The conformity of non-uniformity – Our day at the Apple store

“No, I only waited two hours his morning, I really thought it would be much worse, that’s why I fully expected to be back tonight to put in the extra time, and here I am” Shannon said to the orange T-shirted Apple Store concierge Sunday night.

She explained that the blue T-shirted Apple store sales person had ported some guy from Cincinnati’s phone number into her new 3G iPhone when he set it up that morning. As soon as we got home strange calls started coming in, thats how we knew he was from Cincinnati. What are the chances of being able to actually do something like that? With the 3G rollout, not that rare it seems. 

In the morning we had a rather short line waiting experience, unlike others who put in whole days to get their 3G’s. As old people are supposed to do, we brought our folding chairs. “Yeah, I bet all you youngsters wish you had our chairs now, don’t you?”. I could see it in their eyes so I said it back when they shifted from foot to foot and looked down at us comfy on the camp folders. Of course my daughter was appalled seeing us sitting at half hight in the line of gota have an iPhone New Yorkers. But she got over it when we told her that we were almost finished and she could pick out brunch in Chelsea when we were done. Yep, we’re a little different.

When it was our turn we were led up the glass stairs by our assigned Mr. blue shirt, all the while he asked questions about our experience with iPhones and Apple so before we got to the third floor he knew that we were a Mac house, already had one iPhone and were going to consolidate our phone service to a family plan. In other words he knew everything he needed to know to make sure we bought today and would buy again in the future. 

Unfortunately his small fingers (all the Appleites are so slight of frame you’d think that if a stiff breeze kicked up they’d need more than a 5lb laptop to keep them anchored) hit a wrong key on the handheld device Apple uses to push the conversion process out to the retail floor and we effectively stole some guy’s phone number who lived halfway across the country, but this was an unknown secret till we got home and realized that strange things were happening with our inbound and outbound calls.

A service call to AT&T ended up (as most things do with the original anti-internet company) with a shrug of the call center’s collective shoulders and instructions to go back to Apple.

Back at 14th street, the Appleite concierge lady said we had an hour to wait with our broken phone and I acted like a New Yorker, in other words like a jerk, demanding immediate treatment and berating her needlessly as if verbally whipping a non english speaking cab driver to go up Madison not Park, finally saying, “Well, then just take it back! It doesn’t work!” to whit she replied, “Ok, a return then” with an ease and calm as if I had just asked for a vanilla not chocolate cone.

It was probably about then that I realized that besides being totally beaten in the customer / sales person contest of wills, all these Appleites are alike. She was using the exact same phrases and the same tempo as the unflappable Mr blue shirt who had calmly wrecked havoc on AT&T’s activation server in our behest earlier.  I saw the commonalities that makes you suspect they have some kind of extruding device in the back, manufactured by Stepford, Inc, pumping these characters out one after another.  I pointed it out to Shannon and we made sport of looking for similarities in the Applites before it got a little spooky, in a zombies taking over the world kind of way.

And in fact Appleites are selected for their intelligence, California type B personalities, and a fanatical sense of commitment to the Apple product. Committed believers they call them, so the selected crop that is then given 40 hours of rigid Apple training starts out similar and ends up identical. To seal the conversion, new Appleites are introduced to the retail floor by shadowing more experienced Appliets and taught to mimic their phrases, mannerisms and tempo. In those 40 hours they are taught to Position, (set themselves up as solution providers) Permission (ask if it is OK to ask some questions about the customers situation) Probe (fire away to get a match between need and product) The Appleites are there to serve not sell and that serving, along with world class marketing and legendary product design, sells $4,000 of merchandise per square foot across their expansive store network, a phenomenal achievement.

As we sat there waiting for our turn to be serviced, by black shirt genius bar guys this time, I noticed other things about the Appleites, besides the similarities of physical characteristics (slight of build, clear of eye, prevalence of male facial stubble, dreadlocks on ethnic groups and sexes not traditionally dreadlocked… Abecrombie and Fitch litigators, are you paying attention? Here’s an other opportunity to sue a firm for sales person selection by type…)

Appleites are also trained in customer transition. Our concierge brought over our helper and purposefully explained to him in her own words what our problem was, turning to us periodically to ask “Is that right?” the sense we were supposed to have was one of being understood and that even though we were being shifted to a new employee we were not being pawned off. Resolution management strait from Quality training. 

And it worked. We felt like the Appleites really wanted to solve our problem, like we were all on a team mission in Guild Wars. Here we were, perfectly abused customers forced to wait for a product that by all accounts was on the verge of malfunction, that had been botched on install. But we felt like the Appleites were going to fix this if it took all night (which it almost did) I started to feel a little of the pixie dust settle on us both.

The analogy with Disney is very purposeful. Here is another wildly successful company making excess returns from superior customer satisfaction. Disney charges a premium price and over delivers on quality. And they do it with uniform employe selection, strict, uniform training, ridged evaluations and immediate sanction for violation of their corporate values. Walk into a Disney hotel and you enter the font of exceptional customer service, and there it all was, ported into the Applites on 14th Street. (We’ll talk about DIS and AAPL’s interlocking boards some other time)

In other words, in Appleites there was a conformity of non uniformity, a Disney for Web 2.0, a fascism in being different and the irony struck me that this was deeply related to the institutional structure of Apple’s success and the fact that all these people who were inside a rather ruthless cultural framing crucible were there fully voluntarily.  If  asked they would have called themselves rebels against the tyranny of the Windows monopoly, not plastic reproductions of a best in class selling systems.

(The systems folks out there will recognize that this rigid uniformity exists in Mac systems architecture as well. Apple operating systems impose a strict program design methodology that can not be deviated from as apposed to the relative freedom of Windows design….but thats for another post too) 

I like the strategy of investing in mission, vision and training to create intensely motivated employees who know what to do, do it, and gain great levels of self esteem from their daily work in commerce. Few organizations achieve such levels of performance. Besides Disney, Starbucks, McKinsey, the old Hertz, Southwest Air, Darden and Harvard B, certain branches of the military, Maryland Shock Trauma to pick a few have at one time or another created the perfect mix of rigid uniformity matched to customer need. 

But I also intensely feel the the loss of individualism that is the absolute cost of this institutional conformity. There is no other way to achieve the successes of this magnitude for these commercial and non commercial organizations. For all of them success means, dreadlocks or not, that individualism needs to be checked at the door.

Everything you ever wanter to know about Apple Store Operations…

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