“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” -- Physicist Richard P. Feynman
A question has been raised by one of TMO's readers whether Apple genuinely cares about its customers. In addition, do Apple customers occasionally have to overcome hurdles that Apple places in the way to productivity? I'll try to answer those questions.
In my recent article, "Apple’s ‘Your Verse’ ad Contains Important Messages," one of our readers wrote the following, in part:
Apple hasn’t listened to its users (for the most part). It hasn’t worked with us. It hasn’t sought our input. It hasn’t showed up at our gatherings, or studied our uses of the hammer, [Apple's tools] or even participated very wholeheartedly in our artistic presentations. (How often has Apple 'surveyed you?) ... Apple has been the lucky benefactor of what we have done with the chisel ... But they didn’t do hardly anything to facilitate our creative efforts, to work with us. I was there. I saw the reality of their non-presence."
For the sake of editorial brevity, I think I captured the essence of the response, but if you have time, please go read the full comment at the end of my article linked above.
I think I can properly answer this complaint.
When I worked for Apple (2000-2005), I spent a lot of time at professional conferences in show floor booths. Most of the time this was Supercomputing, FOSE, AAS, other scientific conferences and, occasionally, Macworld -- when Apple was still attending. These conferences were open to the public.
Invariably, there would be a handful of people who would approach me or my colleagues in the booth with the idea that this was a golden opportunity to rub shoulders with Apple representatives. We'd be endlessly quizzed about Apple's secret product plans. We'd be asked what Steve Jobs was really like. Complaints would be registered. Feedback on what future products Apple should produce would be offered, often rather aggressively.
I remember, one time, a conference attendee produced a PowerBook 170, a ten year old product, taped together, barely functioning, and we were asked if we could fix it for him. Another time, a college professor who thought himself very intelligent decided that if only he posed a question cleverly enough, he could get me to say something about what was in store for the next generation Macintosh. (Not that I knew.)
The truth is that Apple produces strong emotions in people. Many people love Apple products and Apple's image. When offered the opportunity to become part of the action, to bask in Apple's party, it's very hard to refuse. It's like seeing Scarlett Johansson eating alone in a restaurant, walking over and asking if you can join her for lunch, get an autograph, discuss her acting style.
Over the years, Apple found that these conferences and shows were not a productive way to showcase Apple's products. No matter what product or technology was presented and explained, that emotional approach to Apple resulted in diversions from Apple's message thanks to overly aggressive and enthusiastic fans of Apple.
In time, in my opinion, Steve Jobs recognized that the right way to present Apple products to the customers would be in retail stores. There, in a very carefully designed atmosphere, customers can select products, ask technical questions, and get their Apple products repaired. These Apple retail employees are well trained on Apple's shipping products and can really help a customer, but they're not Cupertino corporate employees. And so, few of us, knowing the employee's distance from the mother ship, would think to send a personal message to Tim Cook by chatting with an Apple Genius. On the other hand, Apple stores keep logs on how its products are failing and note what customers are complaining about.
Apple has yet other ways to understand how its products are used. Awhile back, I explained how Apple collects, I would estimate, billions of data points on how customers use their Macs, iPhones, iPads and Apple TVs. Apple knows what kind of equipment you have on your Mac and how it is used. See, for example, "Why Apple Drops Features & How to Deal With it." That article explains a lot.
With over 700 million Apple iOS devices sold to customers, it's not technically possible for corporate Apple employees to absorb every little piece of feedback in person, part of the perceived "caring" process. Apple is a huge company, and it has to discover how its products are used much more efficiently. It may seem that Apple isn't listening to customers in old-fashioned, conventional ways, but the company does in other not-so-obvious ways.
Finally, when I think about Apple's vision, so well articulated in its legendary TV ads, and I combine that with Apple's acute understanding of the competitive marketplace, I can see that Apple absolutely must care about its customers. In this day and age, if that weren't the case, Apple would be failing miserably instead of succeeding brilliantly in almost everything it does.
Of course, that's not to say that there aren't product issues. One can make a very long list of issues Apple has had with cloud services, OS X software bugs, a certain percentage of out-of-the-box product failures. However, all these things are part and parcel of modern technology. Bugs are always being fixed and manufacturing issues are always being addressed. As customers, we pick the company that we think does the best job of building solid products that serve us and help us write our "verse," our contributions to the world.
In terms of the march of technology, we must, I think, separate the idea of the technology advances with not caring for the customer. Who would claim that Apple's abandoning of the Apple Desktop Bus for USB was a considered attempt to outrage its customers? I ask the same question about moving on from SCSI, 3.5-inch floppy disks, FireWire and DVD/CD-ROM drives.
What we love about Apple is that the company relentlessly moves us into the future, and that excites us. But then, some turn around and complain that new Macs no longer have FireWire. (There are FireWire to Thunderbolt adapters, after all.)
Corporations and That Human Touch
When we complain about Apple not caring, not sending representatives to our MUGs every month, not attending Macworld, and so on, so that we can feel like we're being paid attention to and embraced as human customers, we're often just trying to insinuate ourselves into a company we love. When we don't see that personal level of attention by a large company, it's easy to feel that Apple doesn't really care about us.
When I was an employee, no visitor to a campus briefing could miss this.
In this modern era, with millions of strident Internet voices, Apple has to develop ways of listening to customers indirectly, usually without that sense of personal satisfaction that came from other companies, decades ago.
It's also easy to overlook the ways in which Apple does care. One time when I was getting a failed iPhone replaced under AppleCare, there was a fellow next to me at the Genius Bar who had a iPhone, out of warranty, that failed. He was fairly hostile and aggressive about how he wanted a new iPhone. The Apple employee logged all the information, quietly and respectfully, then gave the fellow a new iPhone. He didn't even say thank you.
That has happened more than once in the annals of Apple's retail stores.
I think it's important to understand what we mean when we claim that Apple doesn't care about us individually. Apple puts care and attention into its products and must remain in tune with the currents of its hundreds of millions of customers. If the company didn't do that, it would fail quickly.
Apple does a really good job of designing and supporting great products, but they're designed by humans and sold by humans. Software has bugs. Hardware fails. Technology advances. In turn, we as customers pick our favorite technology companies and learn to accept their best efforts and common failings. But there's a limit to how far we can take the whole affair personally, no matter how much we love Apple.
Customer aggravation via Shutterstock.