Apple is the fastest growing retailer in history and has dominated the holy covet of retail metrics, sales per square foot, almost since its inception, which hit $4,798 in 2015.
Pair that with rampant expansion plans that puts the technology giant at 420+ stores around the world, and we're talking some serious revenue numbers, about $76 billion worth in the first quarter of 2016.
Keeping all that in mind, more and more retailers are trying to figure out Apple's "secret sauce" when it comes to its retail experience, specifically when it comes to customer service, hoping to inspire the same degree of customer loyalty or "cult following" that Apple has.
In this post, I'll dissect some of the core elements that Apples uses to train its retail staff when it comes to delivering a great customer experience so that you as a small business retailer can walk away with some gems of how you can rethink customer service in your own store to inspire greater brand loyalty.
Let's get started.
Picking the Right Apples
The staff at Apple retail stores are all screened and trained with a great deal of scrutiny before they make it out onto the sales floor to interact with customers.
The biggest determining factor for being hired though is how much of an Apple evangelist they are and how well they fit into the team.
Jay Elliot, author of two books about Apple, describes getting in as follows, "you've got to be totally wedded to the culture (at Apple). You've got to love the product and what it is. They love the product."
But just how hard is it to get a job at an Apple retail store? Former SVP of Retail Ron Johnson was once quoted as saying that it's tougher to be hired at Apple than being accepted by Stanford University. They also have one of the lowest employee turn-over rates according the insiders.
With that, here's a list of questions to help you reflect on your current hiring process:
Do your sales staff evangelize your products?
Do they love and care about your brand?
How picky are you when it comes to finding the right "type" of fit for your brand?
What's your employee turn-over rate?
Selling the A.P.P.L.E. Way
When Apple's Genius Training Student Workbook was leaked by Gizmodo two years back, it revealed a great deal about the extent to which the company goes to sufficiently train and produce the level of quality service anyone who's visited an Apple store comes to expect.
Not only does it comprise a list of Do's and Don'ts, it goes right into the specifics of which words they're not allowed to use, and how to identify and take advantage of our emotions.
In fact, every thing you've expected from the moment you walk in to the time you leave has been tediously thought out and most of it scripted. So what does A.P.P.L.E. really stand for when it comes to training staff how to sell? It actually means:
A - Approach customers with a personalized, warm welcome.
P - Probe politely to understand all the customer's needs.
P - Present a solution for the customer to take home today.
L - Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns.
E - End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return.
Here's how this might play out in real life:
You: Strolling by, you decide to take a peak into the wondrous and magical Apple store at the mall or out on the street.
Apple Staff: Hey, how's it going? (warm, disarming smile) (A)
You: Good, I'm just thinking of getting an iPad. Just not sure which one's right for me.
Apple Staff: I see, what do you plan on doing with that iPad? (P)
You: Mostly for entertainment, watching Netflix, reading, and Facebook.
Apple Staff: Okay, well, I think you'd really love our 16GB iPad, now do you have a preference for size or color? (P)
You: Well, I'd like to be able to put into my purse and not feel weighed down. So I guess the iPad Mini would be best, maybe white, but I don't want to get it dirty. I'm just not sure.
Apple Staff: Absolutely, completely understand, I actually have a black iPad mini and it's super lightweight which I carry around to read on the subway ride to work. I picked the black one because, I found it easier to read on. (L)
You: Okay, well I guess I'll take the 16GB black iPad mini then.
Apple Staff: Great, I'll just grab it from the back and we'll get you checked out. (E)
Now you don't have to follow the A.P.P.L.E. acronym letter-for-letter, in fact, tons of companies come up with their own acronyms describing their sales approach that best fit their brand and company.
The whole point of creating one though is that it's easy to recall and gives your staff a clear line of action to follow and fall back on as they encounter multiple types of customers, creating a consistent and branded experience.
The Three F's of Empathy
Anybody who's ever worked in retail will testify that not all customers are created equal. Some are a genuine pleasure to serve, others, well not so much.
So, how does Apple instruct its staff to handle "difficult" customers?
It's a word repeated over and over again in their training manual and it happens to be "empathy."
The manual clarifies that they don't mean "sympathy," which is the ability to feel sorry for someone, but encourages, nay, demands that their staff put themselves in the customer's shoes and be empathetic towards them.
So anytime a customer comes in angry about their phone screen shattering, disappointed that the gadgets are too expensive, or frustrated with the latest OS upgrade and having lost their photos, Apple staff are taught to employ the "Three F's," which are:
Here's an example of the Three F's in action via Gizmodo:
Customer: This Mac is just too expensive.
Apple Staff: I can see how you'd feel this way. I felt the price was a little high, but I found it's a real value because of all the built-in software and capabilities.
Not only does this method disarm customers and open them up to consider making the purchase but it makes them curious about how the person they're talking to also felt the price was too high but found it was worth it. Clever, right?
Now, the real question to ask is how well do you and your store staff empathize with your customers?
Focus on Value Creation, Not Sales
Lastly, one of the core tenants of Apple retail stores is the idea of enriching and creating value for customers, not just selling them stuff.
In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, former SVP Retail Ron Johnson talks about how "retail isn't broken, stores are" and outlines what makes Apple stand out from the crowd and how others can follow suit in the new rulebook they've created for retail.
"A store has got to be much more than a place to acquire merchandise. It’s got to help people enrich their lives. If the store just fulfills a specific product need, it’s not creating new types of value for the consumer. It’s transacting. Any website can do that.
But if a store can help shoppers find outfits that make them feel better about themselves, for instance, or introduce them to a new device that can change the way they communicate, the store is adding value beyond simply providing merchandise.
For most stores, moving from a transaction mind-set—“how do we sell more stuff?”—to a value-creation mind-set will require a complete overhaul.
Apple Store associates are not on commission, and they don’t try to sell you anything. They have one job: to help you find the product that’s right for you, even if it’s not an Apple product. All those things create value beyond the transaction."
Making that transition can be a long and drawn out process for big-box retailers, but as a smaller or boutique retailer, you can bring about that change almost instantly.
So the next time a customer walks into your store, ask yourself, how have you enriched their lives for the better?
Making Use of the "Secret Sauce"
Apple retail stores didn't get to where they are today by following the traditional retail handbook and making incremental improvements, they tossed it out all together, and reimagined what the future of retail would look like and made it a reality.
They completely rethought "try before you buy," solving customer problems, and making technology as accessible as possible for every age segment and demographic with their Genius Bar.
With that, it might be a good time to take stock of what rules you're following, how they're working out for you, and what you might do differently to bring a little bit of Apple's "secret sauce" into your small business retail store.