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I no longer have an Apple sticker on my car window.

I have not become an Apple Hater: my current computer is a MacBook Pro, the latest in a long line of Apple notebooks I’ve owned over the years. I carry an iPod Touch with me, and there are lots of things with Apple logos scattered around my house. From a product standpoint, I would say that I am a reasonably happy Apple customer.

My issue is with Apple the Company.

It used to be that Apple was a voice of reason amid the noise of computer (and later, consumer electronics) companies. Their products were more elegantly designed, simpler to use, and backed by an organization that appeared to care about its customers. I can’t possibly sum up all the time I spent chasing down drivers and recovering from viruses on my various Windows boxes, and when I got my first iBook, I started focusing more on what I was doing on the computer as opposed to making sure the computer worked the way it was supposed to.

I’ve had a few problems with my Apple products, going back to my first 15 GB iPod, but Apple was generally very responsive. (You can read all my Mac-related blog postings at this link.) Of course, any computer brand can have issues, and I am not implying that Apple is more problem-prone than Dell or Lenovo. What set Apple apart was the ease and availability of support and their general willingness to acknowledge and resolve problems.

I put the sticker on my car years ago to make the statement that I liked the company and its products.

Over the past couple years, Apple the Company has begun to show a different side of itself. The attitude of “We’ll make this easy for you” has turned into “Here’s how you’re gonna do this.” And when things don’t work the way you expect, Apple’s willingness to search for the right answer seems to be turning into the classic “Doc, it hurts when I do this” / “Well, don’t do that” approach.

I’m not alone in noticing this. Bernstein Research analyst Toni Sacconaghi recently wrote:

“Perhaps the bigger, longer-term concern for Apple investors is the emerging pattern of hubris that the company has displayed, which has increasingly pitted competitors (and regulators) against the company, and risks alienating customers over time… Examples of its behavior have included its limited disclosure practices (Steve Jobs’ health; plans for deploying its cash balance), its attack on Adobe’s Flash, its investigation into its lost iPhone prototype (which culminated in a reporter’s home being searched while he was away and computers being removed), its restrictions on app development, and its ostensibly dismissive characterizations of the iPhone’s antenna issues (i.e., phone needs to be held a different way; a software issue that affects the number of bars displayed). The worry is that collectively, these issues may, over time, begin to impact consumers’ perceptions of Apple, undermining its enormous prevailing commercial success.”

My perception was impacted before the iPhone 4 antenna problems came to light, and the company’s handling of that issue only served to show that it cares less about the end user experience than making sure You, The Customer understands that when things don’t work the way you expect it’s because You, The Customer must be doing something wrong.

(Side note regarding the iPhone 4 antenna issue: all Apple had to do was state that they recognized the problem and that they would take the necessary steps to ensure their customers were happy. Arguing in the press and telling people “you’re holding it wrong” just made them look like amateurs, and giving away rubber bumpers weeks after the fact looked rather feeble.)

(One more parenthetical thought: one journalist said that a Livestrong bracelet works nicely as a bumper on an iPhone 4: maybe Apple and Lance Armstrong could team up for some much-needed mutual positive spin.)

In the IT world it’s been said that despite their technically superior product lines, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) couldn’t market itself out of a paper bag, and Sun Microsystems acted as if it had less adult supervision than the Boy Scouts of America (paraphrasing an old joke). Both of those companies no longer exist, but their sins are still legendary among their customers. Because of this, companies like HP and IBM, who know how to appeal to the guys in the corner offices by addressing service issues, have done well in the corporate world. Apple runs the same risk as DEC and Sun in the consumer space: their license to print money because of the cute logo stuck on the back of each product is going to expire once enough mainstream customers decide they’ve had enough.

This brings me to Apple’s customers: since the days of the Apple II, there have always been Apple fanboys. Lately, though, a new breed of Apple customer has emerged– the ones I call “neo-fanboys.” These are the people who will defend Apple and its products in spite of any evidence put in front of them, all the while denying the epithet “fanboy.” They will order a new i-Thing on Day One, regardless of whether they see a need for the product in their lives (see “iPad”). They won’t necessarily sleep in front of the Apple Store– they’ll order online the next day while laughing derisively at the people who did. They will accept and downplay any problem, preferring to live with it or be willing to head to the Genius Bar a couple times a month for a fix (see “MacBook Random Shutdown,” “MacBook Discolored/Cracked Keyboard,” “iPhone OS 3.0 Wifi Problem,” “MacBook Pro ‘Mooing’ Fan”). And when the iPhone 4 Antenna issue arose, they were the ones who were loudest in downplaying the problems, completely oblivious to the fact that the technical issue– however isolated or easy to fix– was secondary to the way Apple was handling the business issue.

Macworld‘s Chris Breen described these neo-fanboys’ attitude in a recent podcast:

This “Apple above all” attitude ultimately isn’t helpful… [It's unfortunate there are] the fanatics, the ones who make normal people think that Mac users are profligate lunatics who like nothing better than lining up in the middle of the night to buy a hunk of plastic with the Apple logo on it… there’s a point when this kind of devotion devolves into delusion. Apple is a company that makes cool products. It’s not your friend, it’s not your partner, it’s a company. And companies sometimes make mistakes and behave in ways that benefit the company more than the consumer. Admitting that your favorite company is capable of making mistakes is a good thing all around. It makes you a more pleasant person to be around and it helps to ensure that the object of your devotion.. toes the line rather than depending on getting a ‘pass’ from its fanbase.

The sticker came off my car because: (a) I believe Apple has lost its way in understanding what it means to service customers; and (b) I don’t want to be associated with neo-fanboys.

It’s my opinion that as Apple becomes more successful, their increasing (apparent) unwillingness to treat its growing mainstream customer base with the respect it deserves, combined with this breed of customers spewing “Apple, right or wrong,” will ultimately have a negative effect on its existence as a company. And honestly, I don’t want to see that.

Yes, Apple should grow up: not in the way they tried to do when they attempted to fit the standard mid-80s corporate model, but in a way that leverages their clear leadership in innovation and delivery while treating their customers as the precious assets they are. They need to rely less on the blind devotion of their fans and focus on delivering for their customers. The Apple Stores and Genius Bars place the customers right in the company’s hands, and are excellent platforms on which to build this approach. They should stop expecting the guy with the two iPods, iMac, and MacBook to walk in and be the Perfect Little Apple Customer and start working on the person who just got their first Mac or iPad, showing them what they can do with it and what Apple is going to do to continue improving their experience.

Apple needs to understand that it’s “Customers, right or wrong.”

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