Apple Uncare

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It’s interesting to watch great companies slip. As an Apple II and Mac developer I watched Apple implode the first time. It’s happening again.

MacBook power supplies are notoriously unreliable. I’ve had four go bad. Bad in general, worse when they’re $80. The saving grace was their customer service. Several years ago I walked in with two that were broken. One had frayed and literally started to burn. The first person I met when I walked in said “oh that’s terrible, took me to the back, and handed me two replacements to walk out with. In and out in two minutes. No transaction whatsoever.

I wrote up that transaction too. The beautiful thing was not just great service, but that a key corporate value had been embedded deeply all the way to this guy in the store. His #1 priority was to make my experience great. Everything else was secondary. And he was empowered to do anything within that general guideline.

Today is different. I’m here in the store now and have lots of time on my hands so I’m transcribing live…

Greeting person: Hi welcome to Apple!

Hi, my power supply is broken

Is it still under warranty?

I have no idea.

Ok, well come with me. Now wait here for the guy with red phone cover.

Wait as he talks to others. Frees up in a few minutes

Hi, I’m so and so, how can I help you?

Hi, I need a new power supply

Do you have an appointment?

Nope.

Well, we are appointment driven, that’s our process.

I had the same problem two years ago and the process was that you walk over there and get me a new power supply.

Well, if I do that now I’d be in violation of our process. Come with me over to the genius bar.

… Wait a few minutes for genius to free up. I test a power cable there and it works, so I get on WiFi, check email, and start this. Originally it was just going to be a Facebook post but then it got way to long!

Hi, my name is Grace, how can I help you?

I just need a new power supply.

Do you have an appointment?

Nope.

Ok then, please register here and select an appointment time. Hands me iPad

Fortunately one was available in 5 minutes…

5 minutes go by and she comes over.

Is it under warranty?

No idea.

Ok, I’ll check the serial number, figures it out…

Great, you have 54 days of warranty remaining! Lets get you fixed up. Usually it’s just this part (the power brick)

Yep, cord’s don’t fail much

Detaches the cord from the brick

I’ll check stock… wait… wait….

Tracy yells across the store – “anyone else having trouble with mobile genius?”

I laugh a bit.

Tracy is not amused.

Another genius helps her figure it out.

Looks like I’m out of stock on that but I can order you one.

That doesn’t work, I need this for work. You have power supplies right over there. Could I get one of those?

Well, we have “full power supplies, with the cord that you can buy.

You can’t just give me one?

Let me check on this

Wanders off and talks to another customer. 7 minutes pass. The conversation is rich with the words “not under warranty” and “have to charge you”. Also, she explains many times to the table how she’s sorry you all have to wait, but she has to multitask with all the people at the table.

The table fills with three more customers. More time passes. Many more discussions of warranties and people leaving very unhappy.

Normally by this time I would have become rather grumpy and asked Tracy what was up, but I was entertained writing this up. I also walked over to the wall and got a replacement power supply.

Finally, Nate appears from the back room. Nate has a different tone and is clearly sent in to address the problem customers. He double checks my serial number and warranty, and tells me he can order one.

I ask one more time if I can just have this one here?

He says it’s impossible because it’s in inventory. The look in his eyes clearly indicates that he’s frustrated and sorry. Nate’s a good guy. His hands are tied by policy and rules.

I decide to just pay.

We fill out forms on his iPad to get me a replacement cable ordered. They won’t ship it to me, I have to pick it up. I enter my email address and phone number for notification.

Then when I pay for my charger ($84) I fill out my email address again, on his phone this time in some other system.

Then, one more signature on the iPad on another form to acknowledge the $100 of labor that they gifted me for the privilege of being shuffled around the store, and I’m done.

50 minutes, $84, and I have to go back next week to pick up my replacement power supply. Times have changed.

What’s amazing is how quickly a different corporate value has been pushed through the organization. Bureaucracy and cost cutting. Truly stunning reversal.

Jeff Bezos and The Lean Startup

I just finished “The Everything Store” about Jeff Bezos and the fascinating rise of Amazon. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos… All known for their visionary yet autocratic rule that creates huge leaps forward but often with organizational strife, politics, and an inability to scale.

I’m also a fan of the book “The Lean Startup”. The term “Lean” in the book is unfortunate because it gives the impression that it’s about doing more with less. The actual idea is different and much more interesting.

In short… Start with the customer. Don’t just ask them what they want and then go build it. Produce the minimal viable product you can give them to see whether they actually like it. Not minimum as in “it works and 80% of the features are there but it’s beta quality”. But minimum like a web page that describes it with a “buy now” button. Put it out there and pay Google to get it in front of 10,000 people. If 1000 people click you have one problem to solve. If 3 do then you have another. Either way you learn.

These two approaches appear to be in conflict, but they actually work great together. Bezos provides plenty of leadership, but coupled with the philosophy that the data wins. And Lean Startup techniques are a great way to get the required data.

An important part of Amazon is writing product descriptions. In the beginning this was done by a large editorial team. In time, the algorithm team developed an automated alternative. And there was much debate and political wrangling. Bezos dictated not which to choose, but how to resolve the debate. It was resolved Lean Startup style with customer testing. Use both on the same products and see who buys more. The algorithm won and the decision was made.

The two extremes taken together seem like a winning combination. Leadership for things that really matter. Serious Lean product development for the rest.

Middle roads are problematic. Microsoft pushed the style of Gates and Ballmer down through the organization in a vast hierarchy of management. All of them working to emulate their leaders and be little visionaries. This grows rigid and political as the thousands of visionary leaders battle each other for dominance. Distributing and delegating the work of the leader by driving that style down through the organization ordains internal political battles.

In theory that leadership could be cleanly distributed. The sales leader says what customers want. Product management combines that with the overall market and owns the product plan. Engineering has the last word in how it’s done. In reality that’s challenging. Mobile devices always need to be lighter and have a longer battery life. Sales reiterates the obvious the need to do both. Product management tries to figure out the balance based on experience and abstract data, aka personal opinion. And engineering influences with technical reality mixed in with their own beliefs. Is it really not possible to do both at the same time? Or is engineering just not trying, interested, or competent? Meetings, politics, dysfunction.

Similarly, customer-focus without going all the way to Lean Startup ideas leads to product mediocrity and organizational bureaucracy. Lots of middle management and politics. With a little coaxing, customers will say they want all kinds of things. Especially if they are tortured by hours of powerpoint presentations and then asked “so, are you interested in that? Is that where we should be heading”. I don’t remember any customer ever saying to me “oh no, that’s a terrible idea”. That “customer input” is then taken back to the product management organization where it is mixed with executive vision, competing priorities, new product development, engineering capabilities, and much more. Add in countless meetings with all the managers for all the different parts of the organization to gain and keep consensus. And slowly a plan develops, which is then diligently executed and delivered a year later.

Asking customers in 2004 if they wanted a phone with a touch-screen and no buttons would not have worked. That required a visionary leader. Or Amazon choosing low prices vs targeted pricing based on analytics. Those decisions take years to fully play out.

Deciding on the shape of the bevel of the glass? A visionary leader can also answer that question, but customer trial is what scales. Delegating it to a middle management team of industrial design, engineering, and manufacturing needs to be done with guidance for how decisions are made. Management certainly needs to have expertise and lead – you can’t try out every alternative. But for the significant, hotly debated decisions, ask the customer. If you still can’t figure it out, ask your leader.