The Apple Genius Bar could learn some bedside manner

by Rahul Parikh, MD

My life is wired by Steve Jobs and Apple. When I was a kid, my first computer was an Apple IIc, followed by Macintosh Plus for college. In residency, I used a Newton for a while to take notes on patients. I have a MacBook, an iPod (I’ve actually had 3 and my wife has had 2), an iPhone, iPhone 3gs; an iPhone 4 on order; an iPad, AirPort Express, an AirPort Extreme base station and accessories for all them (headphones, keyboards, mice—or is it mouses?, cases) scattered all over my house.

So when things go wrong, I don’t call the Geek Squad. I make an appointment at the Genius Bar. For those unfamiliar, this is a place in the Apple store where you can take your Apple product (along with your ignorance of its inner workings) to get technical help from Apple’s Top Gun computer experts.

In a sense, the Genius Bar staffers are sort of like doctors—like me—except the patient is a computer. In my world, a patient gets a stuffy nose, a fever, some stomach pain and they make an appointment. I talk to them, examine them, make a diagnosis, and prescribe something to make them better.

In their world, you iPad doesn’t turn on, you iPhone stops ringing or—as in my case—the SuperDrive on your Macbook stops burning DVDs can CDs—you make an appointment. They talk to you, examine your product, make a diagnosis, and send it off the shop to get it repaired if they can’t fix it.

Now as a doctor, I try to be conscientious of not just my clinical acumen, but my bedside manner. I want to be professional, but courteous and empathetic as well. In short, I strive to be patient-centric. After all, who pays my salary?

That’s where the parallel drastically ends between the Genius Bar and the doctor’s office. My experience with the Geniuses is that—like a talented but arrogant physician—they know exactly what they’re doing but have little to offer in the way of bedside manner—ie, customer service. Most of the time, I sit at the bar and find myself being talked at by a condescending 20-something who figures we ought to know as much about computers as he does (they usually are men, by the way). I keep being reminded of that 90’s mediocre medical thriller called Malice, which starred Alec Baldwin as a surgeon. The line to remember is when Baldwin was being questioned by a lawyer about a malpractice case.

Lawyer: “Doctor, do you have a God complex?”

Baldwin: “You ask me if I have a God complex? I am God!”

All of these parallels between my job and the Geniuses have been in the back of my mind for quite some time. But today, after my experience at the Apple Store, it really hit me. A couple of days prior, I made that appointment for the problem with my MacBook as I mentioned above. I made the appointment for 1245pm, during my lunch hour—the Walnut Creek Apple Store is just down the street from my office. I got caught up with some issue at work, and I hustled over. As I was walking up the Genius Bar to wait my turn, I was intercepted by an employee dressed in her blue t-shirt. Like a nurse intercepting a patient before they get to see the doctor.

“Sir, are you here for a Genius Bar appointment?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your name?” I told he as she looked it up on the computer.

“Sir you’re 6 minutes late, she declared looking at the screen. “They’ve canceled your appointment,”

“6 minutes late? And you canceled me? Really? I’m a doctor, and even we’re not that mean to our patients.”

“Yes,” she told me, “And there’s nothing we can do.” (that phrase has such gravity in medicine, by the way—I almost started laughing, except I was tired from walking over in near 90 degree heat)

Lesson learned the hard way: Don’t scorn the Geniuses.

I’m trying to think about how parents would react if I turned their kids away for being 6 minutes late. And what that would do to my professional reputation. There’s more than a little something about dismissing a customer for being 6 minutes that reeks of arrogance. Apple, with shares trading at over $200, has the largest market cap of any technology company in America—even its traditional nemesis Microsoft (is it me, or do most of the Geniuses act–and look–more like John “I’m a PC” Hodgeman instead of Justin “I’m a Mac” Long?).

I wonder, given some of what I’ve been reading about Steve Jobs, Apple vs. Adobe and their response to customers about the iPhone 4 reception problems, how high up the corporate ladder that arrogance goes.

So what should Apple do? Maybe take a page from my own health care group. After patients come to see me, a random group of them get a survey asking them about the quality of their visit. We take these survey results seriously: twice a year I get a report card with my performance and part of my compensation is tied to it. Docs who aren’t performing get help. I think it’s helped quite a bit to make our doctors patient-centric because service and quality are high priorities.

The irony of it all—I’ll be back there Friday (on time!) to get my MacBook checked. What else is an adoring Apple user supposed to do?

Rahul Parikh, a pediatrician in California, is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times and blogs at sWell on Open Salon.

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  • http://www.shimapatel.com Shima Patel

    That sounds just about right! I think they should be surveyed that would help them think twice before they react. 6 minutes what a stickler! Sorry you had a bad experience. – Shima

  • gerridoc

    The same thing happened to me! Fortunately, I managed to convince the Geniuses to work me in…

  • Yacko

    Is anyone on time anymore or is being late baked into our lazy social DNA?

  • A.N. Mousse

    So true. So far the strategy of arrogance is working for Apple. Their shares keep rising. Shiny, pretty new toys and the status they bestow seems to be enough for them. We keep buying the products, even though the support they provide for them is seriously flawed.

    I wonder how it will work in the long term, though – I’ve almost reached my limit with their arrogance and extreme lack of customer service. I may have to learn how to use a PC. Could be that in a few years (or 20) someone else will find a way to capture the cool factor and Apple will finally get their due.

    How’s that work for doctors? Do the overly arrogant eventually lose business?

  • Liam Cole

    as an ex-Apple employee . . . you should have immediately asked to speak with a manager. Voice your complaint to them.You would have been put back into the system on ‘stand by’. Given that the appointments are doled out in 15 min increments they HAVE to run a tight ship. One late comer can bring the whole queue to a standstill.
    In fact . . . if you feel a less than empathetic approach during ANY appt . . . ask to speak with the Manager. GB employees receive training in ‘bedside manner’ (as you so aptly put it). IF they are exhibiting the demeanor you describe they will be give further guidance (or assigned to the back room).

  • http://twitter.com/see_unit slee

    That particular Apple store in WC is my least favorite…they’re condescending to no end even when you’re clearly there because you’ve exhausted all other options. Something about listening to a “genius” drone on and on (or even better, looks it up online!) when I know I’ve been using Macs since before he was born kind of irks me. Just a little.

  • indiecn

    Not all apple stores have the same quality of people at the genius bar.

    The 2 apple stores that I usually go to in Southern California: South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island, are the best, The genius are always nice and knowledgeable

    But the Apple store in Brea is 180 degree different compare to the two above. At Brea the geniuses are arrogant, condescending and think that they know everything, which they DO not! The way they treat people really irks me, especially since being a Mac system administrator I know way more that then they do. :)

  • Maricor

    That’s odd. I have always had really good customer service when I went to my genius bar. One time I was running late and called to inform them. They were understanding and I was seen when I arrived. I always have a good experience at the genius bar! There are definitely some exceptions to this story.

  • TheOtherGeoff

    I’ll speak as someone who not only linked to the apple world (not only an Apple II, but building both a 6502 and a 68000 based robot, as well as still an owner of a NeXTcube… and just about every OSX system after that. NB… In addition to my Apple experience…. I’ve worked in medicine and patient scheduling since about 1975, from the smallest (1 doctor) the the Largest (2500MDs and residents, all on one scheduling system in an outpatient setting, and a separate system for inpatient).

    But I don’t have a God complex;-) It’s more a devil complex, as in the details;-)

    As for my GB experiences… never had the problem you address. I think you have a bad store (and it’s really not a GB problem, it’s an ‘appointment desk’ problem. (who are there to optimize the use of expertise of the specialist, e.g. The MD or the Genius).

    But to your point, you’re working on outcome/quality management. Nice, but let’s go to root cause (M&M). Why did you ‘die’ in the queue. How can we improve this?

    My observations… You were late and they cut you out of the queue… at my doctor’s office I get requeued up next, not at the end of the line. Same should happen at the GB. They have all the data, they just need to requeue it, which is more efficient for them, and for you.

    The person who is ‘waiting’ in line is getting served at the same speed they normally would have, although with the ‘GB Queue Board’ toting ‘who’s in line’ gives too much and too little info… The ‘appt secretary’ is a slave the expectations of the other people in the queue, because they see too much information (don’t want a riot or appearance of preferential treatment). But the one thing people really want to know is the ‘delta’… ‘how long am I going to wait’… not ‘am I 3rd or 5th in line?’

    they need the GB queue screen to instead say “Serving XXXX, next in line YYYY, appts slots are running ZZZ minutes early|late.” So, at 3:00, I’m there, and , if I’m not YYYY, and it says, running 10Minutes EARLY), I need to get requeued to be the first after YYYY, If it’s running 10 minutes LATE, I know I’m still in the queue somewhere after YYYYY.*****

    Now the appt secretary can address you with ‘sorry Dr, we know it sucks to be without a Macbook,as it makes all of us late… I’ll stick you in the queue in the 3:15 slot, which is after YYYY.

    Simple fix.

    ***** I just wish my doctor’s office would do that;-)… does yours?

  • SteveP

    OF COURSE you don’t turn away patients if they’re 6 minutes late. That’s a good 1/2 hour EARLY for a Doctors appointment! I’ve rarely seen a doctor be on time (meaning within 5-10 minutes) for an appointment even when it’s the first one of the day.
    My experience with Apple’s Geniuses? Always within 10 minutes of my appointment time.
    Just sayin’.

  • HammerOfTruth

    Come on Doctor, be creative! These are just underpaid kids. If you really wanted to see a genius you could have said that you had an emergency with a patient and couldn’t leave to get to the Applestore in time. When you are dealing with people who are inflexable, you appeal to their narrow sense of compassion. After all, the same can be said of your profession where a patient is late for a doctors appointment and is made to wait 2 or more hours. Is that fair as well? No, but that’s the way it goes. Even if you are on time, you can be expected to wait for sometimes a half and hour for a genius, even more for a doctor. I have to say though, that you really took no for an answer which is shocking for a doctor. Most of the doctors I have seen that go to the Apple store demand special treatment.

    If you want to avoid the Apple store altogether, buy Applecare and just have them pick up the laptop. That’s what I do. They have always been good to me.

  • jsk

    Since you mentioned movies: This “new” Apple always reminds me of a scene from “LA Story” at a trendy restaurant between the maître d’ (Patrick Stewart) and Chevy Chase (himself) about table assignments and “The New Cruelty.”

    Seems to me you had an appointment for 15 minutes. If you used up 6 being late, the next 7 were still yours. At the very least, if the “genius” was VERY busy that day, the manager or some other employee SHOULD have made some effort to solve or at least hear your problem. (My local store has one manager, hidden in the back room; one “genius,” always busy with a long line; someone stationed next to the “genius,” who’s function I’ve never been able to determine – other than ignoring a spontaneous line of customers who think that person runs a register; and at least half a dozen “blue shirts,” who’s function is, apparently, to stand around doing nothing.)

    I’ve had many occasions to use the “new” Apple stores (I’ve been a Mac user since 1987 and ][e user before that) and every time has been a exercise in frustration, walking out without making a purchase 3/4s of the time (with many other customers doing the same thing). I still haven’t figured out how to make a simple purchase of something from the store shelves (Do I have to make an appointment? Where the heck is the cash register? Would it kill them to put up a sign? Just who is the keeper of the magic credit card machine? Why is it usually only the manager? Why are they always on break? What, the “blue shirts” can’t be trusted to run the credit card machine?!?). The experience with the old, dealer system was vastly superior.

  • Tasha

    Sorry as a patient, I am told to be 15 mins or more early to my DR’s appointments. Is it really too much to ask that the Dr be early or on time to a Free appointment that he choose the time for? I am really sick of the entitlement that too many people have when they are being rude by being late.

    • apurvab

      Just pointing out that there’s nothing “free” about it – its bundled in to the cost of purchase (its called a warranty). And if you’re not entitled to something you’ve already paid for, then what are you entitled to?

  • http://eric135.typepad.com Eric

    I use some Apple products, but my phone is a Blackberry. My room mate and I went to the launch of the iPhone4, and I have been watching him deal with all of the iPhone4 weirdness. I just don’t understand you iPhone4 guys. If my Blackberry failed to place calls, or dropped calls, or if my cheek randomly dialed numbers from my contact list, or if I had to fork 20 bucks to avoid “just holding it different” I would just return it and move on. My phone MUST work EXCELLENTLY as a phone, and the rest is just icing on the cake. So it was an utter mystery to me why it took us 2 hours to buy a 200 dollar phone, whereas I can buy a 2000 dollar TV in 10 minutes and have Best Buy Boys sweating to fit it into the back seat of my car. And rude service? I would have asked for the business card of the branch manager and sent a complaint to his email from my iPhone (do they even send email? I mean, they aren’t great phones…) Then, I would have never walked into that store again. I don’t know why you Apple guys just go back to have Apple spit in your face like that. I went to Best Buy to buy my room mate a bluetooth headset so he can use his iPhone without it cutting off calls when his cheek touches the glass – and the guys there were very nice and helpful. Don’t put up with it… switch to a Blackberry, or Android, or some other real phone…

  • Anon EM doc

    Really? I know doctors are in love with Macs because we’re the only ones who can afford them, but come on! This is supposed to be a medical blog, not a soap box about bad customer service…

  • junebug388

    actually recently i was at a MAC store and the service was prompt , knowledgeable and polite. I remember thinking how my office could better embrace this “no chaos in chaos” atmosphere. But that is why they call it an APPOINTMENT. I am sure they offered you to wait in line…. which by the way moves quickly and you can look at the pretty gadgets!!!
    So if you are late, then the person behind you who was on time waits instead??? And shame on you , being a doctor should never be used as an excuse to disrespect the dentist, the salon , the bank, or you kids by not being reliable. You and I both know that rarely, rarely, does a real emergency cause this, but trying to do too much unrealistically on our schedule and then expecting eveyone to adjust. Think about this again and try to be fair.
    Linda Ray, M.D.