Is Apple’s customer service slipping, and is the company seeing a culture change in their retail division?

Management at Glasgow's Apple store reaffirms reports that Apple are becoming more bureaucratic and cold when it comes to customer service - when will this start to have an impact?

Apple Store Glasgow

Although this piece was spurred on by the fact that Apple wouldn’t replace my 11 day our of warranty iPhone, I’d like to think it’s relatively a fair and balanced account of what happened. On the face of it, I’m in a 24 month contract and my phone breaks. Yes, their terms and conditions, warranty agreements are watertight and it’s hard to prove it was fault from the start. Aside from the fact that the phone has an inadequate one year warranty since most are sold with an 18 or 24 month contract, a £400 handset shouldn’t just break and be rendered unusable after a year of use. It also made me look at the bigger picture – given all of the recent controversies which Apple have been involved in, it made me think about the direction in which the company is going. How long can they carry on like this?

Today I went with a faulty iPhone to the Glasgow Apple store after booking a ‘genius bar’ appointment. The iPhone’s microphone appears to have broken (Google search reveals it’s a known issue, and Apple go some way to admitting on their website – but not far enough) completely meaning that Videos cannot be recorded with audio, the speakerphone does not work, and Facetime does not function with audio whatsoever. Call quality is also significantly degraded. It transpired that despite what the Apple website told me, the phone was apparently 11 days out of warranty, and I was to be charged £119 for the privilege of having a ‘new’ (refurbished) iPhone 4 given to me as a replacement. I’m in a 24 month contract, paying £40 every month and I also paid upfront for the handset.

A quick Google of ‘iPhone 4 microphone not working’ returns thousands of results with many experiencing the exact same issues. Most people report getting a replacement out of warranty at an Apple retail store. After speaking to a member of their technical staffhe concluded that there were a couple of issues with the phone and that ‘something was shorting out’ and that they’d replace the phone although he couldn’t authorised this so asked if I’d like to see a manager. He went on to tell me how he was ‘on my side’ and couldn’t do anything about what his manager would say. He also acted surprised when I told him it was a known issue – anything to make sure they’re not acknowledging it’s an inherent fault.

Apple Store Genius Bar

One of the two managers at the Glasgow Apple store told me that “I’ve had it for a year, what do you expect”. I then went on to bring up UK consumer legislation but they seemed well versed enough in this to acknowledge but dismiss it entirely as the way they operate (not admitting the fault) means that you have to go and prove it. Effectively, they are operating only just within their legal requirements.

When you buy goods you enter into a contract with the seller of those goods.

Under the Sale of Goods Act 1979 goods must be:

  • ‘As described’,
  • ‘Of satisfactory quality’, and
  • ‘Fit for purpose’ – this means both their everyday purpose, and also any specific purpose that you agreed with the seller (for example, if you specifically asked for a printer that would be compatible with your computer).

The retailer must either repair or replace faulty goods ‘within a reasonable time but without causing significant inconvenience’.

It is clear that the product (or a component) should have lasted longer than it did. The phone should not reasonably be designed to last for just one year especially given that it is sold with 24-month contracts. Damage due to wear and tear is one thing, but something as integral as a microphone should not fail within this time period.

Many don’t know that you have up to six years after you bought a good to complain (in Scotland, it’s five years after you first realised there was a problem). As long as the fault is inherent (has been there all along) a repair or replacement can be sought. The longer it’s been and the less durable the item, the harder it is to get this full refund – but one would easily have the reasonable expectation that the iPhone 4 worth £500, a premium product would last at least two years when looked after well.

Apple Store Genius Bar

The store manager seemed to think he was within the law regarding faulty goods to ‘charge for a replacement’ which is entirely wrong. In fact, if I seek a professional opinion from an engineer to establish whether the iPhone was faulty inherently, then I have the right to arrange for someone else to repair it, and then claim compensation from the retailer for the cost of doing this (which is exactly what I’ll be doing).

I am confident that I have not misused or maltreated the handset. It is clear that there are number of build quality with certain batches of the iPhone 4 (just Google the issues), and Apple are fully aware of them. I am also confident that I can get a professional opinion to say that this is an inherently faulty piece of equipment/component – and is not fit for purpose. That’s not the issue, and I will be able to get the phone fixed, for free, under consumer protection laws – even if it will be rather long winded.

What strikes me most about of this am not the fact the iPhone 4 (and many Apple products) are actually, a lot of the time poorly built with substandard components and a premium price tag. This has been well documented. What strikes me was the level of service and sheer rudeness, and brick-wall attitude I was confronted with in the Apple store. Something I have not heard of from Apple until asking around recently.

Also – why the inconsistency? Why is it then when you do a quick search on Google you come across 100′s of people getting replacements out of warranty? Why the real lack of transparency – which just makes Apple look shady? Their decision making process is certainly not clear – is this what you should expect from a company as big as Apple – and why is Apple unique in this sense? Why not admit when a product is faulty or a batch suffers a defect like most other technology companies would? Is it to try to get as much money out of people as possible by charging for replacements? Is it to ‘protect’ their reputation? They know most will not go to the effort of getting the device independently checked – and by not admitting the fault they’re avoiding having to repair or replace for free. This is downright shady and bad practice but is clearly a strategy that is working – for the time being at least. But how long can they carry on? Antenna gate was something they couldn’t control – what next? It’s up to consumer to speak up and stop getting intimidated and conned? Unfortunately getting a blog post trending on Techmeme might be the only way to go about it, which also shouldn’t be the case but it’s the sad truth.

UPDATE: In 2013, they’re still at it. We’re receiving reports that customers have been in to report the faulty iPhone 5 ‘lock button’ or ‘power button’ issue with phones days out of warranty, only to be told contrary to consumer law, that they’d have to pay £209 for a brand new iPhone 5.

Although I’d never go to that store again I’d really like to think my experience isn’t reflective of what I’d experience across be board. Unfortunately I don’t detect a huge amount of autonomy in stores (despite what the manager told me) and I have a feeling that won’t be the case at all. And if it is the case – why can another store offer replacements that another store wont? What have other people experienced in Apple stores and has anybody has similar experiences?

Apple Store Genius Bar

Is Apple’s customer service reputation slipping fast?

It appears so. If I had gone in to that store maybe two years ago, I could guarantee it would be replaced and resolved immediately, and I probably would have come out with an accessory. Now as a result, I’m probably not going to spend any more money with Apple in the foreseeable future and I’m certainly not going to sing there praises or recommend their products.

The manager I dealt with unfortunately did not come across as though he loved Apple, or was passionate about their products. He did not come across like he cared about my issue at hand, or their customers. He simply insisted that ‘it’s been a year’ and that ‘you’re 11 days over the warranty’ and need to pay up to get a new phone. He kept saying they ‘can’t give away free iPhones’ but this was simply not the case at all – it’s not free phone I was after – effectively I was being penalised for having a broken iPhone which I know is faulty and outside my control. He was willing to let me walk out, still paying a 24-month contract, with a phone, which didn’t work. Something, which is quite shocking –given that this is absolutely a case of faulty goods -, covered by statutory rights which is complemented by a warranty, but not replaced by it. He also for some reason, reiterated that the store had been there four years – as it it justified what he was doing, or was relevant in some way.

Apple Store Genius Bar

The other manager I spoke to at the Glasgow store even slipped up and said that there are management levels above them who will take issue with each ‘free replacement’ is offered. It’s clear these guys had their performance reviews coming up. This made the issue very clear though. Both of these managers were not concerned about keeping Apple’s business, they were not concerned about the reputation of their brand, the happiness of customers – they were concerned only about their own backs. They clearly didn’t care about the fact that there was now no chance I’d spend a penny on another Apple product or accessory in that store that day, or in the future. They could however both go home that night with their mind at rest knowing that they wouldn’t be getting stick at his next performance review for letting through too many free (refurbished replacements), and instead aggressively pressing for consumers to cough up £100 for them instead. This is absolutely nothing on Apple’s balance sheet – the company that is £1.6 billion richer than the US government.

There is clearly lot of bureaucracy behind the scenes at Apple – especially in their retail division. A lot of corporate fluff. If this were a a so called ‘honest’ company, they wouldn’t have taken issue with repairing the phone for the sake of keeping a customer happy – and they shouldn’t be concerned about effectively admitting the product is faulty. Why should that be a concern? Why can’t honesty be the best policy and Apple be seen to be improving their product and recognising their mistakes? After all – all of the faults with the iPhone are out there – they just won’t officially admit them. I’m sure people would be far more appreciative and would respect them much more than having every last penny squeezed from them because their iPhone has failed through no fault of their own. In many cases they are made to feel like it is their fault, with widespread reports of customers being accused of water damage . Surely these disgruntled customers, growing steadily in their numbers will have some form of impact shortly? What direction is Apple heading in – is it one of secrecy and greed?

iPhone 4 Faulty

In fact, secrecy and greed are at the centre of most real controversies which Apple are the centre of. Most recently, Apple pulled Match.com’s app from the app store for violating App Store policy, as they weren’t honouring the 30% cut that Apple want from all in-app purchases. TechCrunch commenter Jon Curley offered an interesting perspective – “The more I see this kind of think the more disgusted I become with Apple. 30% is beyond fair and reasonable. There might even be a case for an extortion enquiry. It’s a little like taxing email communications based on any deal discussion in the content.” Continuing to say that “Next stop, we’ll see Apple trying to charge airlines for 30% of ticket prices simply because you can download the boarding card to your phone.” “I’d suggest that a HTML5 Web app might be more appropriate for Match where users can then login using the account they’ve already paid for online.” The Financial Times havealready pulled their apps from the store earlier this year for the same reason – again – if more publications or subscription services do revolt like this, when will it reach a critical mass and start to have an effect on Apple?

It’s a great shame that Apple is heading this way, and that their customer service is now becoming embroiled in the bureaucracy of target setting and going by the book instead of being passionate about their products and having confidence in them. This is the company that one had the slogan ‘Think Different’ but now it’s much a case of ‘Think like any multi-national global corporation, maximise profits and treat your customers like numbers on our balance sheet”. If you want an example f how to do good customer service, one place you can still look is Amazon – but Apple unfortunately are fast moving in the other direction. There must have been some recent changes in their management to cause this – reinforced by recent postings to Apple’s own forums, and other Apple sites over the past one to two years especially. It won’t be long until they start seeing the real effects of what can only be described as a culture change. All things considered – is Apple at its peak? What has your recent experience of Apple’s customer service been?