What I Learned From Working at the Apple Store

At the turn of this century, I worked for a few Web sites that you haven't heard of because they collapsed in the great tech bubble. I became a High School teacher and stuck with it for five years before I got back into tech journalism. But while I was teaching, I took on some extra jobs, one of which was working at an Apple store at a very expensive mall. I learned a lot in my time there.

Don't get excited about inside information and secrets. I didn't know anything. As I would tell customers who asked for an inside scoop, if a product launches on a Tuesday, we find out about it Wednesday. If an Apple store salesperson claims to have some inside knowledge, they're lying, and they probably got their info the same place you do, on the Internet. The people who did know were smart and loyal enough not to say anything.

For a time, I figured I was the lowliest Apple employee of all. I started working three days per week, but I was also teaching at a charter school, leading an SAT prep class and tutoring rich kids trying to bump their SAT scores above 1400. The Apple store paid fair wages for a retail job in a fancy shopping mall, but I was really there for the fun of working for Apple and making some money talking about Macs. So, eventually I tried to quit, but my manager asked me to stay. I agreed, but I would only work one shift per week, and it was the Sunday shift. A busy day, but also paid time and a half thanks to local labor laws. At one point I was employed by Apple to work six hours per week, and I can't imagine any Apple employee being less important to the company than I was.

I can't place the exact period I worked at the store, but I was there for the launch of the iPod shuffle and the iPod nano. In fact, Apple was generous enough to hand out free iPods to its employees from time to time, so we all walked around, proud of our little stick players and teeny nanos, and handing them off to customers whenever they asked. Even I, the lowliest Apple employee, got a free iPod when the company dolled them out.

Enough reminiscing. Here's what I learned from my year or so as the lowliest Apple employee.

Lesson 1: Buy the laptop warranty, but skip the desktop. Your laptop will break within the next three years, and fixing it will cost more than the warranty costs. I've owned 8 laptops since I bought my first in 1994, and the warranty has paid for itself almost every time.

This is a hard thing to explain to a customer. When you push so hard for a warranty, they always ask: "Are you telling me this computer will definitely break?"

Of course I couldn't answer yes to that when I'm a salesperson, but I also couldn't let them walk out of the store without a warranty. Apple gives you one year to buy the extension, but you'll forget, so buy the warranty right away.

To be fair and balanced, the only laptop for which I could have skipped the warranty was my ultra-compact Dell D420. I wasn't a huge fan of that little, Windows XP machine, but it never broke down on me.

Lesson 2: Apple stores are lit like the commercial. The Apple store design is iconic. It was a happy place to work, being so clean and so well lit. It's a happy place to shop, when it isn't mobbed. We had people come in and ask where they could buy the huge wooden tables, the stools, the old spherical chairs for the kids' section. I didn't know, and I don't think Apple tells anyone, but they were really missing the point.

The reason Apple stores are designed so well is the lighting. When you hold an iPod in your hand or try out an iMac, it looks like it does in the commercial. But this isn't only true for the lighting. This is one of my favorite parts about Apple's entire philosophy. If you watch a bunch of iPhone commercials, you know exactly what to expect, and it will work just as well in your hands. When you take your Apple product home, there's no instant disappointment when the product in the box doesn't match your expectations.

For how many products is this true? Almost none. Fast food is my favorite example, because the disparity between the commercial and the real thing is so vast that it should be illegal. But this applies to other products, too.

Will the car you just bought perform like the one in the commercial? Not unless you spent thousands extra for the performance package, and you've taken some stunt driving courses to learn how to pull a 180 degree turn. Will the clothes look the same? Will the beer taste as good? Of course not, but we've learned that commercials lie.

Not Apple commercials. What you get is just as crisp, just as responsive and just as fun as what you see. There are rare exceptions, but as a rule, Apple meets or exceeds expectations. This all starts in the store, where the product looks just like it does on TV.

Lesson 3: There is always something better around the corner, so be happy with the product for the things it does when you buy it. This was probably the most common question I was asked: "Is there something new coming out tomorrow that will make this obsolete."

I didn't know, of course, but I always answered: "Of course there is."

If you can afford to wait, then wait. Eventually something new will come out or you'll have lost so much time and effort in lost productivity that you'll break down and buy that new machine anyway. But if you're happy with what your new MacBook, your new iPad or iMac can do when you buy it, at least you can always count on it for those things that made you happy.

Lesson 4: Nice guys win. When I started working, I was trained for the job by a High School senior who thought he knew everything about Macs. Everything about selling machines. An 18 year old condescending to me, a High School teacher. Must have been a dream come true for him. Okay, I could get over it, but he also had the same attitude with customers.

You know the type. You ask a question that seems complicated to you, and the guy doesn't even bother to look in your direction while they bark an answer. He makes you feel low for knowing less than he.

My mentor made sales. He could bully and badger a customer into feeling stupid for not buying a machine, and they would walk out with a good computer. They would never return.

If you bought a computer from me, I'd remember you when you came back. Months later, if you came back for service or help, I'd be sure to ask you what's wrong. But that's nothing compared to the managers. The managers would treat return customers like old friends, with a handshake and a pat on the back. They often remembered people by name.

It wasn't about commission, because we didn't make commission. I saw salespeople and managers regularly talk customers into buying a less expensive machine, an iMac over a PowerMac, for instance, because it was a better fit. I saw managers bend over backwards and offer extraordinary help and concessions to buyers who had repeated problems with their machines. In my time at the Apple store, I never saw a customer walk away unhappy.

There's a lot of contention about how Apple treats journalists, or how Apple treats developers, especially iPhone developers. I think these are mostly isolated incidents, but it really doesn't matter, because the most important person to Apple is the customer, especially the new customer.

As their current performance has proven, they seem to know what they're doing.