Service: It All Comes Out In The Wash

How my local laundromat took Apple to the cleaners last week.


UPDATE: Apple completely turned this experience around, and turned me into a new loyal customer. See the followup HERE

Last week, I happened to be perusing the book 212 Service: The 10 Rules for Creating a Service Culture, when I coincidentally had back-to-back service experiences that highlighted one of the most crucial aspects of service. Which aspect am I referring to? Concern. You can write books, attend seminars, create training programs, and share theories about customer service ’til the cows come home (which they will, if you show them enough concern) but if – at that magic brief moment of contact you don’t have a human or at least a mechanism in place that says “we care, and we’re going to try to help you”, you’re screwed. You may as well ignore customer service altogether. Let me use my recent personal experience to demonstrate what I mean.

My Gran Prix du Laundry

I use this local laundromat to do my laundry. It’s pricier than doing it at home, but way cheaper than sending it out. Being able to do six loads at once saves me about 8 hours every time I do laundry, so it’s well worth it. And I’m lucky, because the local laundromat I use – Mr. Stadium, for the record – is clean, well maintained, and HUGE. They also have wi-fi if I need to squeeze in some work! So this past week I’m jamming on my laundry routine (I have this down to a precise science, like a precision racing team) and about halfway through, I pull a black comforter out of the industrial size wash to move it to the dryer. I notice a slight soap smudge on one corner, but it easily wipes off, so I continue with my assembly-line-like process. As I start shifting all the other loads to the dryer, I go the dryer that the comforter is in to rotate it so that it will dry faster, and am a little flustered to find that it is entirely covered with a subtle soapy film. This could be catastrophic! My entire 75 minute Gran Prix du Laundry may come to a screeching halt as this unexpected problem throws me a yellow flag.

The Pit Stop

I have to point out that about 75% of my laundry is black, so I’m a little concerned. This little soap problem happens often, but is usually minor. But this is an expensive comforter, and it’s BIG. So I take it over to the counter, and the nice but reserved lady gives me a subtle “oh boy, here comes a complainer” kind of look. This worries me slightly, but I politely explain the problem. She looks it over, sighs, and says “lemme go get the manager”. A minute later the guy comes out. He doesn’t look excited; who knows, maybe he was in the back room trading commodities and my timing was bad. But he takes a look and says “Well, we can take care of this. Do you want to leave it and pick it up later? No charge?” He picks up on my “OH MY GOD NO CAN WE DO THIS NOW MY EMPIRE IS CRUMBLING” look and says “Or we can just take care of it right now”. A wave of relief passes over me. This is too easy. I say “that would be GREAT if we could do it now”, and without saying much he heads over to a machine to get to work on it. I go back to my routine, glancing over occasionally to see the guy diligently and methodically DOING MY LAUNDRY. How cool is that? While he’s waiting for the first cycle, he comes over to give me an update, and we strike up a conversation about the importance of customer service, and how it’s probably going to make a comeback in today’s tough economy. It’s easy to stay in business when times are good, even if your customer service is crap. But in tough times, it can make or break a business. He shares a story about how he took over a neglected laundromat in a nearby town that was taking in 200 dollars a day, and turned that into 1800 dollars a day. Without changing anything except the service attitude. I leave the laundromat 10 minutes behind schedule, and ecstatic. I will give this guy more advertising (for free!) in the next few months than he probably got all last year. Not that he seems to need it. But wow, what a great feeling to know there are still business people out there that genuinely care.

Apple Redefines the Word “Genius”

So the next day, I notice that my beloved black MacBook has an unusual problem. A few days earlier, I had noticed that it wasn’t resting evenly as I worked at a cafe, but didn’t think much of it, figuring it was the table. But as I headed out for a meeting now a couple of days later, I noticed that the battery cover on the bottom seemed to have popped slightly out of place. I made a little adjustment, and things were okay. Or so I thought. By the end of the day, the battery was bulging like my MacBook was with MacChild. Personally, I’d be ecstatic to have a Mac Mini, but I know this isn’t how they come into the world. So I do a little looking around on some Mac forums, and it turns out that this was a not entirely uncommon manufacturing flaw. People posting on the forums shared a wide variety of results, but there seems to be a random willingness on the part of “Genius Bar” employees to replace them at no cost. So I head to the local Apple store. They look a little busy when I arrive, but I see a clerk-to-customer ratio of 1:1 or better. There are easily ten “Geniuses” on the clock. So the greeter distractedly greets me as he mutters into his earpiece and taps into his iPad, simultaneously asking me what I need. The guy does a really excellent impression of stock broker engaged in trades while acting like he cares what you’re saying, but I figure they’re busy, so I don’t actually get put off by his detached indifference. Besides, this is THE APPLE STORE. I’ve heard nothing but great things about Apple support. Besides, a minute later, he waves me back into the store.

Genuine Genius Requires An Appointment

So the Genius Guy greets me and asks what the problem is. I pull out my MacBook while explaining the problem, and his eyes widen as he sees how badly the battery is bulging. We agree that it would be surprising if this weren’t doing damage to the internals. He steps away for a moment, and comes back with a boxed battery, without saying much, except that the battery costs $129.00. I point out that I’m not keen on dropping over 100 bucks on what I consider manufacturing flaw that probably warranted a recall that Apple never issued. He says that I have to make an appointment. I think it’s odd that I’m surrounded by Customer Service Geniuses but have to make an appointment, but whatever. I understand that maybe this is now going to be considered more like a repair issue. I ask him if that appointment might be today. He checks his iDevice, and says “I can get you in at 5pm”. That’s 18 minutes from the current time, which was the first ding in the service, from my point of view. He doesn’t suggest anything will actually be accomplished at that point, and I’m being told – while I’m ALREADY being helped – that I have to make an appointment 18 minutes away. I make the appointment, figuring I’ll run a quick errand.

Preliminary Dis-Appointment

I come back for my appointment at exactly 4:58pm. My stockbroker friend that’s doubling as a greeter for Apple doesn’t acknowledge me for three minutes. Yes, I’m timing things at this point. All he was doing was waiting to get a response on a clerk being ready to help the couple ahead of me, a couple to whom he had already spoken. He acknowledges my presence at 5:02. I wait eight minutes, and then attempt to let him know that I can’t wait any longer. He is so inattentive that I finally just walk away. Not fuming or anything, but definitely a bit miffed at the weird 30 minutes of my day that I spent doing pretty much nothing.

Email Novellas and Genuine Disappointment Contempt

So that evening, I decide to follow up in a simple way. A message from the “Apple Store Team” awaits me in my inbox. I elect to reply to it with a 900-word email, politely explaining my experience. In an attempt to reach someone I think might actually care, I Cc the message to Apple CEO Tim Cook. Can you guess what happened next? Nothing. I got an automated reply from “the team” with links to things that are supposed to solve all my problems. No surprise there. And I honestly don’t expect a busy CEO like Tim Cook to reply to my emails, right? WRONG. I find it stunning that a high-salary CEO that has literally thousands of employees in his service doesn’t have a team devoted to exactly this kind of message. I don’t expect Mr. Cook to coddle me, but really. Apple is one of the most profitable and cash-rich corporations in the world.

Apples, Oranges, and Ice Cream Sandwiches

So where does this leave me? It leaves me ready to reconsider close to ten thousand dollars in hardware purchases. As I pointed out in my lengthy email that sailed into the abyss, I’ve been comparing tablets, smartphones, and desktops, since most of my devices are at or near the end of their service cycles. And you know what? That DROID RAZR is looking pretty hot compared to the iPhone, and likewise with the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the ASUS Transformer Prime as alternatives to the iPad. And when I look at the cost and serviceability of non-Apple desktops, I start to remember the reason I’ve always resisted making the switch, no matter HOW much I love the Apple design asthetic and quality engineering.

It’s Not About Money At All

So what’s the lesson here? Customer service really boils down to emotion. The fact that the guy at the laundromat gave me five bucks worth of service and a clean comforter were secondary to the fact that he CARED. And that he showed it. And Apple? If I don’t hear something from somebody in the next few days, there’s a good chance they’ll lose ten grand of business over a hundred bucks and some robotic human interaction. If any one of the dozen fellows in that Apple Store had so much as ACTED like they cared, I might have buckled and ponied up for the battery at full price. But now I just may stop being a “switch” customer, AND demand my replacement battery. And frankly, every time I look at my MacBook now, I feel a subtle contempt. It also feels a lot heavier than it used to for some reason.

About Ian

Ian is a media consultant, writer, musician, and budding public speaker with an eye on being the next Ellen. Ian's interest in helping others find success and happiness stems from his experience with events planning and media consulting with organizations like and the Kenya/US NGO Amara Conservation from 2000-2008, which taught him how little we all know about what we're really doing. From 2008 until April of 2011, Ian wrote for and maintained the site Ian learned long ago that the journey to success may take occasional detours, and often eschews the road map in favor of taking in life's scenery. His first business venture was a small telecom company in the late 1980's, but subsequent ventures included pursuing a pop music career, screenwriting, and the foodservice and retail employment that often follows such pursuits. After struggling with addiction for years, Ian is happily embracing recovery and the clarity it brings.