The Apple Experience, by Carmine Gallo (book review)

Apple Inc. sells smartphones, tablets, computers, accessories, other hardware, and the software and services needed to make them all work as they are meant to.

Other companies do these things too, but few of them can boast the success Apple reports during quarterly earnings calls like the one on April 24, 2012. This type of news isn’t unusual coming from Apple – check out their investor page and business media reports to read what I mean.

Much of what Apple systemically does is not difficult to figure out, but it is worth learning. That’s why I enjoyed the latest book from brand communications coach Carmine Gallo, who bundled his thoughts on the success of the Apple Store into The Apple Experience: Secrets to Building Insanely Great Customer Loyalty.

Aside: My interest in this book stems from my experience with my MacBook Pro, iPod Touch, other Apple products and, of course, the customer service experiences I’ve had with Apple, some of which I blogged about here.

Gallo picked apart just about every conceivable element that people encounter when they walk into an Apple Store. He grouped his observations into three parts: 1) serving Apple employees, so they can effectively 2) serve customers, and 3) making sure the retail environment supports both employees and customers.

Gallo backs up the thesis of each chapter using examples both named (like the Ritz-Carlton chain of hotels) and unnamed, large and small. He also throws in mercifully anonymous examples of how NOT to perform customer service.

Chapter 10 especially resonated with me. In a nutshell, “Sell the Benefit” means keeping the techspeak to a minimum when people ask you questions about technology.

It’s what I do any time I play the roles of technology copywriter, technical writer, course designer, trainer or journalist. Here’s the thing: many experts easily talk about things like 3G, WiFi, RAM, USB ports, processor power and other tech details, all the while ignoring the fact that 90 per cent of the population will look at them like deer caught in the headlights when they dive into techspeak.

What these tech experts don’t get is that people need to understand technology to use computers about as much as they need to understand auto mechanics to drive a car. Apple gets this. They sell the sizzle, not the steak, and Gallo does a great job pointing this out.

All of Gallo’s content is great, but said content is presented in a formulaic manner: anecdote, chapter thesis, mini-case-study, explanation, thesis again, Apple example, non-Apple examples, thesis… The sequences are a little different in each chapter, but not enough to eliminate a repetitive undertone, and the formula sometimes leads to stilted passages.

Also, by Chapter 3 (“Cultivate Fearless Employees”), I started to place stickies wherever errors or clunky phrasing appeared. (It’s the writer geek in me. I stopped, ironically, partway through Chapter 5, “Foster a Feedback Loop.”) The book isn’t exactly bristling with stickies, but I’d expect a more polished product coming from a major publisher like McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

I don’t blame Gallo for these shortcomings. Formulaic and poorly-edited prose plagues many otherwise excellent business books today, turning what could be engaging reads into merely pedestrian ones. Publishers seem to increasingly ignore the fact that it takes more than a bright author sharing worthwhile insights to produce a great business book. Professional editors improve any writer’s prose, and I can’t understand why some publishers ignore this fact and let books like Gallo’s go to market unpolished. Maybe said publishers ought to read Gallo’s book, starting with Chapter 16, “Pay Attention to Design (actually, ALL) Details” (parenthetical remark added).

Criticisms aside, Gallo’s “formula” includes “checkout” tips at the end of each chapter. These tips alone justify the cost of the book for any retailer or executive looking to take a customer-service-dependent organization to the next level. So do the endnotes business people can use for further reading. And the requisite index makes looking up specific insights pretty easy.

Gallo kept his focus on the Apple Store, but I found myself wanting him to discuss more of the elements in it. For instance, Apple Stores could not succeed if Apple’s wares didn’t regularly rank so favorably among high-profile technology evaluators like Consumer Reports, J.D. Power and Associates, even PC Magazine.

The quality of products shoppers find in Apple Stores undoubtedly serves to bolster the experience, at least for somebody like me who has written quite a bit about business usage and functionality of Apple products. Yet maybe Gallo was wise to leave product quality for (perhaps) another book.

And, of course, there’s the Steve Jobs “reality distortion field” which Apple critics have long used as a term of derision, portraying Apple customers as little more than lemmings to Apple’s pied piper. The store is an important part of that field. Most executives would give their eye teeth to cultivate that field (or whatever you call it), if for no other reason that they could refute the negative stereotype of CEO as a regrettably high-priced, replaceable part of an organization.

Fortunately, Gallo’s book gives business leaders the valuable insights they need to work towards, and perhaps even match, Apple’s success. Let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later – the world (and any “experience-oriented” company’s overall performance and financial results) would be better for it.

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