When late Apple CEO Steve Jobs and then-retail-golden-boy Ron Johnson were getting ready to open the first Apple stores (a story I detail in my latest book, High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service), they asked around Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California: "What's the best customer experience you've ever had yourself, as a customer?"
A similar answer came back from every employee they asked, and, no, it wasn't a tale of awesome customer service at Circuit City (RIP) or Best Buy or any of the other companies against which the Apple Store would soon be directly competing.
Far from it. The answer they kept hearing was that the best customer experience took place at a Ritz-Carlton resort. Or a Four Seasons hotel. Or another five-star hotel or resort. So Apple enrolled all its soon-to-be Apple Store managers in the training and leadership program of the Ritz-Carlton.
Ever wonder where the Genius Bar idea came from?
The most visible innovation to come out of this training is the Apple Genius Bar--which is directly modeled on the concierge station of a large hotel.
But much more important--although less visible--is the way Apple emulated (and to a large extent was already in tune with) the most important part of a five-star customer service or hospitality experience: what I term the anticipatory customer service model.
The anticipatory customer service model, as applied by Apple
The anticipatory customer service model can be summed up in one phrase. In fact, it has been summed up in one phrase, by the storied team that created the Ritz-Carlton experience: Anticipatory customer service ... fulfills "even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests" [emphasis mine].
Apple employees are unrelentingly focused on fulfilling unexpressed wishes. They know that this focus on building an anticipatory customer experience is the most direct way to build engaged, likely-to-become-loyal customers.
Anticipatory service at the Apple Store can begin for customers even before they arrive in the flesh. If a customer makes use of the Apple Store app, a revolutionary tool that allows customers to schedule a visit and have employees available for them personally, Apple is able to expect--anticipate--the customer's arrival at the Apple Store.
The results are benefits for customer and company alike. For the company, the benefit is level scheduling of demand, a Lean process principle. For customers, the app eliminates wait times and promises undivided attention, something hard to find elsewhere in retail.
Whether or not you arrange your visit via the app, the in-store anticipatory customer service starts almost immediately upon entering. You're greeted promptly and heartily by an Apple representative who has been hired on the basis of having the requisite passion for both computing and customer service excellence.
Apple Store employees often make a point of ensuring that the arriving customer's name is used without the customer having to reintroduce himself, even by employees who were out of earshot of the initial welcoming of the customer. The way Apple accomplishes this? The first Apple employee who greets the customer discreetly passes along descriptive details, such as articles of clothing ("Jim Johnson, plaid shirt, a BlackBerry--yikes!--in side holster"), allowing other employees along the line to give a by-name greeting to the incoming customer.
The employees you work with in the Apple Store predominantly listen to you, figure out what you're there for, and personally guide you in the right direction. Incidentally, if you're there to pilfer, not purchase (I know you're not, but it happens), this employee will likely pick up on that as well; this kind of prescreening makes common theft in Apple stores less likely.
Asked probing follow-up questions as you're moved closer to your actual purchase, you feel heard, known, and understood. The relationship may just have started, but it seems solid and sincere, centered on you the customer, a source of comfort rather than technology-induced intimidation.
Now, it's time to pay--and to endure the necessary evil of the exit experience. Ah, but it's not so evil at the Apple Store. The checkout comes to you: Your new retail friend brings a mobile credit card reader to where you are standing and completes the transaction on the spot. Thus, the final impression you have is as warm as the first: You're cared for every step of the way, from cradle to credit card. In an anticipatory manner.