Apple's retail stores: Great places to shop, miserable places to work

Confidential training manuals, employee interviews reveal tightly controlled operation

apple storePhoto credit: Apple
Every Apple Store follows the same basic floorplan. Pictured above is the Apple Store in Rome, Italy.

Visiting an Apple store is supposed to be, by meticulous design, a wonderful experience for customers.

But you have to wonder if the rank-and-file Apple retail employees share the same joy when they walk through the doors of the company's 326 stores each day.

(Also see: Some Apple store workers are talking the 'U' word (that's 'union'))

The Wall Street Journal offers a fascinating glimpse into the tightly run Apple retail environment:

With their airy interiors and attractive lighting, Apple's stores project a carefree and casual atmosphere. Yet Apple keeps a tight lid on how they operate. Employees are ordered to not discuss rumors about products, technicians are forbidden from prematurely acknowledging widespread glitches and anyone caught writing about the Cupertino, Calif., company on the Internet is fired, according to current and former employees.

The WSJ says it has seen confidential training manuals, heard a recording of a store meeting and conducted interviews with "more than a dozen current and former employees." So it seems the portrayal of Apple's retail stores as highly controlled environments isn't coming merely from a couple of disgruntled workers.

Managing your brand and ensuring that customers have a positive experience are, of course, good things. No argument here. Employees who goof off, can't answer basic questions and go for the hard sell can hurt a company and discourage repeat visits.

Apple tolerates none of this. It even explicitly tells employees -- none of whom get commissions or are required to meet quotas -- "not to sell, but rather to help customers solve problems," the WSJ reports.

That certainly sounds like a training manual cliche readily discarded when the pressure is on to move merchandise, but one former employee of a Virginia Apple store told the WSJ, "You were never trying to close a sale. It was about finding solutions for a customer and finding their pain points."

Of course, altruism only goes so far. Like Best Buy employees, Apple retail workers are expected to push service agreements on customers buying products. "Those who don't sell enough are re-trained or moved to another position, depending on the store," the WSJ reports.

Here's where it gets a bit over-controlling and ridiculous to me: Top tech people at Apple's stores, known as "Geniuses," when confronted with a customer problem they can't solve, are trained to use the phrase "as it turns out" rather than "unfortunately," because the latter is considered too negative.

Maybe it's just me, but hearing "as it turns out, your computer can't be fixed" wouldn't make me feel any better than "unfortunately, your computer can't be fixed." Either way, my computer can't be fixed. Word choice is irrelevant.

Even for Apple fanatics who work at the stores, it must eventually grate on them to be treated like a child or to feel as if Steve Jobs is watching from his Cupertino headquarters via an in-store video camera. Especially for $9 to $15 an hour (though Geniuses can make up to $30 per hour).

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