Not just planners: what you can learn at Apple Stores

Scoble wrote yesterday that “if I were a product planner, I’d be hanging out at Apple stores.”

“If I were planning a new Web product I’d send teams of people to Apple stores all over the world to do market research and just hang out in the stores and watch what people do on their computers.”

More than just planners: I recommend product planners, program managers (or product managers in SV), engineers, testers, support agents, execs and sales and marketing types should visit an Apple Store. Want to find out what problems are affecting customers? Hear about their interests in peripherals and add-ons? See which sites they’re visiting, the software they’re interested? You’ll find this and much more at an Apple Store.

What’s so amazing or different about the experience at an Apple store? Lots of things, and it’s not just the cool design and layout: namely, it’s the smart employees and what is encouraged at the store: a great customer experience.

I found great in-house, on-site support and service at The Genius Bar… and they’ll answer questions about new purchases and future ones. I asked about a piece of software that they didn’t have in stock, and they offered to help me track it down, either at another store or on the Web. Try getting that level of service at one of the many big box stores: if you know what you’re looking for, no problem… but you may be out of luck if you’re looking for someone who can explain the differences between USB, USB2 and 1394 (even at a high level). (A recent exception: great customer service at the local CompUSA when it came to figuring out the differences between a couple of printers and peripherals.)

And there are reasons to visit: a look at a recent events calendar at the Studio in the SoHo store called out a number of events that I would attend, everything from digital movie making to music to photography.

Last time I visited the local Apple Store, it reminded me of visits to the local ComputerWare in Palo Alto, where you would run into any number of people from and around the Mac community (heck, a number of them lived just next door in the mid-late 80s). When I worked in local software and hardware companies, spending an afternoon at ComputerWare was a user experience smorgasbord: you’d see a range of people come in from novices to Apple engineers. You’d have lunch with them at one of the restaurants in the area (Cho’s is a great/cheap dim sum place that I think is still just down the street from the old store) and talk about everything about the economy, the latest hardware and software, who was hiring and, oh yeah, answer a few questions about your printer driver.

Everyone answered questions, not just staff: customers would get involved as they overheard a conversation about somthing that attracted their interest, or if they’d run into (and often solved) a problem under discussion. As written in one farewell…

“For computer users who “think different” the ComputerWare stores were a friendly, knowledgeable alternative to mega stores that carry everything but are staffed with busy people who know nothing about what they carry.”

ComputerWare set the bar for retailers, and now the Apple Stores follow the recipe: employees know their stuff, can get your new machine up and running, load software and help you figure out most any problem you might run into with your Mac, no matter what the vintage.

And — just like ComputerWare — the answers at the Apple Store don’t just come from the staff: answers come from other customers. It’s a community.

An interesting tie in for the Windows Vista launch? Perhaps the MS field sales teams could hold launch parties with Apple at their stores, and capture the excitement that we saw with Windows 95, Xbox 360. Imagine: smartly dressed Apple Store employees opening the stores at midnite, offering freshly delivered copies of Vista for the MacBook Pro, along with a copy of Boot camp, geeking out with reps from Microsoft on how to run Windows Vista on a Mac.


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