Five Key Customer Experience Lessons from Apple Retail



With over 1 million visitors a day and $5,775 of revenue per square foot (2014, according to eMarketer, published in Fortune), Apple knows a thing or two about how people like to shop. But with 65,000+ employees in 463 stores across 15 countries, how does this behemoth of a company design an experience that stays true to its brand?

Here are 5 lessons from the best retailer on the planet:

Lesson 1: Hire the Best

Only about 2% of applicants get hired into work in the prestigious Apple stores. And these employees are hired for their emotional intelligence above their technical aptitude. The hiring process is grueling and includes a group audition and 5-6 interviews. Selected candidates have a passion for Apple and genuine interest in helping others.

Lesson 2: Train for Authenticity

Apple’s super secret training manuals have been leaked over the years, namely in 2012 when Sam Biddle wrote about his cover to cover read of it in Gizmodo. The teachings focus on communication skills – everything from non-verbal communication interpretation to practicing empathy. According to Biddle’s report, Apple employees are trained on utilizing a technique known as the ‘Three Fs: Feel, Felt, and Found.’

Customer: This Mac is just too expensive.

Genius: I can see how you’d feel this way. I felt the price was a little high, but I found it’s a real value because of all the built-in software and capabilities.

Certainly a memorable tool and one I’ve seen employed firsthand on my visits to Apple. Other techniques that I’ve observed:

  • Mirroring: This technique includes echoing the body language, voice tone, speed, etc. When done subtly, the technique allows the customer to feel the Genius is similar to them and thus creates an increased liking. Mirroring can help establish rapport and quickly deepens the bond between two people.

  • Foot Pointing: When the Genius was talking to a group of people, it was clear to me that his attention was put on ‘the buyer’ at all times, even when body orientation or conversation was happening with others. Foot pointing is often the most accurate clue as to where the person is focused and the ‘actual direction the person wants to go.’

Lesson 3: Choose Leaders who believe in Connection

Looking at the history of Apple retail, it is clear that Steve Jobs was passionate about doing more than just selling iPhones. In 1999, Jobs recruited Millard Drexler, President of the Gap, to the Apple board to help design the retail strategy. During the early retail days, employees joked about working for ‘Gapple.’ Drexler advocated Ron Johnson’s hire, a successful executive at Target.

Steve Jobs and Ron Johnson created the iconic Apple retail store, focusing on building the Genius Bar and hiring great employees back in 2001. In Johnson’s blog post for the HBR Online Forum, The Future of Retail, he stated: “You have to create a store that’s more than a store to people…. People come to the Apple Store for the experience — and they’re willing to pay a premium for that. There are lots of components to that experience, but maybe the most important — and this is something that can translate to any retailer — is that the staff isn’t focused on selling stuff, it’s focused on building relationships and trying to make people’s lives better. That may sound hokey, but it’s true.”

After Johnson left Apple in 2011, CEO Tim Cook hired on John Browett from Dixon’s Retail to drive revenue growth. But after just 5 months, it was clear that Browett was “not a cultural fit” as he focused on lean operations that frustrated employees and were quickly reversed. The seat was empty until Tim Cook made a key strategic hire in 2014 of Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of Burberry, to head Apple Retail (which included the merge of the online channel as well). While Ahrendts has been criticized for being too mysterious and quiet for the brand publicly, she has opened up communication internally with weekly video updates and built her knowledge with a lengthy listening tour.

Most revealing about Ahrendts mindset is her 2011 TEDx talk, “The Power of Human Energy” where she stated: “The more technologically advanced our society becomes, the more we need to go back to the basic fundamentals of human communication.” Ahrendt’s leadership could not be more of a fit for Apple.

Lesson 4: Be Dramatic

Similar to Disney’s Cast Members (the name bestowed on all employees), Apple employees are tuned into the idea that the store is a stage. On the simplest of levels, take a look at how the employees are standing – unless with a customer, they are turned towards the front of the store, giving the ability to welcome in the customer with a genuine smile and hello. They know not to turn their back on the audience.

And a more obvious moment of theatre: when the store has a ‘Clap Out’ to say goodbye to an employee who is leaving. This modern version of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ happens at 5pm of the last day of an employees time at a given store and can last for over 5 minutes. Clap-Ins are also part of the culture when new employees join the organization – managers and trainers give the trainees a standing ovation for several minutes until they join in on the clapping as well.



Recently I visited an Apple Store because my phone stopped charging. I arrived 20 minutes before opening. An employee was standing outside of the store with an iPad, awaiting customers’ arrival. He took the time to diagnose the issue and scheduled an appointment for the exact time the store opened. His performance got a standing ovation from me that day.

Lesson 5: Anticipate what’s Next

The leaders at Apple know that they must keep moving. The store experience will likely stay true to what has made it so successful – the iconic tables, the Genius Bar. But what we will likely see from Ahrendts is a shift to making the store a community where unique premium products (like Devialet’s Phantom speaker), improved layout and seating, and experiences around Apple Pay and Apple Music.

What’s perhaps more interesting though is Apple’s focus on China. The Nanjing East store in Shanghai is Apple’s busiest store, with 25,000 visitors a day. Currently Apple has 29 stores in China, with 14 stores coming online in 2015 and a growth rate of 84%. But Apple understands their Chinese customers make the Apple store a destination in their travels. For example, there are now 21 Mandarin-speaking employees at the Upper East Side Apple Store alone, a terrific example of how Apple knows and anticipates their customer. Steve Jobs once responded to a difficult question by saying: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” It is clear that his vision lives on.

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