Apple's Customer Experience Strategy: Turn Stores into “Town Squares”

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Millions of people venture into Apple stores every month with the intent of playing with some of the slickest and coolest consumer gadgets and computer equipment the tech world has to offer. From the Apple Watch to iPhones to MacBook Pros – the products speak for themselves, and so any visit to a store already holds the promise of an experience.

Over time, of course, the products themselves do change. iPhone 6s become 7s become 8s; iPad 4s become Minis become Pros; Apple Watches become Series 2s become Nike. But if there’s one thing that stays the same, it’s the Apple Store’s secret sauce – an unrivaled commitment to building strong customer relationships.

Indeed, though there are many brands that have tried (and are still trying) to imitate the Apple Store model, most fall woefully short of the mark. And this is because they fail to recognize what the Apple Store is really all about – not its products, but its people.

Apple Store associates are trained to walk customers through five distinct service steps (adapted from The Ritz-Carlton: Steps of Service), which beautifully spells-out the acronym APPLE:

A: Approach customers with a personalized, warm welcome

P: Probe politely to understand the customer’s needs

P: Present a solution for the customer to take home today

L: Listen for and resolve issues or concerns

E: End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return

So simple, yet so effective. And with this guiding base, now that Apple is ushering in a new generation of stores that in themselves are designed to deliver something new and exciting for customers (beyond all those nifty new gadgets on the shelves), the Apple Store customer experience is turning into something that rival retailers can only dream for.

Don’t Think of it as a “Store” – Apple Doesn’t

Last year MacRumors reported that Apple was tweaking its branding for retail stores in quite a significant way – it was removing the word “Store” from the names of its new locations. On its website, “Apple Store, Valley Fair” suddenly became simply “Apple Valley Fair”, as did “Apple The Grove” and “Apple Union Square”.

It’s a move that clearly speaks to the fact that Apple doesn’t want its customers to even think of its locations as merely “stores” – and the only way to do that is to stop them (and Apple employees) from using the word in the first place. It’s the experience that’s being pushed, and that experience is “Apple”.

Today, consumers want more from a location than the simple opportunity to buy something off the shelf. They want experiences – and with the new generation of Apple Stores being more akin to “town squares” than retail outlets, that’s exactly what they get.

The “Town Square” Customer Experience

Speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, told attendees that the company’s new stores are more about enriching customer’s lives than simply selling them things.

“We are reinventing the role our stores and employees play in the community,” Ahrendts tells Fortune. “We want to be more like a town square, where the best of Apple comes together and everyone is welcome.”

In May last year, the first of these new generation stores was unveiled in San Francisco’s Union Square. The 42-foot tall sliding glass door at the entrance is only slightly dwarfed by the 50-foot video wall inside. And indeed, much more like a meeting place for the community than a “shop” of any description, the inside is all about space and comfort.

"The store is now the biggest product we produce and we have five new features [i.e. the latest iPads, iPhones, Watches, MacBooks and Apple TVs.]. Accessories are avenues, and the huge digital screen in each store is the forum," Ahrendts said.

The community aspect of the new Apple locations is key. Not only including boardrooms, which visiting entrepreneurs may use to meet up and discuss their ideas, the new stores also hold coding classes – called “Hour of Code” workshops – for kids, teaching Apple’s programming language, Swift. “Hour of Code embodies our vision for Apple stores as a place for the community to gather, learn and be entertained,” said Ahrendts.

The stores also play host to what Ahrendts calls “Teacher Tuesdays”, which are designed to help educate working teachers on how they can better incorporate technology into their classrooms.

The All-star A-P-P-L-E Customer Service Remains

Of course, even though Apple no longer wants consumers or staff (or anybody) to refer to its locations as “stores”, they are still retail outlets nonetheless, and the five APPLE service steps are still employed by staff (retail sales, after all, account for some 18% of the company’s total revenue, worth $42 billion worldwide).

But the new stores are all equipped with a new team – the Creative Pros – who are employed for the sole purpose of teaching customers skills, such as how to take better pictures with their iPhone’s camera, or how to use photography apps. They’re also on-hand to help Apple users download Apple Music and other apps, and in fact aid users with any difficulties that they may have. In addition, there’s the Genius Grove – a customer service stand with a team dedicated to fixing and troubleshooting Apple products.

More than Just Gadgetry

With nearly 500 locations worldwide, Apple has a big task ahead if it’s going to turn them all into town-square community centers. But, if we’re to no longer consider these outlets as merely “stores”, then that’s exactly what the retailer is going to have to do – Apple, after all, has always sold lifestyles first, gadgets second. The last word goes to Ahrendts. "Companies have a huge obligation right now, and the bigger the company, the bigger the obligation. We are thinking about what the community needs."

This blog post was brought to you by Future Stores 2017. Make sure to download the agenda to check out all of the great activities, speakers, & sessions planned for this year.

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