Being nice isn't enough: Customer service lessons at the Apple Store

Ian Lurie
Southcenter Apple store

In customer service, ‘being nice’ and ‘trying hard’ isn’t always enough.

Sometimes, you have to be competent, too. Capable, even.

Act 1: Undeath (of a monitor)

At work, I have a 30” Apple Cinema HD. It is a fantastic monitor. Alas, 2 weeks ago when I plugged it into my laptop, it went all cattywampus, then dark. I pleaded. I begged. I reset PRAM. I checked firmware updates, I replaced driver libraries. No luck. Power was getting to the monitor. My laptop could see the monitor. I just couldn’t see anything on the monitor.

That sucker wasn’t dead—it was un-dead. A display zombie.

Act 2: Hope (of a fix)

But that was OK, because with my $1300 monitor I also bought AppleCare Protection. See, it protects me. For a mere $99. Sweet!

I asked one of my team to take the monitor to the Southcenter Apple Store (about 1 mile from our office) and drop it off for repair. See, I was delegating, being all efficient.

My intrepid office manager and I boxed up the monitor. She hauled it to her car and schlepped it to the store. There, the Geniuses (I’m not being sarcastic—Apple calls support staff at their stores ‘Geniuses’) took a look.

Note I said ‘took a look’. They didn’t test the monitor. The Genius rolled some magical Apple Customer Support Dice, then told my manager the display needed a new power supply, which they’d have to order.

So, she then hauled the display back to the office (without complaint, I must add). I spent the week using my laptop, minus 30” of screen real estate. I complained a lot.

Lesson 1 of tech support: If you think the problem’s the power supply, turning it on is a great test.

Act 3: Despair (for humanity)

A week later, we got a new power supply. After MozCon wrapped up, I returned to the office, quivering at the prospect of a newly-restored 30” monitor. I plugged in the power supply. Turned everything on, connected the display to my laptop, and…


I couldn’t ask anyone else to haul my 50-pound Apple HD Paperweight back to the Apple Store. So I boxed it up and headed over.

Act 4: Anger (carefully controlled)

As I sweated across the Southcenter parking lot, I resolved not to get angry at the Geniuses. It wouldn’t help anything. I’d keep my voice low, my expression reasonable.

I trudged into the Apple Store, dripping like I’d just finished a 2-hour workout…

[and had to repeat the same information about my monitor 3 times, but I’m editing that out]

…and in a calm, reasonable voice told the resident Genius my tale of woe. And that I’d never buy anything from their store again if they shipped the stupid monitor to stupid Apple with their stupid poo poo head repair people.

Genius asked me questions and took careful notes on his Apple laptop (with MiniDV port, perfectly configured to test my monitor, by the way). He apologized politely. He commiserated sympathetically. He opened the box and peered at the monitor, hemmed, hawed and then said they’d have to keep it for a week.

I calmly explained my unhappiness. I didn’t raise my voice. Or let loose a stream of invective that would’ve burned the flesh from his body. Nope. I was being reasonable

He went to get a manager. He returned, sans manager. Apologized more. Commiserated more. Explained they couldn’t replace or repair the monitor there at the store.

So, the verbs we’ve got so far:

Take (notes)

Notice the missing verb?


He didn’t plug the monitor into a computer.

Instead, he (politely) boxed the monitor up for shipping back to Apple.

Here’s the work order:

nothing to plug into

Really?! You didn’t have anything to plug it into? You’re at a frakking Apple Store, surrounded by Apple Computers, and you can’t plug the monitor in because you “didn’t have anything to plug it into?!!!”

Bzzzzt. My left and right brains tried to flee in opposite directions, collided, and simultaneously discharged every neuron. I froze, caught in the high beams of total stupidity. Thud. Bumpa bumpa bumpa. I was road kill.

No amount of nice-ness makes up for this. Sorry. It doesn’t. You’re title is ‘Genius’. You’re paid to solve problems. You’re not a goddamned shipping clerk. So solve.

Act 5: Acceptance (not really)

Genius clearly felt bad. And I have to say, he was nothing but polite and professional the whole time. He really wanted to “make this better for me”. First, he tried to sell me a new Apple thing called ‘Joint Venture’. I, equally polite, explained I really didn’t want to buy more Apple services right then.

So, he brought corporate sales manager. She listened to me with furrowed brow, then told me they had an idea: I would purchase a new display from them on my corporate credit card. Then, in 10 days, when my repaired display came back, I’d return the new one, get a refund, and pick up my restored monitor.

So, I was going to charge about $1300 to my credit card, take a new monitor and pray I didn’t break it, then return it for some other poor bastard to then buy.

What was left of my brain farted loudly and fled my skull. It’s still down somewhere behind my uvula.

I mumbled something about making do and fled the store.

Were they earnest? Yes. Did they really want to help? Maybe. But in the end, what really matters is whether they helped. And they didn’t.

They had options:

  • Do an exchange. My AppleCare plan specifically says they can do that.
  • Give me a loaner. For a small deposit, not $1300, and not by making me take a brand-new monitor.
  • Make some small but real gesture—expedited repair, anything—to restore a smidgen of my faith.
  • Or, at least, test the monitor.

Nope. Nada.

The lesson

Customer service that doesn’t serve is just annoying.

From now on, I buy online. And monitors? I’ll be buying Dells, thanks.

By the way, Apple, Rob Croll wrote a great review of The Thank You Economy. You might want to read it. Then read the book. Especially the ‘shock and awe’ part. That’s “awe”, not “awful”.

Other stuff

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Makes you wonder if you’d have been better placing all your efforts into actually explaining the issue to the Apple store staff, rather than blogging about it here when you got back to the office?!
    No point telling us they had stuff to plug into the monitor to test it with, tell THEM they might have actually done it then!
    Of course if Apple are as closed-minded as they appear to be, it might not have been any help anyway.

  2. Ian,
    Sorry to hear about the issues with your monitor and your very un-Apple-like experience at the Genius bar; I’m sure Steve Jobs would NOT approve. (Seriously? Nothing to plug it into? Was this Genius bar in a tent somewhere?)
    Companies need to understand that one bad experience can influence our feelings about a brand, wiping out (or at least seriously diminishing) all the positive feelings they’ve worked so hard to get. Great presentations from Steve Jobs won’t make up for this bad customer service experience the next time you go to buy a computer.
    Perhaps The Thank You Economy should be mandatory reading for all Geniuses. 🙂

  3. There’s nothing worse then bad customer service, but I have to ask… All of these solutions that you’ve written about… did you ask them to do? When you saw that your monitor could be tested on their laptop, did you ask them to plug it in. If you knew AppleCare allowed for alternative solutions did you bring those to their attention? Now I would agree that they should know their policies and plans better then you but if you know this information why would you run out the store. To me this is a little cowardly. It’s like having a terrible meal at a restaurant, telling the waitress/waiter that everything is great and then running home to write a blog post about how terrible it was. You certainly don’t get what you want and the company is unaware that they need to improve. Good luck with Dell.

  4. @neil and @todd I did indeed point out that they could replace the monitor. They insisted that they couldn’t, so I let that one go. I asked, multiple times, that they test the monitor. For whatever reason, they dodged the question, answering with statements like “The only replacement part we have here at the store is the power supply.” I have no idea what was going on.
    I don’t think they were being close-minded. I think they have a very specific support playbook they’re told to use, and they’re stuck with it. This is why, when my staff ask me for checklists, I always shudder – checklists CAN be helpful, but they often stifle creativity and cause people to stop thinking.

  5. Highly frustrating! As nice as they are at the Apple stores, you can’t help but feel a little stand-offish when you’re talking to someone whose job title is ‘Genius’.
    That aside, I recommend the Dell monitors. We have a 27 inch ultrasharp widescreen monitor and it’s gorgeous. Plus, you can easily save about 500 bucks by choosing the Dell over Apple. Saving 500 bucks makes anyone feel like a genius!

  6. I really feel compelled to give my opinion here. I’ve been working in customer service for many years now. I understand your particular concern, with your particular scenario, but in general, people treat customer service reps terribly. Mostly because they’re spoiled beyond words. The world owes them everything, with no glitches, hick-ups, or delays allowed. “I have to wait 10 minutes!?” “I cant have this NOW?!”
    There’s also a divide between the corporation, its promises, and what a CSR can deliver. Sometimes CSRs simply cant always deliver what the corporation promises, and its not always through lack of effort.
    On a side-note, I don’t have any expensive phones or gadgets, because they aren’t necessary for me to live my day-to-day life, and in turn, I don’t need to have a freak-out session because one of them broke.

  7. @patrick I run a customer service business. I know exactly what you’re talking about, trust me. Which is why I took great pains to be patient. However, taking 30 seconds to plug the monitor in would’ve saved me many trips – they just called to tell me the monitor’s indeed fine, and that it’s probably the MiniDV adapter. Which, of course, is what I told them yesterday, and 2 weeks ago.
    Had they listened, everyone would’ve been happier.

  8. Ian, I think you handled the situation as well as you could. There must have been a reason they didn’t want to test it. Probably because the result could counter their advice, so they may look silly. Did you hashtag it into the twitterverse to see if Apple responded?

  9. @Ian Thanks for the clarification, although if I’m honest, the fact that you DID point out they could test the monitor makes it even worse that they didn’t! Truly awful customer support.
    I would write a strongly worded letter to their head office, point them to this blog, and see what good will gesture they can offer to fix this mess.
    Dodging questions, and only following a very specific and limited support responses kind of sums up “closed mindedness” for me – you would have thought someone there would have had the common-sense to just say, “you know what, we can just plug that in and see if you get a picture”. Blaming it on a power supply without even plugging the thing in to the mains is pretty laughable.
    To be fair to Apple, I don’t think the other major stores would fair much better either…

  10. I’m just a one man business but if something comes in for repair, the first thing I do is test it. Some large companies that I deal with on a personal level don’t have the expertise to test returned items and so they just swap them out without argument. I think it’s disgusting the way Apple handled you, Ian, and it’s making me think twice about buying the Applecare for my new 27″ iMac. Apple charge high prices, so I would expect far better service from them.

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