My shocking visit to the Apple Genius Bar

MacBook Air

For years, I've asserted that in selling products and building up brand loyalty, feelings are more important than rational things. People are more likely to make purchase decisions based on emotions than intellect. Oftentimes, particularly with brands that evoke loyalty, buyers' emotional responses are irrational. I see this characteristic among hardcore Apple fans, who brisk at what they perceive to be the slightest criticism of the company or its products.

I must say that I'm feeling surprisingly good about Apple today. For the second time in nearly three years, Apple gave me a new computer to replace one recently purchased -- each a MacBook Air. But is it good customer service or faulty products?

When the Air was Bad

My more recent saga started on March 1st, when the 11.6-inch MacBook Air I purchased in November fatally crashed, just as my workday was beginning. I temporarily switched to Google's Cr-48 laptop running Chrome OS, resulting in a surprisingly good week-long user experience. Based on Air's behavior over several days prior to its failure, and final crash, I suspected hard drive failure, even though Air uses flash memory (e.g., the drive has no moving parts).

Later that day, I hauled the ailing Air to Apple Store Fashion Valley, where a Genius ran tests. According to his notes: "Ran FSCK, unit had multiple issues" and "repair errored out with Signal 8 and could not be repaired." The Apple Genius also suspected hard drive failure and ordered a 128GB flash replacement.

I left the Genius Bar not feeling too good about Apple or its products. In June 2008, I hauled a first-generation MacBook Air into Apple Store UTC (both shops are in San Diego, Calif.), also for hard drive failure. I started using the computer two months earlier. The store didn't have facilities to replace the drive, so the Apple Genius gave me a new MacBook Air, to my complete surprise. The hard drive on that computer failed in September 2010. I had a local Mac repair shop replace the dead drive with a 64GB SSD.

A very good friend had been pining for my newer Air, and he expressed great interest in buying it following the repair. I was ready to give it up and move over to Google's cloud computer. I liked the Chrome OS experience that much.

Apple completed the repair on March 3rd, with unexpected results. Mac OS X "Snow Leopard" wouldn't install after replacing the flash drive. In the end, the Apple Store replaced the logic board! WTH? I received the computer with new logic board and the old flash drive. I wasn't feeling exactly good about that. No disrespect to the Apple employee(s) who serviced the laptop, the store isn't exactly a clean-room environment like the factory (or as I suppose it to be). I was feeling even more like selling the computer to my friend.

But I wanted to make sure everything was OK with the Mac, too. So I continued using the Cr-48 as my primary machine, while slowly setting up the MacBook Air. That experience deserves calling out. I used to think Macs were so easy to set up, particularly compared to Windows machines. No longer. MobileMe sync restored address book, bookmarks, calendar and email settings, among other things, which got me basically going quickly. But there was still the process of reinstalling applications. By comparison, Google's cloud is instant, and that's a huge advantage Chrome OS has over Mac OS X or Windows. The user logs into his or her Google account and everything is there and ready to use, including Web Applications. Anyone can have this experience using Chrome 10, right now.

Doing the Right Thing

On the afternoon of March 9, I started using MacBook Air as my primary computer. Then trouble began. The computer's earlier breakdown started with several crashes to a pale-colored background with no icons or anything else there. Applications behaved erratically over four or five days before the eventual fatal crash. Suddenly, and quite shockingly, the crashes returned; there was a post-repair problem. I warmed up the Cr-48, logged onto the local store's website and booked another appointment for the Apple Genius Bar.

Hours later, I grimly greeted another Apple Genius. His initial tests found nothing obviously wrong with the computer, although the store could run more intensive tests overnight that might reveal something. I was flummoxed. "You guys replaced the logic board. What else is in there besides the flash drive?" I asked the Genius. Not much. He started to say something about a new computer, but stopped mid sentence. He was looking at a screen and could see that my Air was a configure-to-order model.

"What would make it right for you?" he asked. I finished what he started to say but stopped short of: A new laptop -- seeing that's what he wanted to do. I told him that in my experience Apple stores typically carry the highest CTO configs for sale just not on display. According to his inventory list, the only non-standard model had 1.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of memory and 128GB flash drive. But my Air had the 1.6GHz processor. I seriously considered swapping down. "Let me see what I can do," and he left.

A few minutes later the Genius returned with a new boxed, MacBook Air; he pointed to the configuration label. He found my exact configuration. "I didn't know we carried these," he said. Less than five minutes later, I walked out of the Apple Store with a new computer. Yeah, I was feeling pretty damn good about Apple. Now that is customer service.

Rational or Irrational?

Apple rightly understands the importance of emotions, of making people feel good about its products. Brand loyalty is often emotional; it's rarely rational. When Apple CEO Steve Jobs makes his spell-binding new product announcements, he appeals to emotions -- shows people how their lives could be better if buying product X, Y or Z. It's aspirational marketing.

Yesterday, David Pogue wrote for the New York Times: "Appeal of iPad 2 Is A Matter of Emotions." He started by quoting early 2010, rational commentaries about iPad 1, which later proved to be wrong. He explains:

They were right, at least from a rational standpoint. The iPad was superfluous. It filled no obvious need. If you already had a touch-screen phone and a laptop, why on earth would you need an iPad? It did seem like just a big iPod Touch. But as it turns out, the iPad's appeal is more emotional than rational. Once you get it in your hands, you get caught up in the fascination of manipulating on-screen objects by touching them.

Apple's aspirational appeal is so strong (and perhaps some of its customers' characters so weak) some Mac fans get so caught up in the emotions they become irrational. For example, a Betanews commenter using the handle beautox accused me of lying about my MacBook Air problems: "It's hard to believe that you would buy and use any Apple gear, given your obvious Apple loathing. On the other hand it's easy to believe that you can make up stories about buying them, and then proceed to regale us with tales of their failure. Hmmm, just like this story." The reasoning is something like Apple can do no wrong, so Joe Wilcox must be lying.

Apple's emotional approach is a continuum that extends beyond the initial sale to providing ongoing service. I've seen Apple Store swap out products before. The Genius serving me could have taken away the MacBook Air and run more tests. Perhaps he saw the emotion -- the disappointment -- in my facial expression and thought otherwise. Replacing the laptop turned an unhappy customer into a happy one. Happy customers share their good feelings with friends, which is powerful marketing; others write blogs, as I have done. An unsatisfied customer would complain -- and in my case Air quality was a repeat problem.

But now, two days later, I have some mixed emotions. I treat my computers very well. They're always clean -- I never eat around them, and I wash my hands frequently (but by no means obsessively) throughout the day. That's symbol of the care the machines receive. So, I wonder what's wrong with MacBook Air, if I gave two different models such care but they failed? Or is it something environmental here in my apartment -- perhaps problem with the electrical flow or something else?

Something else: Yesterday morning, MacBook Air warned of problems with my 1TB LaCie external hard drive, which contains 93GB of music and videos -- mostly purchased by download and, therefore, irreplaceable. My most recent backup is about 45 days old. I ran Apple's Verify and Repair Disk utilities, which revealed problems with the drive that the software can't repair. Did the ailing Air damage the drive -- or vice versa? The LaCie drive wasn't attached when the old Air acted strangely again. If I'm lucky it's something else: The drive is USB 3.0 but attached to a USB 2.0 port (it's backward compatible). Perhaps Apple utilities can't rightly verify or repair USB 3.0 drives.

Still, with a new computer, it's hard to feel bad about the external drive or that Apple has replaced two computers in nearly three years. Yes, I know that's not rational.

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