When my friend Nate meets someone new and they hear he's a doctor, he dreads when they ask, "What kind?" Because when he says he's a dermatologist, they show him their moles.
This isn't brick and mortar, it's glass and steel. Pseudonymous Apple Store employee J. K. Appleseed takes you backstage at Apple Retail, the supercollider of human expectations and consumer technology.
When someone finds out you work in an Apple Store, you brace yourself for two questions. First, they ask if you get an employee discount. Since you do get a limited number of purchase discounts to share, you have a decision to make.
It's the second question that might get you in over your head.
Discounts you can share are one of several perks that come with the job, but servicing iPhones in the Apple store is like playing Russian roulette. Each time you begin a repair interview, you take another shot at meeting that insane customer, the one destined to star in a viral video, the one who will shout your face off because the world doesn't work the way they think it should. You thought you were just a retail employee. Nope, you're the face of customer service today, and for some that means you're the face to spit on. Once you've met that customer, and you absolutely will, some part of you learns to fear—or at least to inspect with extreme prejudice any prospect of—offering iPhone help. Your eyes have been opened to the dark side, to how deeply, madly, and unconsciously people invest themselves into their tech.
"It's not working! Can you see that? My whole life is in here, and it's not working!"
"Then don't throw it into a urinal again, sir!" I never get to say.
Honestly, the percentage of nightmare customers is pretty low, but probability dictates that if one in a thousand is a nutcase, we'll get a handful of them every month. People who threw their iPhones at their significant other, missed, shattered it, and blamed Apple. People who let their toddlers play with their iPhones at the beach, then find the device seemed salty, sandy, and buggy, and blamed Apple. You wouldn't believe the self-righteous anger, their sense of feeling aggrieved. They come in wanting to leave scars. Is this an emerging species of road rage? Some ultra-aggressive persona unlocked by temporarily losing constant internet access? Therapists seeking clients should stake out customer service centers.
What if people could approach smart phone problems with the same common sense they approached car trouble? That is to say, if you get a dent in your fender, you'll be pissed, sure, but you don't race back to the dealership expecting they'll give you a new car. Why do people expect different with an iPhone? I have asked this aloud before, further proof I'll never climb to management, and the reply is surprisingly consistent, "But I spend a lot of money here!" What? Try that line at your car dealership, bro.
Here's my suggestion. I believe tempers would flare less if iPhones had self-diagnostic warning lights like the ones you have on a car's dashboard. They could follow a scale of severity like the Homeland Security Threat Levels.
Level 1 - No biggie. You forgot to click something like your seat belts, or the vibration only button, or location services.
Level 2 - Hey, just checking, are you sure you want this thing running in the background? Maybe you ought to shut down the headlights or the Wi-Fi.
Level 3 - You should get this checked out.
Level 4 - No, seriously, get this puppy checked out.
Level 5 - Fail! Why didn't you get this checked out?
It's easier to own car problems you can address yourself, such as low oil, or brake fluids, than it is to wrap your head around the mysteries of switching stations, cell towers, microscopic parts, and iOS code that could affect your iPhone's performance. By the time something goes recognizably wrong with an iPhone, owners feel betrayed. I think that's because they were only get one warning light: Level 5.
Course of Action
So, something's up with your iPhone. This isn't a tech column, it's not meant to be a perfectly accurate play-by-play, but we could try something like a walkthrough. Anthony Bourdain advises that before you even know what you're cooking, put on a pot of water to boil. You'll probably need it for something, and now you're ahead of the game. Similarly, if you think something's up with your iPhone, book a Genius Bar appointment online. They'll have diagnostic tools, references, veteran technicians, replacement parts, flowcharts, empathy training, and knowledge bases that cannot be recreated here. They're a perfect back-up plan to our imperfect exercise.
So, just of curiosity, how are you feeling? Please select the avatar that best represents your current attitude.
Customer A - You believe good customers receive better customer service, so you don a smile.
Customer B - You reached out to your Facebook friends for a magic, quick-fix-it idea. They did not have one.
Customer C - You don't have time for this.
Customer D - You believe bad customers receive better customer service, so you have your rage face on.
In an ideal world, your repair technician would be unaffected by your attitude. However, as you know, you do not live in an ideal world, so consider your attitude the one thing you can control in this process. Matt Walsh recently wrote a piece in the Huffington Post relating bad customer service to bad customers, the gist of which is that even if you feel like B, C, and D, you should pretend to be Customer A because it will get you so much further in all things. Besides, I'm sure you've seen that Vine video of Customer D, the climactic seven seconds of a ten-minute freak out. You don't want to be that kind of famous.
Getting to the Genius Bar
Apple stores were designed around the idea that upon entry, the customer would immediately be able to grasp the entire thing. So here's a store, in the abstract.
The glowing logo insures you're in the right place. The sight lines are clear, or they would be if it weren't so crowded. The gray floor and walls recede visually. The tables display products. The back walls hold accessories. Now, since you're looking for something you know is ostentatiously called the Genius BAR, it's easy to recognize what's in the back with all those black stools.
You used to check in with orange-shirted Concierges (miss you, guys!), but now you look for the person with the blue iPad. They'll check you in for your appointment. You may experience a feeling of schadenfreude seeing someone who shows up without having made an appointment beforehand.
Here's What's Up
The screen is cracked.
No matter the strength of the glass, this keeps happening. It keeps a lot of case-makers in business, I suppose. Conspiracy theorists float suggestions that cracks in the display are caused by temperature shifts or manufacturing defects. That might be possible were there a single, hairline crack, but that spider-web pattern clearly indicates impact. Without AppleCare, you're probably out of warranty, which means you'll have to pay for a repair. For a while, and these were good times, the unofficial policy was to comp people on their first repair. I can't vouch that's still the case.
It got wet.
Oof, this is usually a death sentence for electronics, even if it's not immediate. It's well known that iPhones carry liquid exposure indicators. It's unfortunately rumored that keeping iPhones in a plastic bag with rice kernels can "fix" them. Instead of rice, you could try those silica gel packets you sometimes get with dry goods, because they make better desiccants. Just understand that doing so won't put your iPhone back under warranty, won't reverse a short circuit, and can't stop corrosion. There's rarely good news to give under such circumstances, although some telephone carriers and credit cards offer insurance-like policies.
"Why don't you guys just make iPhones waterproof?"
"You're asking me why the industrial designers don't plug up all the little holes for speakers and microphones?"
"Because that would block sound."
It's not working right.
Geniuses interview iPhone owners to gather important information, because repair diagnosis follows logical steps of deduction. Sometimes, the owner just isn't using the device properly. Barring that, however, either something is wrong with the device's hardware, or the software that runs the hardware has been corrupted. That's it. That's the big non-secret to figuring out what's wrong.
Fixing hardware is awfully fun. You get to pop off plates, look inside the iPhone's guts, maybe replace a part, seal it back up, and you're good to go. Your charger cable won't charge the iPhone? But ours does? Then you just need a new cable! These are mechanical fixes, and on good days you feel like a pit crew at NASCAR.
Software problems, on the other hand, not only display inconsistent symptoms (it gets hot, the battery life is suddenly crap, it seems slow, etc.) but can open up a can of worms including resets, restores, reinstalls, and other potentially time-consuming repercussions. Many times, the problem boils down to having downloaded a poorly coded app, but explaining that to a customer who's waited thirty minutes, refuses to believe you, and was hoping for a new iPhone takes some skill and commitment. A software issue doesn't guarantee bad news for you, it just means the solution may take a little longer than the pit crew fix.
Wait, that's a Blackberry.
You didn't bring one in, but so many have, I have to address it as a possibility. Customers bring us their Blackberries, their Galaxies, and even their Dells for repair. We don't—we legally can't—service those. I wonder if these customers found a hair in their Big Mac, would they drive to Taco Bell to demand a refund?
What is this? We keep an informal, secret gallery of fake iPhones, and I was lucky enough once to contribute. A young man handed me his iPhone for repair, and it felt oddly light. I puzzled over it back in the Genius Room. I couldn't understand why the screen was the wrong size, which made the overall shape subtly different. Running my finger over it, I could feel the Home button wasn't flush. Even the Apple logo was off center. Actually, it seemed like it was a sticker. I showed it to the Genius working next to me, and his eyes bugged out.
"Oh my God, John's got a fake!"
Every Genius on duty wanted to check it out. It was a bigger hit than discovering an albino panda. One for the record books, maybe something Corporate would even want a snapshot of. What can I say? Sometimes we get a little punchy racing about back there.
After the back room comedy though, I had to walk out and tell this poor guy I couldn't help him, because he'd purchased a fake. He seemed disappointed more than angry. Had he hoped that I would replace it? Or did he head home to deliver a well-deserved punch to some con-artist salesman? I wish I knew.
That's the shape of a check-up, in a nutshell. If you read this article hoping it would substitute for an actual inspection and diagnosis, I apologize. Writing lets me examine the process for you far better than I can replicate it, and despite mining for humor, it's not my intent to trivialize tech issues, to label them as merely "first-world" problems. From a businessperson's being frozen out of their time-sensitive communications, to a widow's potentially losing all photos of their departed spouse, there are terribly meaningful assets tied into these gleaming little machines. One of the greater values of the iPhone is that it helps carry these person-to-person relationships, which makes customer service all the more tragic when a customer's rage torches the good will of the person trying to help recover access to them.
Anyway, enough with the how-to's and the retail rants. In the next installment, I'll return with the funniest Apple Store stories I've got. If you'd like to share some, please drop me a line!