The Apple Genius Bar could learn some bedside manner

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 K. Parikh is a pediatrician and a writer.  He can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Rahul K. Parikh.

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