As usual, customers lined up hours (even days) outside Apple retail stores to be among the first to purchase the new iPhone X. And, as usual, Apple employees were trained in an advanced customer service technique the store has been using for years. It's called the Apple "steps of service" first detailed in the Wall Street Journal.  

In my own research I learned that Apple did not invent the program. As far as I can tell, the Ritz-Carlton was one of the first luxury brands to teach the customer service technique across all of its properties, and to do it consistently. Some brands such as the Ritz-Carlton have three steps while others, like Apple retail, have five. Here are the steps Apple employees are taught to follow in each and every customer interaction, known as Apple's "secret sauce." 

     A pproach customers with a personalized, warm welcome.

     P robe politely to understand all the customer's needs.

     P resent a solution for the customer to take home today.

     L isten for and resolve any issues or concerns.

     E nd with a fond farewell and an invitation to return.

You'll notice that the steps are presented as an acronym. The first letters spell: A-P-P-L-E. Steps are easier for employees to memorize and recall when they're taught as acronyms.

No customer service technique is going to work perfectly each and every time. Apple has more than 60,000 employees. Some salespeople (called Specialists at Apple) are better at walking through the steps than others. I visited two local stores to shop for the iPhone X. One salesperson was friendly and knowledgeable, but didn't walk through the steps nearly as well as the second specialist I encountered. When the steps are followed consistently, they are very effective. Here's an example from one of my recent visits to an Apple store:

Step 1: Approach with a warm welcome. Although there were more than 100 people in the store on one visit, I was greeted by a friendly employee standing at the front door. He took down my name on an iPad and gave me an estimated wait time. Apple and other brands have learned that customers have more patience and they're in a better mood if they're simply greeted with a friendly face and given a fairly accurate wait time. 

Step 2: Probe politely. "What will you be using your iPhone for?" I was asked. "I write a lot and I often need to take photos and videos for my articles," I responded. Bingo. The employee heard the key words--photos and videos. It cued up step three.

Step 3: Present a solution. A good salesperson isn't going to focus on the features of a product that you can find elsewhere. They focus on what's unique. In my case, the employee assigned to show me the iPhone X brought up Portrait mode, an effect that gives a photo studio-like lighting. He put the phone in my hand and posed for me in a fun, goofy way. By letting people touch, feel and play with the products, it gives the customer a sense of ownership. And yes, the photos were quite stunning. 

Step 4: Listen for questions or concerns. I knew the Apple employee was walking me through the steps so I challenged him on step four. "The iPhone X is great, but it's too expensive for me right now," I said. A good salesperson isn't going to let a customer go that easily, but Apple specialists are also trained to satisfy a customer and to leave that person with a good feeling about the encounter. This is where step four plays a critical role. He immediately showed me the iPhone 8 plus, which also comes with Portrait lighting, but at less cost. 

Step 5: End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return. Although I left without buying a phone that day, the employee did invite me back to attend free photography classes when I did buy the phone. Free classes and workshops also serve to educate customers because the more comfortable people are with a product and its technology, the more likely they are to be happy and loyal customers.

If you have customer-facing employees or salespeople, you might want to consider implementing a version of this technique. Apple's Steps of Service is one of the most effective customer service programs I've ever seen. It's free and easy to teach. Apple and other successful brands use it to sell products and increase customer loyalty. And so can you. 

Published on: Nov 16, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.