May 26, 2011
This week, Apple upgraded its in-store experience. In case you missed all of the hype, iPads placed next to every Apple product now provide interactive product, service, and support information — and the devices also give shoppers the ability to beckon a store employee to their side at any moment. In addition, the updated Apple Store app provides shoppers visibility into the number of people in line ahead of them and the wait time to talk to someone at the Genius Bar.
Customer experience leaders outside of the retail space might be tempted to file this away in their cool-but-not-quite- relevant-to-me drawers. But I see three compelling reasons why executives should take notice, regardless of what industry they’re in.
Reason No. 1: Apple continues to raise the bar on your customers’ expectations.
Brands no longer compete solely against the companies in their immediate industry. Why? Because customer experience leaders like Apple (and Zappos.com, Disney, and a handful of others) delight their customers on a daily basis. These great customer experiences, in turn, continually reset people’s expectations for the types of interactions they believe they should be able to have with the banks, insurance companies, TV service providers, and airlines they do business with. The Apple Store 2.0 has yet again upped your customers’ expectations for the type of in-person customer experiences they now expect from your brand.
Reason No. 2: Even with a heavy technology focus, human help seems even more accessible.
Apple’s brand was built on the design of its hardware and software interfaces. With the introduction of its stores, Apple’s brand characteristics — innovative, friendly, cool, and just a bit quirky — became embodied in throngs of customer-facing store employees, too. Ten years later, whether it’s the greeter at the front door or the gal teaching a free iTunes class, these frontline employees play a critical role in the in-store experience — and Apple obviously knows it. While beefing up self-service capabilities within the store, Apple simultaneously made live human help even more accessible and transparent than it was before.
Contrast this approach with the one taken by most other companies: They introduce self-service technology specifically to drive down the number of times that customers need to interact with an actual human being. (Think airport kiosks that made check-in staff redundant and websites that have eliminated the need for calls to customer service.) While perhaps a good strategy for companies positioning themselves as cost leaders, many companies miss millions of daily opportunities to build additional brand equity — not to mention incremental revenue — through high-touch human interactions.
Reason No. 3: This might mark Apple’s entry into an in-store customer experience platform.
When Apple launched the App Store, it created a platform for brands to develop their own applications. (Most brands haven’t taken full advantage of it, but that’s another story.) Apple’s recent store upgrade might be an indication that the company is posturing for a similar move with the in-store/in-branch environment. For years, Apple employees have had the seemingly magical ability to check customers out from anywhere in the store. Now, with the addition of relatively cheap interactive signage and employee paging, Apple is positioned to sell a more complete in-store customer experience solution to companies ranging from independent boutique owners to multinational banks. And just like the App Store before it, this platform would enable brands to make the in-store experience their own, customizing it to meet the specific needs of their customers.
Customer experience platforms are rare, but not unheard of. For example, Lands' End — a brand known for great customer experience — provides call center services for other companies. If Apple does make a platform move, it’s likely that others will follow suit.
What are your thoughts on the Apple Store 2.0?