I want to be clear at the outset of this post that a reader should not expect anything profound or political in what follows. Rather, this should be read simply as something of an encomium to the line management skills at the Apple Store at the Green Hills Mall in Nashville. While it may have taken them a few days to adjust to the rush on iPhones, they adjusted admirably once they had a day or two to catch their breath.
Here’s the story: I’ve spent the last year delaying my purchase of any of the array of phone/digital messaging systems available that would interface with my email at work. The delay had as much to do with the fact that my Bonnie had visions of me writing emails at a family dinner as it did with the fact that everyone I knew complained about their interface (e.g., Blackberry, Treo) save owners of iPhones. And despite the fact that I’m an AT&T subscriber, the iPhone didn’t interface with the email system used at work. My friends were telling me that the iPhone was the only way to go, and my work tech guy was telling me that was the one direction I couldn’t choose.
And then came the new iPhone 3G. Not only is it beautiful and relatively inexpensive, but it synchs perfectly with everything at the office. Finally, I’m ready to make my purchase. I knew better than to go anywhere near an Apple store on the first day of sales when all the Day One Tech Geeks are out in force. I leave that up to my friends like Spibby for whom the iPhone, and some other select gear, serves a function beyond functionality.
As the news later revealed, I was right not to go on the first day. The lack of availability, coupled with crashing internet service, made for a day of frustration amongst many of my friends who did attempt to purchase one. That’s a headache I could afford to avoid.
Nonetheless, I did want to get my hands on one as soon as possible. So, I call Spibby, whom I consider generally an expert on how to negotiate such purchases. While I wasn’t quite sure how knowledgeable he would be with someone who wasn’t a first day purchaser, his vast store of knowledge was the first sign that Apple had looked at the mistakes of the first day and figured out multiple ways to make purchases easier, or at least more efficient.
When I tell Spibby that I’m about to buy an iPhone, his first words are, “You can hardly find an iPhone in either Tennessee or Connecticut." This seemed like an odd thing for him to say, considering he lives in Wisconsin, and neither of us lives in Connecticut. So, I of course ask him how he came about this knowledge. “Easy,” he tells me, “Apple is giving good updates on where the iPhone is available.” While I’m somewhat interested in why he knows this given that he bought an iPhone on the first day, I’m also somewhat scared to ask. I don’t. I’m just happy to know they’re getting information out.
“Here’s what you do,” he tells me. “Go to the Apple store webpage for the store in your area, and they’ll have an icon you can click on that will tell you if they have phones available the next day. If they have them, you go down and check out the line; if not, you’ve wasted no time at all.” Chalk one up to Apple.
Nonetheless, I forget to check on Wednesday night, and when I go to the page on Thursday morning, it only tells me that I can check Thursday night to see what they’ll have on Friday. To find out what they have today, I need to call the store. I call and tell them I want a 16 gig iPhone and don’t care about the color. The saleswoman tells me that they have them but that I should be prepared for a two hour line out the door. I ask her the odds of getting a phone after waiting two hours. “Pretty good,” she says, “and besides, we warn the line as soon as things start to look bad.” Chalk another one up to Apple. I now feel comfortable going down to the store.
I do so, and get in line, and it’s long enough that I can’t see the Apple store itself. While I’m standing there, an “Apple Concierge” (official name—it’s on her shirt) comes out, points to five of us in line and says, “Have I asked you the questions yet?” We all say no, not having any idea what she’s talking about.
She says, “OK, I need to ask you a series of questions because I want to make sure you know what you’re getting into before you wait in line for two hours. This way, if you change your mind, you don’t end up angry and empty handed at check out.” Nice idea.
“First, are you U.S. citizens?,” she asks. The two women in front of me in line say no, the remainder of us say yes. “I’m sorry, but we are only allowed to sale iPhones to U.S. citizens.” I don’t know the logic behind this rule but that one question moves me up in line.
Next, she asks if we are AT&T customers. To those who are not, she makes sure they understand that they’ll have to become AT&T customers. Another guy leaves the line. To those who are, she tells us what number to call to make sure we’re available for an upgrade. When both of us discover that we’re not, she lets us know that the price of the phone just went up from $299.00 to $499.00. While I’m willing to live with this change, the guy next to me is not.
He’s also not willing to leave the line.
“That’s ridiculous,” he almost shouts, “I’m not paying that.”
“Sir, we have no control over that; that’s a decision made by AT&T. We’re letting you know so that you don’t waste your time in line, only to get to the front and find out the cost is five hundred dollars.”
“I’m not getting out of line,” he says, “and I’m not paying that much money. That’s ridiculous.”
Leaving the angry man alone, she turns back to me and has me call AT&T one more time, because I have to check to see if there’s some “flag” on my account that will cause problems once I get to the front of the line. She can’t explain the “flag.” She only knows it’s nothing I’ve done; it’s a problem with AT&T.
I, in fact, do have one of these flags.
Sigh. While the AT&T rep tells me that the flag could be removed in as quickly as an hour, the Apple concierge tells me that her experience is that they’re never removed by the time the person gets to the front of the line (and, in fact, it takes over two days before I get the text message indicating that the flag is removed). As a result, she tells me I would be better off going straight over to AT&T. I leave the line.
At this point, there’s only two of the original five of us left—one happy guy who was just saved 15-20 minutes in line, and one angry guy who still insists that he won’t pay full price for the phone.
While my experience at AT&T was wonderful (I walked in as the only customer, ordered the iPhone, received it at the upgrade price and was out in 10 minutes, with the promise that the phone will arrive in a week or two), I was more impressed with Apple. While it may have taken them a few days to figure out all of the kinks in the armor, when they did figure it out, they ran a highly efficient system that saved all of us a great deal of time and pain (well, expect for the angry man—can you imagine how angry he would be if he knew I in fact received the upgrade price?).
I complain enough when I get bad customer service in any form—be it incompetent or impolite—so I want to take this moment to praise this particular Apple store for this example of efficient customer care. Nice job, concierges.