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Apple: a practical human inquiry into service, customer experience and customer-centricity

By on Apr 12, 2012 Editor's Pick 10 Comments

Is Apple customer-centric?

I notice that I and You often talk about and collapse customer service, customer experience, customer loyalty and customer-centricity. Should we? How are these related? What is the distinguishing feature of customer centricity? Apple – is Apple customer-centric? Come walk with me and lets’ use our imaginations to conduct an experiment.

Imagine this scenario: you walk into your favourite bar

Imagine that your drive to your favourite bar in your shiny new sports car. The car park is spacious, it is well lit, there are plenty of spaces, your park and head for the entrance. You happen to enter the bar at the same time as a stranger – you are a regular and you have never seen this person before. Upon entering one of the people working in the bar (employee) recognises you, call out your name and tells you it is great to see you. Fantastic, you feel great you have been recognised as an individual.

By the time you arrive at the bar, Joe, the bartender has your favourite drink ready for you at your favourite seat. You great each other, you catch up on stuff – work, vacations, sports, friends, family – whilst you are sitting there at the bar drinking. Whilst you are doing that you cannot help but notice that the stranger has ordered the same drink (that you are drinking) and he is being a charged less for his drink. You ask Joe: “What is going on? Why is the stranger getting a better deal than me?”. Joe, in his friendly voice and caring manner tells you that as you are a loyal customer and company policy is not to offer ‘discounts’ to loyal customers. Why? Because the loyalty guru’s have told management that loyal customers will pay more and should be charged more. You counter: “But Joe I’m a loyal customer! Shouldn’t I get the same or even a better deal than this stranger?” Joe gets your position and says “Yes. And my hands are tied. It’s company policy. Sorry!” You don’t like what is so (the policy on not offering the same deals to loyal customers like you) yet you do like Joe. Joe cares about his customers, he cares about the job he does and he is great at what he does including connecting with customers. You are willing to overlook that policy largely because of the way that the bar staff treat you (‘service’) and your experience – all of it.

As you sit there drinking you look around and you get why this is your favourite bars: it is to do with all of the experience. It is easy for you to get to this bar – it is in the right location. It is easy to park and your car is safe. The bar is attractive from the outside, so attractive that it draws you in. The layout of the bar appeals to you – the space, the way that the space is structured, the colour/designs, the furniture, the seating etc. And this bar seems to play just the right music and at the right volume level. Furthermore, this bar attracts your kind of people – you feel comfortable, you feel at home here. Last but not least, the bar staff are welcoming – they remember you, they are pleased to see you, you know them and they know you. Yes, a great experience!

It just so happens that you have a hard day. Life is not working out as you expected – there is trouble at work and you have just got some bad news about your health. The alcohol and the bar – the entire experience – is helping you to relax. So you order one drink after another and throw them back. Joe’s paying attention and he politely asks you to slow down as you’ve just got your shiny new sports car and you have a bit of a drive to get back home to your wife and three children. You pay no attention to Joe. Your order another drink and then another drink. You don’t notice it but Joes does notice – you are drunk. The next time you order a drink, Joe refuses to give it to you – he tells you that you are drunk, that he does not want you to drive home drunk – he knows that you will drive home . You don’t like this, your protest, you demand and still Joe does not budge. No problem you have a smartphone and you are ready to do take on this pesky employee who is not giving you want you want.

It so happens that this bar is part of a franchise owned by a big enough company that is social media savvy. You know that and so you take out your smartphone and tweet about the lousy service that Joe is delivering to you. Delight: your tweet is picked up. The Customer Service team rings you back immediately. You tell them about how you are a regular, loyal, high spending customer. You tell them that Joes is refusing to serve you the drinks that you want. They ask you to pass your phone to Joe. The company policy is to be responsive to customer needs when it comes to selling and making money. So Joe gets a telling off – he is breaking company policy – and is reminded about what is expected of him in his role. Joe hands you back your smartphone and gets busy giving you your next drink. You’re happy. Then Joe tells you that this drink and the next one, if you want that next one, is on the house – to compensate you for the poor service. Now you are delighted. You think: “Wow, this company really cares. What great service. Not only did the company sort out your problem immediately, it also said sorry by giving you free drinks.”

Whilst Joe was on the phone and being reminded about company policy – he was reminded on the need and importance of upselling and cross-selling. So after you have had your two free drinks, Joe notices that you are particularly happy. That is his moment to execute the company policy. He invites you to order drinks for all the people in the bar, pointing out that this will make you popular. That is exactly what you do as it occurs as a great idea. You’re happy so why not share your happiness. And it is so easy to pay – this bar is advanced the payment is automatically charged and deducted via your mobile phone! No need to bother with money or credit cards. So you drink some more and some more until it is closing time.

As you are leaving the bar Joe is thinking to himself “He’s drunk – he’s totally drunk and in no fit state to drive”. At the same time Joe knows you and is certain that you will attempt that 30 minute drive back home. Joe is thinking about taking your keys from you so that you cannot drive. He is thinking about ordering you a taxi and putting it on the company’s tab. Then Joe remembers the telling off that he got earlier in the evening for breaking company policy. Joe is also present to the fact that he needs this job – he cannot afford to lose it. And Joe knows that the company policy is not to intrude on customer’s lives and liberty – certainly not when it costs money e.g. taxi fare. So Joe, being fully aware of the fact that you are a family man and fully aware that you are too drunk to drive home says nothing. He stands at the door wishes you good night, watches you fumble into your car and drive away.

In the middle of the night your wife gets a call, she learns that she is now a widow: you had a crash and no-one made it out alive, not you and not the three folks in the other car.

Questions to consider

Did the organisation orchestrate/deliver great service – from the folks in the bar, the folks manning the Twitter account and the Customer Services folks that rang you back and sorted out your issue with Joe?

Did your organisation design and deliver a great customer experience – location, car parking, exterior design, interior design, recognising and greeting a loyal customer, responsive/personalised service, speedy service reovery, making it easy for you to pay?

Did the organisation act in a customer centric manner – knowing your needs/wants as an individual, acting on your needs/wants to deliver what you want, not putting obstacles in the way of you getting your needs/wants met, making it easy for you to buy the drinks, enriching your life by supplying all the drink that you wanted to drink?

I have a finally question for you. If you widow and your children (all three of them) knew (see, hear, experience) what had occurred in the bar – the whole of it, everything – what would they say? Would they say that the organisation that runs this bar is customer-centric?

My take on service, customer experience and customer-centricity

Customer-centricity, in the sense in which the man on the street understands this, is in a completely different category to service and customer experience. For customer-centricity to show up as customer-centricity in the world of the ordinary human being we have to consider our relationship, our obligation, to our fellow human beings. In short we have to consider and grapple with Ethics: right and wrong; our rights and obligations when it comes to conscious beings as opposed to stuff. Is it ok to enrich ourselves at the expense of another? When is it necessary to submit to the demands of our customers? When is it necessary to refuse the demands of our customers? Notice that whilst Ethics may play a role in customer service and customer experience it does not have the same significance. Ethics is secondary here (customer service, customer experience) whereas it is primary when grappling with the question of ‘customer-centricity’. Put differently, when you are grappling with the notion of ‘customer-centricity’ you absolutely have to grapple with Ethics; it is possible to grapple with customer service and customer experience without grappling with Ethics.

Apple, whilst a master of customer experience, is not customer-centric

I am clear that Apple makes great products. What makes those products great? Apple has grasped the importance of the user experience when it comes to using consumer products and designed these products to provide an easy / delightful user experience. I am also clear that Apple is great at service especially when it comes to the Apple stores. Furthermore, I am clear that Apple gets the importance of the Customer Experience and is great at crafting and orchestrating a good/great customer experience for most if not all of its customers.

Is Apple customer-centric? For my part, I have never thought of Apple as a customer-centric organisation. As I have argues above, to the ordinary wo/man, the question of customer centricity brings along with it, like the two sides of a coin, the question of Ethics, of morality, of right and wrong. Apple is a great organisation and it fails greatly when it comes to Ethics. First we have the issue the around Foxconn and the treatment of workers (fellow human beings) in Foxconn factories. And now we have a lawsuit filed by US department of justice claiming that Apple ended price competition after seeing success of Amazon’s $10 ebooks. How? By colluding with five book publishers: Hachette SA, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster. Let’s be clear about this: price fixing breaks the law and price fixing so as to increase prices is not what most customers would think of as ‘customer-centric’. If you are thinking that I have got this all wrong then please enter into a conversation with me and help me understand where I have gone wrong.

Final thoughts

“If Apple can do so fantastically well without being customer-centric then is it necessary for companies to be customer-centric?” That is the kind of question an economist or strategically minded business executive will ask. I ask a different question: “Do you and I want to live in a world that is dominated by the Apples of this world for whom we are simply wallets to be emptied?”

Republished with author's permission from original post.

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10 Responses to Apple: a practical human inquiry into service, customer experience and customer-centricity

  1. Bob Thompson April 12, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    Maz, thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    First, since you are an Apple customer, you have the only vote on whether Apple is customer-centric. And you, of course, decide what “customer-centric” actually means to you, not the gurus and pundits.

    I agree that the Foxconn scandal may turn some off to Apple, despite their mastery of product innovation and CX. But based on brand loyalty polls (including a recent one I just posted about) Apple is a very popular brand that people feel loyal to.

    Customer-centricity is at least as vague a term as CRM and CEM. Is it a strategy? A state of mind? A loyal relationship?

    Personally, I’ve defined “being customer-centric” as delivering value that customers care about. The end results should be more loyal customers.

    But it’s not quite that simple. How do we explain the success of Ryanair, which offers a low-cost service, gets lots of travelers and makes money, but can hardly be said to have raving fans?

    Is being customer-centric necessary to succeed? In the short-term, no. Longer-term, with sufficient competition, I see customer-centric firms rising to the top. Loyalty leaders — whether measured by ACSI, CX, NPS or other means — tend to dominate the ranks of top-performing companies in industries.

    Let’s hope Apple cleans up its ethical problems. If they do, will you then say Apple is customer-centric? Or is there something else missing?

  2. Maz Iqbal April 14, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    Hello Bob

    I thank you for taking the time to read and share your thinking. Let’s start from there.

    If customer-centric is simply delivering value that customers care about such that they return then every successful business is by definition customer-centric. Is it as simple as that? Monopolies show that this is not so. BT and BA, by your definition, were successful businesses in the UK when they were monopolies. That same is the case with the energy, gas and utilities in the UK today. Why? Because there is no real competition and the same is the case in retail banking in the UK. These markets are oligopolies and the markets are rigged.

    Also your definition ignores the possibility that a company can be customer-centric and then fails. For example, yesterday as an offline retailer I had a loyal customer base then Amazon put me out of business with its superior value proposition – buying without moving from your sofa!

    If you seriously assert that customer-centric is in the eyes of the beholder then it is not actionable. It is like saying a ‘cat’ is in the eyes of the beholder. Or for that matter “9am GMT” is in the eyes of the beholder. If that is the case then it is not actionable. Imagine the consequences if you and I cannot agree on what constitutes “9am” – then how are we going to meet if we agree to meet up at “9am”?

    Ryanair: yes it is successful. Who says that you cannot be ‘customer-centric’ and successful. Imagine that there are 100 or so villagers and to earn their livelihoods they have to cross the river each day. Their is an issue – there is no bridge and they cannot swim across. Along comes a ferry operator – the only one in town. He will take you across the river for a fair price yet he is surly, he treats you like cattle. Yes, he gets you across and because you need/want to get across you continue to use him, you are ‘loyal’ even though you cannot stand him and the way that he treats you.

    Lets, continue, someone else comes along and sets up another ferry. The ferry is newer, the ferry operator is much more considerate, he smiles, he talks with you, he learns about you. Now you would think that all the villagers would desert the surly ferry operator and come to his one. The problem is that this level of service, of considerateness, costs much more. The price is say double that charged by the surly operator. What happens? Those that can afford it defect from the surly operator.

    Does that mean that the sulry ferry operator cannot be successful? Not at all! What if the vast majority of villagers say 80% of them are simply too poor to switch? So they stay with the surly operator. Given their circumstances and their priorities they stick with the surly operator not out of love/affinity but out of necessity – the lesser of evils.

    Apple: if Apple cleans up its ethical issues then would define it as customer-centric? A good question. Your comment has inspired me to do a follow up post to dig deeper into the distinction “customer-centric” and give it teeth. That post will be coming soon and it will supply the answer to your question.

    With my love
    Maz

  3. Bob Thompson April 14, 2012 at 9:14 pm #

    As always, I appreciate your comments.

    I have been thinking a lot about “customer-centricity” lately, doing research and trying to decide for myself what it is, and isn’t.

    Here are some different points of view I’ve discovered:

    1. Customer-centric companies segment their customers, so they can maximize their value and target them. CRM thinking, basically. OK, but then why don’t doesn’t CRM yield more loyal customers? Something is missing…

    2. Customer-centric companies “wow” their customers, deliver great experiences because that’s the only way you can differentiate anymore. The CEM idea. Hmmm, also missing something. What about products? What about making money?

    3. Customer-centric companies create loyal customers. This is closer to what I believe. How can a company claim to be “customer-centric” if its customers aren’t genuinely loyal — and by that I mean they stick around AND are happy enough to be an advocate.

    But, again, where’s the profit in this? As some point out, you can have fantastically loyal customers and still go out of business, if your costs are too high, wrong market, etc. Being customer-centric doesn’t guarantee success, but it certainly can help!

    You’ve rightly pointed out that “delivering value that customers care about” is incomplete. If customers aren’t advocates but continue to do business because they are trapped (e.g. monopoly) or can’t find other options (perhaps Ryanair), then I’d say the company isn’t very customer-centric.

    If customers love you but you’re not making money (over the longer-term, at least) then you might be customer-centric but it’s not a very good business strategy.

    We’ve both commented elsewhere on the vague definitions of CRM that mean everything, and therefore nothing. I’d like to avoid repeating that mistake with “customer-centricity.”

    Personally, I think a “customer-centric business strategy” should have two outcomes:
    * customer are advocates for the company
    * the company grows profitably with those customers

    What do you think?

  4. Victor Panlilio April 16, 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    Foxconn workers building iPads
    http://youtu.be/5cL60TYY8oQ

    Unless we hold in common that there are universal, objective truths, we cannot begin to agree on what is ethical. Chinese youths might prefer the Foxconn sweatshops to life on the farm. Who are we to tell them to go back home? Therefore, ‘customer-centricity’ is best left to parties in a particular transactional relationship. Context is key, as well. Using your example, if Joe was a lush, a shameless womaniser, and an abusive Dad who happened to have a huge life insurance policy with his wife and children as beneficiaries, then perhaps his death might not be such a bad outcome after all, at least for his family (maybe not for Joe, who might be in a warmer place than he might like).

  5. Maz Iqbal April 17, 2012 at 8:42 am #

    Hello Victor

    Yes, ethics does not have clear cut ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers. Why? It is possible that there are no objective truths. It is also possible that even if there were universal objective truths we would not be able to get at them. Let’s move on.

    The lack of universal objective truths does not absolve us of grappling with ethics. Let’s start with incest. Is it ethical for a father to sleep with his daughter and father a child? Is it ok for a mother to do likewise with her son? Is it ok for a brother and sister to do likewise? What is your answer Victor?

    How about killing? Is it ok for you to invite someone to a duel because he has insulted your wife? Is it ok for someone else (who is a better marksmen) to deliberately insult you and invite you to a duel knowing that you cannot refuse as that would be seen as cowardice? What do you say Victor?

    How about conscription? Is it OK for your country to conscript you and send you off to fight a war irrespective of whether it is a ‘just’ war or if you want to go and fight that war – on the other side of the world? What do you say Victor?

    How about forced marriages? Is it OK for you to have a forced marriage at the age of 12 just because you happen to be thrown into this world as a female? Do you have a daughter? If so is that what you’d want for your daughter?

    How about individual rights? Do you know that these arose out of the enlightenment? That philosophers argued for them? That people died for them? These are the rights you take for granted. Put differently, is it ok for parents to sell their children to pay off debts? Is it ok for you to buy such a child?

    How about being a girl in a part of the world where only boys are valued? Is it then OK for these baby girls to be buried in the hot sand and left to suffocate in such barbaric conditions? What say you Victor?

    As I said, we have to face/confront ethical questions. And yes there is a school of thought that says let people be, let them decide for themselves, let them come to mutual arrangments. Look deeply and this school is most forcefully articulated by those who are in position of power and/or at no threat from those in positions of power. If they were the Chinese workers working in Foxconn factories then they would change their tunes.

    Lets take a look at the situation you have set up. Is the only choice that these Chinese human beings work in Foxconn factories (which are using these human beings as instruments, not honouring their human dignity, nor abiding by the laws) or go back to the farms and face hardship there? NO. Apple can pay more and stipulate that Foxconn treat workers right. Doesn’t Starbucks do just that when it comes to buying coffee? Paying more, helping the coffee grower to better grow their coffee, in turn Starbucks gets higher quality coffee and Starbucks customers can drink their coffee with a clean conscience. No, Apple has a great opportunity to inflence change, to contribute to a ‘world that works’. Just because fellow human is vulnerable does not mean that we have to take advantage of that vulnerability. Whenever we come across that situation we are confronted by an ethical choice.

    Finally, Kant came up with the categorical imperative. John Rawls came up with the veil of ignorance. Let’s try this out Victor: you are about to be born, you do not know, who to, you could be born to be an Apple employee, an Apple customer, Foxconn managementor a Foxconn employee. Given that how would you want the world to work? Given that would you still say what you say?

    All the best and thanks for stimulating my thinking.
    Maz

  6. Victor Panlilio April 17, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    Maz — you asserted “It is possible that there are no objective truths. It is also possible that even if there were universal objective truths we would not be able to get at them” and then you ask a lot of hypothetical questions that distract from your premise.

    Your statements above, considered carefully, contradict the premise they assert (that there are no objective truths). This is where you go off the rails. See, for example,

    http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/a/science_origin.html

    Sensitive dependence on initial conditions, you see. Kind of like the Big Bang hypothesis formulated by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_LemaÎtre

    If your basic assumptions are wrong, so will your conclusions be.

    Victor

  7. Victor Panlilio April 17, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    Maz, you asked: “Is the only choice that these Chinese human beings work in Foxconn factories (which are using these human beings as instruments, not honouring their human dignity, nor abiding by the laws) or go back to the farms and face hardship there? NO”

    But if you watched the video and read the (non-falsified) reports, you’d have determined that young Chinese travel thousands of km and line up by the thousands for jobs in the Foxconn factories. So are you saying that, even given the context of their situation, they are no better off? Did you even watch the video I linked to? Or are you unwilling to admit that your premise might (possibly) be flawed?

    Or, put another way: “Is it better to work in a Foxconn factory than to be sold into child prostitution in their villages?” Here’s Stewart Brand’s TEDtalk for your “enlightenment”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B67LTsGENPQ

    Victor

  8. Maz Iqbal April 18, 2012 at 3:44 am #

    Hello Victor

    I thank you for being in the conversation. I did watch the videos and I am au fait with the point of view / argument that you are pushing.

    What I find interesting is that whilst you assert that I have not entered into a discussion with you, not seriously considered your argument, you have done the same. You claim that I have distracted you with my questions.

    We can only be in conversation if there is a spirit of genuine inquiry and mutual respect. For me it is clear that is not the case. You wish to show me that you are right adn I am wrong. It is possible that I am doing the same when it comes to you.

    I have absolutely no interesting in playing the game “I am right, you are wrong.” Nor do I have an interest in playing the game “I am good you are bad”.

    For my part I stand for what I stand for because that is what I chose to stand for. And out of that stand, care for my fellow human beings and the world that we co-create matter to me hugely. You are my fellow human beings. So I wish you well and I hope you will be great in life. I totally accept that if I was in your shoes I would hold our viewpoint.

    All the best
    maz

  9. Victor Panlilio April 18, 2012 at 4:13 am #

    Maz – thank goodness neither one of us is a lawyer! It so happens, however, that we’re both scientifically trained, so you know as well as I do that in science when a hypothesis is supported by an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence, it comes to be accepted generally, which in practical situations makes it effectively universal. Some of the ethics questions you asked may be answered superficially without reference to moral absolutes, e.g. based only on “care for fellow human beings” as such. But it is precisely this “care for fellow human beings” that invites us to a deeper examination — it suggests that there’s something unique about human beings that leads us to care about them, and not merely as parties to economic transactions, but as something more. So there is a right answer to the question, “Should we care about the welfare of our fellow human beings?” and it is not based merely on opinion — yours or mine. It is based on the objective truth that human life is valuable in and of itself.

    Sincerely,
    Victor

  10. Maz Iqbal April 18, 2012 at 9:45 am #

    Hello Victor
    All there is for me to say is that “I feel love for you. I am grateful that you exist. And your last comment has touched me deeply and I thank you for your gift.”

    Be well, be great, know that you matter and you have created a friend in me. If you are ever in the UK, search me out, I’d be honoured to meet you and show you around.

    At your service and with my love
    maz

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