Smug Apple may lose customer experience crown to hungry Microsoft

While Apple Inc. revolutionized how we buy and consume technology in large part by focusing on the customer experience, like any successful innovator it runs the risk of stagnation and complacency if it’s not careful.

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Apple has changed the way end users interact with technology. Before Apple, most technology was designed for and sold to the IT department. Usability and design was an afterthought. Apple changed that. User-friendly became the mantra; not just in how technology is designed, but in how it’s sold.

The Apple Store brought technology directly to the masses, with a Genius Bar of experts to help them use it. Now people were buying technology directly and expecting IT to support it, and expecting the same level of service from their office IT guy as they get from their Apple genius.

The Mississauga, Ont. Apple Store location -- sleek, hip design.
The Mississauga, Ont. Apple Store location — sleek, hip design.

The tip of that Apple spear has been that retail storefront, now in malls and storefronts across North America and around the world. For most people, these stores are Apple; their customer experience at these stores forms their impression of the company. The sleek stores and hip staff have been Apple’s brand ambassadors of cool.

That may be changing. The other lumbering giants of technology haven’t been changing. Lenovo is considering bringing its store model to North America from China, and Microsoft Corp. has been aggressively opening stores across North America for several years, including Canadian stores in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Mississauga, Ont.

Several Microsoft stores, such as those at Toronto’s Yorkdale & Eaton Centre, are just a few storefronts away from Apple stores so it’s an obvious comparison to make – who offers the better customer experience?

A recent article in CMO outlines one comparison that found Apple may be losing its customer experience crown to Microsoft in an example of the sort of complacency that can plague any successful innovator. After the author’s wife, a diehard Apple user, has several bad experiences with Apple Store staff that seem more interested in watching the clock then solving her IT issues (despite the fact she’s paying for their time) and never had product in stock, she goes to a Microsoft Store to buy a Surface tablet for her husband. The customer experience is like night and day. The Microsoft employee is polite, helpful, and genuinely appreciates her business. An Apple diehard is converted; future purchases will not be Apple products.

Microsoft Store
High-energy staff at the West Edmonton Mall Microsoft Store.

Go into one of those malls with both stores for yourself, and it’s hard not to sense the different cultures at play. It’s a lesson Apple once taught the technology industry and may need to learn once more – you can have the best technology in the world, but if the customer experience is poor, it doesn’t matter.

If you’re going to have a retail arm, good store staff are as important as good product.

Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras is a technology journalist with IT World Canada and a member of the IT Business team. He began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada and the channel for Computer Dealer News. His writing has also appeared in the Vancouver Sun & the Ottawa Citizen.

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