge" service to manage walk-in Genius bar appointments, I was genuinely curious to experience the changes in person.
Coincidentally, the battery who lives inside my three-year-old Macbook Air recently decided to become a whiny, degrading brat.
Gifting me with the opportunity to, for only the second time in my 10 years as a dedicated Mac user, seek out the sage wisdom of a Genius. Thus the impetus for my time-traveling journey to the mall.
The first step in the new concierge process, was to find the gatekeeper, whom the nameless greeter pointed me toward. Stationed directly in the center aisle of display tables, midway back, the gatekeeper stood guard. Baring a small iPad-shaped shield, he protected the realm of the Genius.
It was inside this iPad where the magic of the new process would take place. In the past as a walk-in, a Genius would see me on a first-come, first-served basis, but the new system uses an algorithm to triage the severity of each walk-in customer's issue and schedule the open slots according to their priority.
Staring intently into the screen, the gatekeeper asks for my information: my name, my email address, my phone number, the problem which I am seeking assistance with. Typing as I respond, he submits it and briefly looks up to inform me of my fate. The details of which, he coughs up only after my prodding, informing me that I'll been seen in "an hour and a half, around one o'clock."
He then ran me through the new text-message based notification system.
"Ok, so we got that in. What's going to happen now is you will receive three text messages. The first one will confirm that you have been added to the system, and your spot in line is reserved. The second will let you know we are almost ready to see you, so when you get this one, you should head back to the mall. The third and final one will give you the exact details of who you are meeting with, and how to get connected with them."
Seeking full clarity, I specifically asked for the typical lead time between the second and third messages. Bluntly stating where I would be (the Zoho Austin office) and the time it would take me to trek back to the mall.
"When you get the second message, you should leave then," he said confidently. "It will be 15 to 20 minutes from then to when we'll be ready, so the timing will work out perfectly if you leave your office when you get the message."
Back at the office, one hour and 37 minutes after being added to the system and receiving the first message, my phone buzzed.
"We'll be ready for you shortly. Please make your way back to the Apple Store soon."
Finishing up a task, I gathered my computer and headed for the parking garage. To my surprise, 25 minutes later when I was checking in at the Genius Bar, I learned my appointment was still more than 2 hours away.
At Apple, apparently "shortly" and "soon" actually mean: "a little over two hours from now, but go ahead and come back to the mall, where you might as well see a movie."
I clearly explained the whole situation to the employee, recounting word-for-word the earlier visit, even showing him the text message.
"Well," he paused, trying to find the right words. "I am sorry, but you were misinformed. He should have told you three and a half hours originally. You are welcome to wait here and if someone cancels their appointment we can work you in. Or you can go do whatever you want, we will just text you when we're ready."
While he fed me the bad news, a casually dressed (long sleeve gray shirt, no apparent Apple logo) tall man appeared. I assumed he was waiting to check in next. But instead, he turned to me and started speaking.
"It's like flying standby," he attempted to reassure me. Though side-note to the wise, just to be safe don't ever compare your customer experience to anything airline related. "Just sit tight and we will see what we can do...I'm Matt, the manager here."
I quickly explained the full context to Matt, even showing him the exact words of the text message. He let me know this system was only a week old and apologized for the kinks. Shocked by the content in the message, he agreed that the text messages could be clearer. Matt snapped a picture of the messages with his iPhone, promising he would send it up the food chain.
Soon enough they found a Genius for me, who graciously confirmed what I already knew—my battery needed to be replaced.
"We can have it done by the end of the day," he said.
Unsure of how Apple might define the end of the day, I sought clarification.
"Some time before 9 p.m."
Soon enough in the future, hopefully shortly, I won't even have to ask. I'll just get a friendly message informing me:
"Your repair will be ready for pickup shortly. Please return to the Apple Store soon."