A few weeks ago I visited my local Apple retail store, needing a cover for my new iPad. I walked in, and of course, it was crowded. But I spent less than two minutes in the store. As I stepped through the open doors, I was immediately greeted by a few "specialists," one of which was actually helping someone else–it wasn't a verbal greeting, just a friendly smile. I smiled back, a natural reflex. I continued on, went right the accessories section, found what I wanted, and checked out…on my own, with my iPhone.
As I was doing that, an Apple specialist who must have been peeking over my shoulder, said: "Want to make that checkout a little faster next time?" The process was already quick, but who says no to a question like that? "Next time you're in, use the store's WiFi…it'll help the system find your Apple ID much quicker," she smiled. I had inadvertently dismissed the WiFi window when it popped up on my iPhone. "Cool, I'll do that, thanks!" I replied. "No prob, seeya next time," she waved, as I left the store. She knew I'd be back.
My only thought was, why can't every retail experience be like that? Everything is so fun and simple. Why doesn't someone unpack, distill and offer up the lessons of Apple's retail operation in a compelling template that any business, retail or otherwise, could put into practice?
Well, someone has. Carmine Gallo, in his new book The Apple Experience: Secrets to Building Insanely Great Customer Loyalty, does just that. This book makes a fine trilogy with his other two Apple-centered books: The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, and The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs.
Carmine is a colleague (full disclosure: I endorsed this book), so I asked him to answer a few questions about the Apple experience for OPEN Forum readers.
In the age of the Internet, why does anyone want to show up at a store?
You’re right. People don’t want to go to a store. A store must be more than a store. It must be a place where people are inspired, entertained, elevated and made to feel special. That’s the Apple way.
Where did Apple get its retail approach from? Did they study other retailers or businesses?
You bet they did. Steve Jobs asked the question, “Who offers the best customer experience?” The answer was The Ritz-Carlton. Apple executives studied The Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons, primarily. Twenty years ago The Ritz-Carlton created its 3 steps of service. Apple copied it nearly word for word. Today, many brands are copying Apple Retail: Microsoft, AT&T Retail, Tesla, Disney, J.C Penney and others.
What's the one thing that, in your opinion, makes the Apple’s retail strategy different from that of other retailers?
Back in 2001 when Apple opened its first retail store, businesses were trying to find ways to talk to their customers less. Apple found ways to talk to their customers more. Few analysts gave Apple a chance because they didn’t believe a retailer could grow by focusing on the customer experience instead of the hard sell. In most retail settings, if an employee spends one hour with a customer and it doesn’t lead to a sale, the employee will be reprimanded. In the Apple Store, employees have no time limits. As long as the customer leaves with a smile on her face, that’s all that matters. It's a completely different mindset.
If I walk into an Apple store tomorrow, what should I be looking for in their attempt to engage me?
Someone will greet you immediately upon entering the store. If the store is especially busy, more people will be positioned at the entrance. Research has shown that how people are greeted significantly impacts their perception of their entire experience. Apple Store employees are trained to reset your internal clock. For example, an employee might tell a customer that it will be about 10 minutes before a sales associate (specialist) can help them. About 5 minutes later, the employee will find the customer and say, “I just wanted to let you know that our specialist—her name is Linda—knows you're next and will be with you in 5 minutes.” When the customer is asked how long they waited, the answer is typically “5 minutes or so” and not “10 minutes.” Watch for employees resetting your internal clock. Also pay attention to how they say goodbye. Apple Store employees are instructed to “end with a fond farewell” and an invitation to return.
Cynics would ask whether that isn't just manipulative?
I would not use the word “manipulate” because it implies skillful persuasion in a way that might be unfair to the customer or client. In other words, a manipulative salesperson would want to sell you a product whether or not it was the right one for you or the salesperson might persuade you to buy unnecessary add-ons. In an Apple Store, employees are not pressured to sell products as much as they are encouraged to create a great experience, to answer questions and to build a customer for life.
How does Apple establish an emotional connection with both employees and customers?
The Apple Store experience is all about enriching your life and building a loyal customer. When you enrich lives it means you empower your employees to do what is right for the customer without fear of reprimand from the boss. It means you create areas in the store where customers can touch and play with the products. It means you offer classes and personalized instruction to educate customers. It all starts from the vision to “enrich lives” of customers and employees.
How can retail stores and products be designed to better appeal to buyers and their “buying brains”?
Retailers must remove the clutter from their display areas, create simpler content and marketing materials, and build areas where people can see and touch the products without high pressure salespeople.
How does Apple define and achieve a profitable customer relationship?
It’s called “the ultimate question.” When you purchase a product, Apple will send you a survey. The ultimate question is, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to recommend Apple?” Apple wants to see 8, 9 or 10.
How can non-retail businesses benefit from the Apple strategies you reveal?
Any business that involves people should study the Apple Store for lessons on how to make people feel special. For example, the Apple five steps of service that employees are instructed to follow in every conversation apply to the retail store or any other customer-facing interaction. The Apple steps of service are spelled out in the acronym APPLE:
1. Approach customers with a warm welcome.
2. Probe politely to understand all the customer’s needs.
3. Present a solution for the customer to take home today.
4. Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns.
5. End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return.
Whether you run a small coffee shop or a national retail chain, the same techniques apply to creating a great customer experience.
In what ways could all companies learn from Apple’s approach to hiring and training its retail employees?
Apple doesn’t care about how much you know as much as it wants to know how much you care about people. Hire for smiles. Hire for friendliness and passion and personality. You can teach the rest.
If you had to sum up Apple’s “secret sauce” that has driven its customer loyalty and retail leadership, what would it be?
It goes back to the simple credo of "Enriching lives." That's the “secret sauce” that's written on the front of a wallet-sized credo card all employees are encouraged to follow. When you start with the vision of enriching lives, magical things to start to happen and you come up with innovations to outsmart your competition and provide a better customer experience.