Apple scores another victory in customer satisfaction

The gap between Apple and the PC makers has never been wider, proving it's not just fan boys who love their Macs

Last month I took my daughter to Apple's main San Francisco store to buy her a MacBook for college. Yes, it was over my protests, being a PC kind of guy for decades.

What an eye-opener -- I was surprised by how good the customer experience was in the store. And I was shocked that Madeline, who's made many a late night call to me for help desk services, had the MacBook Pro and printer up and running and online with zero help from Dad.

[ For a look at where tech support is going, read Christina Tynan-Wood's "The (better) future of tech support." | Frustrated by tech support? Get answers in InfoWorld's Gripe Line newsletter. ]

Why am I telling you this? Because Apple once again creamed the PC makers in the latest University of Michigan ACSI customer satisfaction survey. Jobs & Co. have outpaced the clone makers every year since 2004, but Apple's lead has never been greater than it is now.

It's worth noting that Apple's reputation has been somewhat tarnished this year by iPhone antenna debacle and that Android is outselling the iPhone. But when it comes to the sometimes forgotten computer business, Apple keeps on satisfying its customers. There's a wealth of lessons here for HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Acer, who are about as consumer-friendly as a meter maid, regardless of their market share.

Top-notch Apple service begins with the sale
Electronics stores that sell PCs are typically staffed with low-paid, poorly trained folks who don't know much about computers. I don't blame the staffers, but I do blame the retailers and the PC makers who, for the sake of margins, wash their hands of good customer service. Even worse, the big chains have a wide variety of electronics, making it even harder for the salespeople to develop focused expertise.

By contrast, the 300 or so Apple stores are focused on Apple products, and the generally young, refreshingly geeky salespeople know what they're talking about and seem genuinely enthusiastic about the products they sell.

When Madeline and I entered the store, which was fairly crowded, it wasn't hard to find a sales guy who stuck with us through the whole process. He knew the products and helped us put together a cost-effective bundle of a MacBook Pro, printer, software, and training/service options. He even troubleshot when I hit a snag obtaining instant credit.

It's no secret that retailers and PC makers complicate the rebate process in hopes that consumers will trip up by losing a form or forgetting to mail it on schedule. Indeed, incomplete rebates contribute significantly to profit margins for retailers and PC makers.

Apple, by contrast, puts the rebate process online. Filling out the forms is simple, and I was given a date by which the checks would arrive. Best of all, they did.

PC buyers happier with Windows 7
There was some good news in the survey for PC makers. Their overall satisfaction among customers did improve, probably because Vista is now in the rearview mirror.

"Windows-based manufacturers made large gains in the second year of Microsoft's release of Windows 7, marking a recovery from the problems associated with the Windows Vista software," said Claes Fornell, a professor at UM's Ross School of Business and a founder of the ACSI survey. Nearly all brands showed increases in satisfaction and no manufacturer declined, he said: "Lower prices, better service, and an emphasis on new, smaller systems and a variety of portable PCs helped drive the improvement."

Still Apple, with a score of 86, was 9 points ahead of Acer, Dell, and HP, all tied at 77. HP's Compaq brand fared even worse, scoring just 74.

A fairly big component of customer satisfaction has to do with support after the sale. I won't belabor the terrible experiences many of us have had, waiting in endless phone queues to reach support people whose English is stilted and appear chained to an arbitrary troubleshooting script.

By and large, that's not the case with Apple. The few times I've had problems with my iPhone, I found that I could arrange a support call online. Once I was connected, the techs were patient, easy to understand, and most important, quite knowledgable.

Fixing customer support is very difficult, and it often founders on the hard rocks of margins and costs. I'm sure that Apple's center in the Northwest (which may be outsourced) is more expensive to run than one in Mumbai.

And that brings up a key point. Historically, Apple has charged more for its products than PC makers. Yes, one can argue that a feature-by-feature comparison shows otherwise, but I'm not convinced. In any case, PC buyers, particularly on the consumer side, shop primarily on price. It's no accident that much of the design, manufacture, and support of PCs occur offshore. It's simply cheaper, and buyers do not necessarily reward innovative PC companies with more sales.

I've written many times that Apple's control of the platform creates a superior experience, but also limits its success in the marketplace. The wide-open Windows platform enabled a plethora of hardware and software makers to spread relatively low-cost systems throughout the world. That was a huge achievement, one that Apple's business model would never have achieved.

But now the industry is reaching what Andy Grove would call an inflection point. The rapid shift of personal computing to handheld devices and the cloud is shrinking the importance of traditional computing devices, including the Mac and the PC. Companies that survive the shift will have to fight for customer loyalty. The UM survey and my own recent experiences show that the Dells and the HPs have a steep learning curve ahead.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

This article, "Apple scores another victory in customer satisfaction," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com.

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