My Suggestion to Fix The Crowded Store Problem

This week on I read an opinion piece about a way to fix the big problem with Apple Stores. It got me thinking.

Before I start in on my, I’ve-been-doing-tech-support-for-25-plus-years-rant, I want to preface, I am not blaming the customer. It will sound like that, but believe me, I am not blaming the customer. Okay, I am going to blame the customer a tiny bit. But, let’s frame that blame around the free will argument. Are the customers they way they are by choice, or because of some invisible hand of fate?

Let’s talk about the article a bit. In the first few paragraphs the author laments how the stores are always jammed pack with people. Want to walk in and get some help? Get ready to wait in a queue. When you do plan ahead online reservations are booked out weeks in advance. I get it, the stores are busy, always busy. I know. The author does point out that there are online resources, but as they mention, “You can get free, in-person support. To non-techies, who struggle to find and follow online support documents, that’s a massive benefit. And even techies find it useful on occasion.” This is part of the problem. People love to have others work for them. If they don’t have to do something, they won’t. Now of course this blanket statement does not apply to everyone. There are many people who do not think this way. So the thoughts below don’t apply to them.

The problem with the proposed solution.

Spoiler warning, the author’s solution is to build more Apple Stores.

See, when you build more stores you are just inviting more users to come in. It’s the same incorrect logic used to justify building more roads to decrease traffic. It sends the wrong suggestion. Plus think of the cost to build and operate a mall store. Or, a store plunked in the middle of a city center. Yes, Apple has the money. No, they don’t need to spend it to the point where you have as many stores as Starbucks. That’s just not efficient. Okay, I like to offer a compromise. Something the author did mention I liked. Turning the stores into a retail pickup point. That way more space is available for repair and support. But, that isn’t going to really address the core problem. It just shifts it. The same would go if Apple built repair-only shops.

Okay let’s look at some of the broader problems.

Get the wetware¹ / software / hardware connection worked out.

You wouldn’t be surprised with how many software issues exist that have a simple solution. Sometimes the problem is with the OS, sometimes with a random app. If you could get the customer to do a few basic steps first, you could reduce the crowds there for technical support in short order. Some simple steps in no particular order:

  • Reboot the Device
  • Update the OS
  • Update the App
  • Better Password Management

Now, remember how I mentioned free will? Over the years I have observed that people are trained to think that a software update is more harmful than letting the software age out. Imagine how many issues would be resolved if a user was responsive to software updates. Now, where to pin the blame. Do some updates cause issues? Yes. Do users make backups just in case? Not often. Heck, getting someone to restart a machine is a minor miracle. Do developers sometimes make a coding error? You bet!

When it comes to passwords, I believe they are the worst thing in the world. I look forward to having some sort of dongle that can be securely used with any machine or device to securely login to use a service. I hear all the time how people hate juggling passwords. Then when they think they are being super clever with security they make the password something like, ‘MyName0$’. UUGH, so clever, you are so hosed. Please use a password manager. Actually I believe that Apple is missing out on making the Keychain program more robust. I have found that iCloud Keychain has been a great tool. I rarely remember a password, and I don’t have to. For those of us who are old enough remember when you only had one or two passwords to actually remember? This leads me to my next point.

Technology is too complicated, we never catch up to the learning curve.

Seriously, tech is advancing at such a rate that people are getting left behind. I’m not alone in that thought. Here, click this Search Link. Not only that, but when manuals are created they are not written with users in mind. Heck, software updates so quickly that even the best guides age out in a year. We expect people to know how to use multiple computer systems. People can barely drive a car. Everything is high-tech for the sake of being high-tech. This is just bad design. Most users look at computer tech the same way they look at their refrigerator. It should just run. Those of us in tech know that, that is just not the case. That lack of understanding leads users to not fully comprehend, or think through, what something does. This is how we get suspect programs like a third-party flashlight apps. Or, why some people will always click on the fake Flash Plug-in App Updates. They don’t know what is current and accurate. They may never know, and how could they?

It’s not the software or the wetware stupid, it’s the hardware!

Yeah, okay, sometimes the issue is the hardware, and Apple is not known for having the most user friendly approach when it comes to allowing users the ability to fix their hardware. In that case my argument sorta falls apart. Or does it? You have to think like a user. You would be amazing how often hardware gets blamed for a software issue. Phone slow? Must be broken. Battery draining fast? Must be a defective battery. This part is not genuine? But, it looks like a genuine part. 100 open tabs makes my internet slow? Look, we are still dealing with the wetware problem. The ability to troubleshoot and resolve an issue is a skill. It’s that process that needs the focus. There is a fix, sadly you may not to hear what it is.

Okay, now to the crux of all this bloviating, some suggested solutions.

Multi-Layer Support Solution

Telephone Technical Support (AKA AppleCare). You would be surprised how many users issues could be solved over the phone. I have worked in industries that had zero physical presence. Users can call in, get help with the basics (see wetware/software above). All over the phone. Doing so would reduce the foot traffic. This goes for hardware as well as software. Imagine if a user was forced to call first and if they needed an appointment it could only be setup by a phone tech. Also, if someone was in an area that did not have an Apple Store they probably have an Apple certified 3rd party repair place. This means some users may be able to get help much faster than going to Apple. Using multi-layer support models can act as a filter. Not only to stop the customer from coming in, waiting for hours, only to have the issue be something so simple that the expedience of the fix is a negative — yes that happens. The model when done right can also provide guidance for the techs. Now, I am assuming that all techs are diligent enough to write notes. I know that in this industry it’s a pipe dream, but I can dream can’t I? That note can show was done. This way the techs can review the notes and pick up where the phone support left off. Apple for the most part has not advertised or pushed hard in this realm. They really should.

Better Tech Guides

Most online tech guides are wordy. Users are not reading manuals. I hate saying this, but pictures are good. Videos are better. I believe that most users would get the best support if the support is delivered in a series of photos presented one after the other, not all at once. Some users would do better with a video. Something where the narration mixed with the action would help. Search online for instructions on how to tie a shoe. Find three different sets of instructions: written, pictorial, and video. Which made more sense to you? For me, the text and then images worked better. Apple could do more work in this realm. Better images and videos would be a boon for support.

Customer Education

None of this would work in the short term. This would require users to be re-educated. That also assumes that users would want to be re-educated. This goes back to the issue with the tech being too complicated. However, if Apple were to apply the invisible hand of fate to gently guide users into the multi-layer model, over time, it would start to reduce the support traffic into the stores and thus the stores can focus on other areas to improve the experience.


¹ Wetware is a term drawn from the computer-related idea of hardware or software, but applied to biological life forms. (Wikipedia).