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The Bright Spots and Sore Spots of Apple Customer Service

By Erika Morphy MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jul 28, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Ed Zitron's laptop caught on fire in 2006; his apartment could have easily burned if he hadn't been at home. Infuriated, the account rep for RLM Public Relations called customer service -- and his fury quickly turned into unmitigated outrage. "The customer service rep could not have been more uninterested or blasť about the whole thing. I practically had to force her to give me an apology," he told MacNewsWorld.

The Bright Spots and Sore Spots of Apple Customer Service

Still fuming, Zitron e-mailed the CEO of the company. It was only then that he got satisfaction -- and a lot more. The CEO didn't return his email, but an executive at the company's corporate executive relations office did --- within less than 24 hours. "He couldn't have been more helpful and more apologetic," Zitron said. Within a few days, Zitron had a new, fully loaded laptop complete with new accessories and paid-for service agreement -- accompanied by another round of apologies.

It's unfortunate, but the first customer service rep's response often seems to be more than norm than the exception.

Except when the company is Apple -- which it was. A self-described seven-year supporter of all things Apple, Zitron was almost as angry that he initially received such poor customer service from his beloved Cupertino-based company as he was about the original event. "I've used Apple Care before, and they've always been perfectly helpful. Maybe it's because I am in public relations, but I was stunned by the response I received from that first rep."

Indeed, Apple's customer service has been independently rated as the best in its class, David Van Amburg, managing director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, told MacNewsWorld.

"It blows [other computer companies] away on service quality. The gap between Apple and the rest of the Windows-based machines on service is even larger than the gap on the machines themselves," he said, citing ACSI's 2008 survey results.

Specifically, he said, the likelihood that something will go wrong with a service call to Apple is "vastly smaller" compared to its competitors.

"Roughly 10 percent of Apple customers have indicated that something went wrong with their recent service experience -- compared to 25 percent of customers of other computer companies."

Warranty Complaints

All of that is great for Apple and its customers -- at least the 90 percent that are happy with their service experience. The other 10 percent, though, may have other thoughts on the matter.

One issue that does seem to come up over and over again with Apple is the opaque manner in which it decides whether a broken product or frozen screen is under warranty -- a sore subject for most consumers who have just shelled out hundreds of dollars. Apple did not return a request for comment by MacNewsWorld for this article.

Several complaints by Apple product owners, however, have been captured here.

Consider Carol of Lansdale, Penn., who wrote July 18, 2009:

"I bought an Apple iPOD 80 GB, from day one, this iPOD never synched up right, it always froze up and lately the music plays, but no sound comes out of it. I have called Apple, explained the issues I have been having with this iPOD, and was told that consumers are trying to 'Milk' the company!"

Or Brenda of Portland, Ore., on June 14, 2009:

"I sent [a second-gen iPod touch purchased in December of 2008] in and they said it had water damage, which I know it didn't. Then I called to speak to someone, and explained that this had never been in water or any liquid, and they said that even though it may never have been dropped in water, liquid may have traveled down the headphone cord into the jack which turned it red. Therefore, the warranty would not cover it, and they would not repair it! ... At over [$200] for this Ipod, I am appalled that this product only lasted about 6 months!"

Then there's Michael of Fairfax, Vt., on March 8, 2009:

On May 28, 2009, my wife Carol and I purchased a 180GB IPod Classic, S/N 8K821337YMU for my son Christopher. On June 26, 2009, the IPod stopped working. ... On May 5, the unit arrived at Apple Service, and before End of Business on May 5, they had posted the determination: < Accidental damage or abuse found - service declined (05-Mar-2009) > I am an application support specialist for a major bank. One of my primary job skills is computer forensics."

Tip List

Confusion over warranty repairs is perhaps the most serious customer service complaint facing Apple. Since we are on the subject, though, there are other customer service trouble spots that Apple should consider if it wants to take its customer service from an "A" to "A+" quality.

  • Apple Care. If you want help with customer service after the initial purchase, you have to pay for it. If you don't purchase an Apple Care package (at roughly US$170), you will be billed per call. Since customers are paying a premium for the products in the first place, some feel that such customer service calls should be gratis.
  • The Genius Bar system. Sometimes the assistance provided is a little over the average person's head, staffed "with techies that have a techie attitude," Robb Hecht, an Adjunct Marketing Professor with the City University of New York, told MacNewsWorld.

    It seems as though Apple has put its creative directors on the line to talk to customers, instead of the service or sales reps, he said.

  • The AT&T partnership. Apple should also think about its partners' -- namely AT&T's -- customer service strategies, Hecht said. "Customers don't mind visiting AT&T stores for our 3GS iPhone upgrades and such, but are your Apple customer service folks speaking to AT&T customer service folks in real-time to make sure customers are pleased with both experiences and there is at least some brand consistency?"

As evident from the ACSI survey cited above, it's not as though Apple is in need of a vast customer service overhaul. After all, for every one complaint about a warranty decision, there are nine Lori Scribners out there: "Even when my iMac warranty expired, they assisted me over the phone, no charge, and sent me new OS software for free when I couldn't find my CDs," Scbribner, of Scribner Communications, told MacNewsWorld.

"They were very responsive to my requests for help with MobileMe and pleasant to deal with," she added. "I often wonder if Dell, HP or Microsoft are even half that easy to reach or work with."

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