Does Apple's Silence Send a Message?

Ann All

Every marketer worth his or her snuff is advising companies to have conversations with their customers. Actually, companies have always had these conversations. In marketing 1.0, though, they were pretty one-sided, with many companies acting like the obnoxious blowhard that couldn't seem to stop talking about himself, mostly in superlatives. What was missing was the sense that they ever listened to their customers.


That's changing, with companies striving to strike a more personal note on channels like Facebook and Twitter. Some, like Best Buy, are creating new roles for folks to craft and manage their social media strategies. (In Best Buy's case, it's a manager of emerging media marketing.)


Apple is a notable exception. As I wrote in June, plenty of folks talk about the company's products, but Apple itself doesn't join the conversations. It doesn't have an official presence on Facebook or Twitter. Dan Lyons, ostensibly a writer for publications like Forbes and Newsweek, launched a sideline career by creating an online Fake Steve Jobs persona. That wouldn't have been possible if the real Steve Jobs wasn't so famously private.


InformationWeek's Jonathan Salem Baskin doesn't think Apple's silence is a problem. Apple's actions speak louder than words, he writes:

The fact that Apple doesn't declare, but rather does things, suggests to me a model for other businesses to emulate, not the other way around. ...

Maybe so, and Apple is known for inspriing slavish loyalty among its fans. But that loyalty may fade, if the company persists in treating customers experiencing problems with its products as nuisances. A Brit named Ken Stanborough was incensed when Apple offered a refund for his daughter's iPod after it exploded, but only if he first signed an agreement promising not to reveal details of the settlement, backed up with the threat of legal action.


Apple's lucky Stanborough didn't make a clever YouTube video, like the band Sons of Maxwell did when United Airlines ruined an expensive guitar on a flight, then stonewalled instead of offering a refund.

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Aug 14, 2009 1:06 PM Jonathan Salem Baskin Jonathan Salem Baskin  says:

Ann, you write thoughtfully about the issue of 'conversation' and its role in business, and thank you for including my column from Information Week. 

I'm still not convinced that Apple treats its customers as 'nuisances,' or that the solution would be for it to use social media.  Every company fails some of its customers some of the time, and Apple actually maintains a pretty robust customer service function (it isn't outsourced, they seem to know what they're doing, and the genius bar help at its stores is top-flight, most of the time).

In fact, I'd argue its service/customer relations are far more meaningful that those at any given Best Buy store.  It's a comparison of apples vs. oranges (no pun intended).

As for the role of newly-empowered disgruntled customers, like the guy who performed "United Breaks Guitars," I'm not sure it's necessarily (or consistently) positive, or even all that real.  The guy in this instance checked his guitar...a stupid move by any measure, whether baggage claim treated items with kit gloves or not...and then gets lots of attention because he posted a video.

Did United do anything wrong?  Wasn't the guy at least somewhat responsible (I'd argue nearly wholly so)?  Now that every single program can use social media to elevate to something of macro-cosmic importance, will it improve the conduct of business, or simply distract it via lots of social media chatter?

Anyway, thoughtful stuff.  Thanks again for including me.

Aug 17, 2009 5:23 PM Andrew Buck Andrew Buck  says:

Ann, it's a thoughtful piece.  I've seen too many organizations set lofty expectations for their products, and then completely disappoint the customer when the end result is revealed.  Need I mention Microsoft Vista here as a perfect example of marketing hype not meeting reality?

As a consumer of Apple products of all sorts, I could care less about their Social Media perception than about the value and function of the products, the quality of their customer care, and the before-during-post sale.  With Apple, I know what to expect and I'm treated with value to them.  It's very difficult to walk into an Apple store and not have a first-class experience; it was very easy for me to walk out of a Best Buy after receiving no help/service/knowledge whatsoever. 

That's the not-so-subtle difference between Apple and everyone else.  It's reaching the customer and providing excellence at every interaction versus jabbering on and not delivering.  The question is one of whether that customer wants the quality of an Apple product/service/support and is willing to pay that premium, versus a claim such as Microsoft's where you can get a cheaper product.  In the end, you get what you pay for.

One last note -- I'd say that Apple's own silence is likely very carefully planned, since it creates its own marketing buzz and brand identification through customers themselves who extoll the virtues of the product.  Is company-generated marketing hype more authentic than a devoted user's honest experiences?  I, for one, think not.

Aug 19, 2009 12:54 PM Jim Hendrickson Jim Hendrickson  says:

Ann, as a long time Customer Service executive in the technology space, I am going to take issue with your conclusions.  I have followed Apple for many years as an outside observer, and a customer.  First of all Steve Jobs is by far and away the most innovative and demanding CEO in addressing the customer experience in the design of his products.  He was the original innovator in the graphical user interface for the PC, and has always provided the most intuitive, easy to use access to his technology products.  You can't do that without deep understanding of customer behaviour, wants and needs.

Secondly, in terms of customer service, he actually has defined a brand new customer service paradigm by providing top quality, in the store experts to help when the customer walks in the door! 

It is true Apple is not into the social networking space, but I agree the above post, that it is by design.  It does not mean they are not mining those sources for input, but they are carefully managing what they post.  They want you in the store where they can make the interaction full and truely meaningful.

Anybody who wants to understand a very new, innovative approach - that was studied, designe and tested before rolled out, should walk into an Apple store.  It is one of the most enjoyable customer service experiences you will find.


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