We speak of Apple relentlessly as one of the most interesting, innovative, and creative firms of modern times. Few experts in the realm of creative management are able to go a full hour without mentioning either Apple or its mythical founder, Steve Jobs. In doing so, most commentators focus on the company's impressive artefacts, some using the colourful iMac G3 as their starting point, others jumping straight to the first iPods, iPhones or iPads as symbols of the company's success, both on the marketplace and in the minds of its contemporaries.
Those who are more aware of the inner workings of Apple and the sources of its success will tell you that Apple's main innovation of the last few years was the creation of the iTunes store, which led it most recently to launch the App store. Both sites are now converging into a continuum of online vending sites that allow you to buy both multi-platform digital content and software in a few simple clicks. While Apple continues to derive significant revenue from the sales of the artefacts it designs and produces, one third of its current revenue comes from the sales of intangibles.
Further to the point is the fact that Apple treats the overall supply of goods and services as an integrated whole. While the iTunes and App stores participate fully in this process, and even if the full integration of the iPhones and iPads (elements such as calendars, addresses, emails, music, film, clocks, photos, etc.) may seem rather natural to most of us by now (save for Windows users, who desperatly cling to 1980s technologies), one thing that remains relatively unexplored is the translation of Apple's principles into the real world, through its customer service. Here are few small details that may go unnoticed at first, but that would merit far more attention from creative management academics.
Apart from its vast network of "authorized dealers", on which little data is readily available from the company, Apple directly owns and operates 415 stores in 13 countries (2014). Everything from the exterior and interior design of these stores, to the strategic location and the careful integration of the stores in their immediate environments, gives the impression that Apple Stores constitute city landmarks, to be visited almost as if they were museums, or touristic attractions of sorts. Even in a city like New York, the store on 5th Avenue and 59th gives a very different impression from the Soho location on Prince Street. Needless to say, the Regent Street store in London - the company's largest - is also a sight of its own, especially after nightfall.
Apple Stores obviously aim to sell Apple products and services. But the design of the environment is so that this purpose seems relegated as a secondary matter. Devices are free to use, and many "browsers" come and go, check their email, surf the Internet, and familiarize themselves a little further with the stability and performance of the OS X environment. The stores' employees are trained to detect those who look around for help, so they navigate the store in an almost entropic manner, a sort of organized randomness. The whole idea is that of a complete dedramatization of the act of buying. Instead of bullying customers with stupid questions (i.e. think Best Buy), let them make up their minds, at their own pace, in time.
The sales methodology is clear. If the customer wants to buy, he should come to that conclusion himself. The products are interesting, they work (!), and they are comparable between them. Alternative products, both more expensive and less expensive, more capable and less capable, are presented side to side. From the salespersons' point of view, it seems like whatever time needed to come to a conclusion, even a negative one, is taken: what may seem like unimportant questions are asked, chit-chat is engaged, which in the end leaves you with an impression (not a false one, I believe) that Richard, Chloe or Simon really care whether you succeed with your Ph.D., and know that this is your 6th Macbook in as many years.
And the dedramatization of consumership does not end there. Indeed, to many of us, buying a new computer - or, even more so, "switching to Apple" - feels like a traumatic experience. Hence, the concept developed is that of a hands-on, repetitive relationship to the product, through which even "digital migrants" may get an impression of Apple's ergonomics and decide what feels better.
Once the decision is taken, Apple's remote billing system allows to move to a calmer corner where further conversation may take place while the transaction is completed. There is no waiting in line with crying babies and obnoxious techies. Card readers are disposed in various points, and everything is handled from the salespersons' iPhone. If your credit card has been used previously with Apple - on the iTunes store, the App Store, or in another physical Apple store anywhere else in the world - the system automatically recognizes and fills your information for your Apple buddy to see. The bill can then be either printed, or sent to your email.
* Apple recently announced that it would accept any of its old computers directly in-store as part of a company-wide effort to reduce its ecological footprint. It will also credit users for the products they bring back so they can use it towards their purchase of a new product. This initiative not only adds pressure in creating a reverse distribution system (products flowing out, products flowing in), but also in terms of customer service, the valuation of used items being added to the sales process.
Creativity beyond products
Thus, Apple's creativity extends far beyond the integration of its product lines, which literally speak to one another through a very sophisticated connectivity system. It prevails throughout a state-of-the-art customer service that participates in the dedramatization of consumership and, further down the road, of ownership. This is done notably through the Applecare automatic replacement service, consulting services such as the Genius bars, One-on-ones and Studio creatives sessions, support systems which feature after-sales services both in hardware repair and replacement, or in software operation.
These practices are respectful of the fact that consumership has changed significantly with the arrival of online browsing and shopping. As customers grow more aware of the characteristics, availability and prices of products, the necessity for pressuring them decreases, to the point that it might prove counterproductive in many cases. We argue that Apple has developed a mature understanding of what the next generations of successful businesses will be like. As more and more work is being undertaken on innovation in services, Apple may prove to be, once again, transforming the way we interact with the products we buy... and with the companies that sell them to us. Amen (!).