With a broken iPhone 3G in my pocket, I was standing in line at Wendy's and spotted someone using his iPhone, just ahead of me in line. I showed him my iPhone's cracked screen and cautioned him to get a case for his.

The guy, it turned out, works at an Apple (AAPL) Store Genius Bar. He sees broken screens often, he said, and he told me that wet or cracked iPhones fall outside of Apple's coverage protection. It costs $200 to replace such phones, he said. Nevertheless, before we parted ways -- and, significantly, before he learned that I was a reporter -- he invited me to stop by the Genius Bar, where he'd see if he could replace the iPhone, at no charge.
"It's not about charging, it's about the service," the staffer told me later. (His manager requested that he remain anonymous.) "It's about letting people know they can get this kind of help. It's up to us to use common sense and make smart decisions. That's the cool thing about the job."

"You want to free your people up to make beneficial decisions for the parties involved," says Patricia Edwards, analyst and founder of Storehouse Partners in Bellevue, Washington. "That is the type of environment you want to inspire, if you want to have the reputation for fabulous customer service."

Is it realistic to expect tech companies to offer a level of service similar to Nordstrom (JWN), or Ritz-Carlton? Well, why not? Apple comes the closest to delivering such service, although that service is inconsistent. (Writing on Salon.com, Amanda Forini said she'd "rather not deal" with smug, aloof Genius Bar staffers.) "It can be like going to your doctor's office and waiting," Edwards says. Yet for tech consumers, the Genius Bar is one of the few places that offers reliable customer service.


Long waits on hold to get computer help from companies such as Dell (DELL) or Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) -- or even Apple -- is the norm. Folks expect to wait, and wait some more. That's why the Apple Store is like an oasis in an endless desert. Wait -- a human being? A team of them? Waiting to help?!? Best Buy (BBY)'s Geek Squad offers similar services, but usually adds longer waits and fees.

The Genius Bar has been a boon to Apple and its customers. Even a 45-minute or hour-long wait is tolerable; there's a strong chance the customer will depart with a solved problem or a new or fixed product. No boxing your computer, shipping it, and crossing your fingers.

That's why Microsoft (MSFT) plans to open its own stores, said Edwards (based one town away from Microsoft's Redmond headquarters). Microsoft has a reputation for "worse than bad" helpline customer service, she says, which is one reason it plans to open stores and emulate the Genius Bar experience.

Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer said on a July conference call that Apple had seen a 22 percent increase in traffic at its stores for the quarter that ended in June. Such increased exposure to Microsoft's products can only help sales of its Zune, the digital-music player that competes with Apple's iPod.

"Face-to-face interaction represents an improved experience for customers in most cases," says Gary Burtless, senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Avoiding human contact sometimes improves an experience -- such as picking up a boarding pass at the airport from an automated machine, Burtless says. "It's nice to interact with a pleasant human being," he says -- unless lines are long. Then you want a computer.

Ideally, contact with a company should be like an experience at a restaurant: you should walk away in a better mood than you were in when you arrived. Kindness from the waiter, or any service-provider -- as well as the customer -- is contagious.

In this case, it wound up getting me a new iPhone at the Apple Store. I even got extra coupons from the nice woman behind the counter at Wendy's too.

Anthony Massucci is a senior writer for DailyFinance. You may follow him on Twitter at hianthony.

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