Author interview: “Punching In” at the Apple Store

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Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee is Alex Frankel’s just-released account of front-line jobs he had at companies like Gap, Starbucks, UPS and Apple during a two-year project.

Earlier in Apple Store strategy: “Position, permission, probe”, we briefly considered his training and job experience at an Apple Store. Today we ask Alex to expand specifically on his Apple Store insights in an exclusive interview:

Since you’ve been a long-time “Apple fan” and Mac user, did you always know that Apple would be one of the companies in your project?

No, I went into the project with a fairly open plan about what companies I would apply for and hopefully work for. I took into account a few things: the popular business press, business school case studies, lists of great companies to work, and my own experiences as a customer. I had a list of about twenty target companies and then timing and applications determined where I ended up actually working.

You say that Apple turns away 90% of the applicants. Is that why you thought it would be harder to get a job at an Apple Store?

That was a number I had seen in a number of business articles and it certainly seemed to be a lot higher than other companies. Apple Stores were, and are, hot as retail jobs go and I applied at a few stores before finally landing the job I ended up with at an Apple Store in a mall in San Francisco. There are many job descriptions in any given Apple Store and to get many of them — Genius, Creative, etc. — you need a set of skills that I did not possess.

Did you know that Apple prefers “enthusiasts and true believers” over sales experience before you got the job?

Before I applied for the job I was not clear about what Apple was looking for in applicants. During the course of my first interview, however, it became clear to me that such an interest was something that was desired and so I made sure to communicate that I had had a series of Apple computers and iPods and made use of programs like Final Cut and Safari.

Were all Apple Store workers “Apple fans” before they got there? Did you come across anyone who was there simply as a stepping stone in a more generic sales career or was the “Apple way” central in their decision? Was there strong self-selection based on real or perceived Apple culture?

I did not meet anyone in the store where I worked who seemed interested in a career in retail per se. The common set of interests that united the forty or so employees in the store were knowledge of and interest in Apple products. Most of my colleagues simply used Macs and associated programs like Garage Band and Motion and had found a job that allowed them to share their knowledge and interest with customers.

I think you imply that many of the Store employees were transient, mostly students from nearby schools. Was there a distinct group of employees for whom this was perhaps their first job of what would be a long career at Apple? Do you know if there’s a steady stream of transition from the retail stores to jobs at the mothership?

I don’t know whether many retail store employees end up in Cupertino, but I doubt it. I got the sense that they are two fairly different orbits. Some of my colleagues did talk about going to Cupertino for training and even for one of the Friday afternoon beer rallies, but that had to do with our proximity to Silicon Valley more than anything else I think.

You say, “The Apple Store was an obvious last stop in my expedition into the workplace.” Did you decide this at the onset of the project or at the end?

That was something I decided when I was at the Apple Store. Having finally arrived at a workplace where I felt somewhat at home and where I felt I could be myself in a way not like other workplaces, I decided I had traveled through a broad enough cross section of workplaces and could move on to write about my experiences.

You say that “The training at Apple which lasted 40 hours, was by far the highest quality of on-the-job learning that I was exposed to on my journey.” Apple wanted customers to be like “season ticket holders” and thus the Store workers more like “recruiters” than salespeople. Did you get a sense in the training that Apple’s corporate mission outlook was more like 10-15 years than, say, 2-3 years? A “corporate sense of patience” so to speak?

If you mean that the goals of the company are more patient than others, yes, there did seem to be some evidence for that in our training. Apple is well aware of its small lock on the overall computer marketplace (around five percent I think) and knows that a big part of the mission for its stores is to double that number. That was the message on the day Apple launched its first store.

I noticed that you underlined the “permission” aspect of engaging the customer into revealing their intent, as the salespeople used the “Would it be alright if I ask you…” phrase quite a bit. Was that specifically taught during training? Do customers ever deny that permission request?

Yes, the notion of asking customers for their permission to ask them more questions is a critical part of the Apple Store employee approach and taught throughout Apple Store training. I never experienced any customers who denied the request–I think that would be fairly rare. Asking someone “Is it alright if I ask you about your computer needs” is a very formal way of saying, essentially, “Is it alright if I start the sales process in a way that is agreeable to you?”

You say that salespeople often said “I don’t know; let’s find out,” thereby engaging the customer in a co-learning process, which Apple called “return to learning” (R2L). Was R2L encouraged or was it considered a last-resort reaction? Did customers actually appreciate this or you think they would have wanted a quick answer to their inquiry?

Though it was not taught as such, I think in some ways this R2L was indeed a last resort. Most customers are in a rush and don’t have time to stick around and learn more, or spend time as the salesperson learns more. A more typical approach would be to find a colleague who is more versed in a particular technology and able to weigh in on the question a customer has.

I was recently at the Stamford, CT Apple Store that was barely navigable from all the back-to-school traffic. The store manager there said to me that in that mall despite its comparatively minuscule size Apple had become de facto “anchor store,” which is usually a large chain like Macy’s that draws customers into the mall. Did you notice a lot of people simply walking into the Apple Store through mall traffic rather than any specific product need?

No doubt about it, the Apple Stores have become destinations for many shoppers, or simply places to kill time. If you look around at any large Apple Store, many of the people in them are doing things online that have nothing to do with buying a computer. They may be testing out programs, but more likely they are checking their email or surfing the web. As a culture, we are very focused these days on electornic communication and entertainment and celebrity culture and because they afford interaction with online content, Apple Stores are a place outside our homes and offices where we can easily and enjoyably tap into this stuff.

Could you tell apart non-Mac users easily? Were you taught to identify them upfront and approach them differently in any significant way?

During the training that I participated in there was no particular focus on identifying non-Mac users. This may be a part of training these days, I am not sure. This type of information would definitely surface during your initial interaction with a customer, however.

You say Apple training stressed that salespeople were the “first touch point” for customers and didn’t “have a second chance to make a first impression.” Did non-Mac users or Apple fans expect more in the Store?

I don’t think so.

You compared yourself to “Leon, the Naked Man” who was more knowledgeable both about Apple products and selling in general, with a good sales record. Do customers really want to be “informed” rather than “sold”? Is that a winning sales strategy? Did you come across any customers taken aback by the absence of hard-selling?

I think across the board customers appreciate the sharing of information versus selling of products. On a few occasions I did have customers ask whether I was being paid on commission (I was not) so that they might seek me out the next time they were in. They had felt, perhaps, that the amount of information I had provided was very helpful and they wanted to reward me later or at least acknowledge that I had helped them.

You say many customers come to the Apple Store already predisposed to buy. Do you think without that predisposition you’d still have as successful a retail chain as the Stores have become? Was it easy to detect how powerful the out-of-store positioning through Apple’s marketing and brand building is?

I think that predisposition to buy which Apple Store customers bring to the stores is critical to their success and without it the entire Apple Store experience would indeed be different. I found many people coming in for a new computer to replace their existing Apple machine, so they were clearly ready to buy and stick with the brand. That said, there were certainly people in the stores who did not own any Apple products but came in because they had heard the buzz about the iPod. Today I am sure iPhones bring in a similar population of new-to-Apple customers.

Marco, the floor manager, says, “At Apple, design supersedes everything, and I mean everything.” Even as a designer I haven’t noticed this, but are there really “nearly invisible lines on the butcher block display tables” for keyboards and computers to line up?

Marco was referring to design at Apple in the broad sense — including the industrial design of the products as well as the architecture and environmental design of the stores. And yes, if you look closely at the wood grain of the butcher block counters you will see faint lines that are used to properly position the various pieces–mouses, cables, computers. Watch closely and you will see people in the stores moving things around to their “right” spot after customers use them and move them around.

I don’t know that he has the habit of doing this, but if Steve Jobs had walked into your Apple Store and asked you a question, what would you have preferred it to be? And what would you ask Jobs today if you had a chance?

I have a feeling Jobs doesn’t do a lot of schmoozing with Apple Store employees, but if he had come into the store and struck up a conversation with me I would have liked him to ask me something like “What’s your favorite Apple product and why?” or “Tell me about a specific Apple-oriented experience you have had.” I would have probably told him about the excitement I had using the iPod a few years back when I purchased the first generation unit and immediately found how intuitive the user interface was and how great it was to go digital and sell all my CDs. On the flipside, I would ask him something like “Steve, where is Apple going to be in a decade and what products are we, as customers, going to be using on a daily basis?”

Thank you Alex.

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Frankel’s impressions on Apple Stores were outlined earlier here:
Apple Store strategy: “Position, permission, probe”

7 thoughts on “Author interview: “Punching In” at the Apple Store

  1. Pingback: LG 47LW450U 47-inch Widescreen Cinema Full HD 1080p 3D 100Hz LED TV + Freeview | 1080P 3DTV Reviews

  2. It seems like a lot of Apple’s online presence comes from the bloggers and other content creators who go to their stores. Apple puts stores in locations such as Palo Alto or San Francisco that are teeming with “online influencers”, then they watch the online market conversation roll in. They’re getting online reputation building for the price of retail workers. Clever.

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  4. well…its a guy who worked at an apple store. uHM…so, you didn’t feel any need to add anything such as insight, or something unique, or any particular purpose to this article…cause if you did, I totally missed that.

  5. Pingback: An Insight into One Apple Store Employee’s Experience » PC Mechanic

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