How to make AppleCare actually care

This column could also have been called, in best Enid Blyton fashion, "What Alex did next". If you've not read my previous support-centric entry A Support Issue", that might be a good place to start.

In that entry, I mentioned that "Speaking of waiting, I've got a lot of waiting to do." I didn't quite realise how much waiting that might be. In theory, the new hard drive was going to take two business days to arrive and fit, which should have seen my iMac back on Tuesday of the week following. Knowing the way support issues often work (and my own schedule) I was mentally pitching that it would probably be ready on either Thursday or Friday, allowing for a little time. On Tuesday of that week, the Apple Store rang me. Turns out that one of the USB ports at the rear was also faulty. Interesting, and certainly not that I'd noticed, but they wanted my OK to replace it, which would take "one or two days more" to do. That seemed fair enough. Who would want a faulty USB port? In any case, that was still within the mental "week" I'd envisaged.

Then on Wednesday, a different support representative called me. The USB port was playing up, so it was said, because the logic board behind it was broken. Again, news to me, but not good. What was good was the proposed fix, which was to replace it with an entirely new machine, based on the 2010 specification rather than the 2009 one, given that this was still a quite new machine.

There was one little catch; they'd have to order in the new machine. At that point, I was told, it would take "three business days". It was Wednesday, and they were hopeful that a new machine might be available by Friday. Monday at the latest. OK, I figured, a new machine doesn't just build itself. Curious, I checked the Apple Store online's shipping time, which reckoned a machine like that should ship in 24 hours — but I can give leeway for replacement procedures as distinct from new machine orders.

Friday passed by with no contact. By this stage I'm starting to struggle, because while the 2006 MacBook I'm using as an emergency backup can handle basic tasks, there's a lot of stuff it can't do, and data that's sitting on my Time Machine that I need that's too large to fit on its smaller drive. Still, they said Monday, so I was hopeful.

Monday rolled around — I couldn't stop it — and no call was forthcoming. So I called the Apple Store in Chatswood to check. No, I was told, the machine wasn't ready yet, but yes, somebody would call me as soon as it was, and it shouldn't be long now. The rest of Monday was a no-contact zone, as was the rest of Tuesday. I let as much of Wednesday pass as I reasonably could to allow for deliveries and still give myself a fighting chance of making it there within other time constraints, and then called.

It was then I was told that my replacement machine would, in fact, ship in somewhere between one to three weeks.

To say that I wasn't entirely happy would be something of an understatement. I can quote myself, via Twitter, at that exact moment:

(It was actually 1:26pm on the 8th, but Twitter's funny about these things sometimes — MJCP)

And it wasn't good enough. It really wasn't. This is where things get a little more complicated than I suspect they would for the average consumer, because very rapidly a member of Apple's local PR team phoned me to see what was up. I told them what was up, and, to their credit, they arranged for a temporary replacement machine from the ex-review pool of systems, which arrived that afternoon. Also that afternoon, I got a call back from the Chatswood Apple Store, informing me that a completely new machine, with upgraded RAM, would be available within thirty minutes.

Now, I didn't call Apple PR, nor deliberately or specifically play the "I'm a journalist" card in this case. I consider that kind of thing unethical, and exactly why journalists don't have much of a reputation in the wider community. And I can't say for sure that Apple's PR team did or didn't chat to the Chatswood store — but I've got a pretty good guess.

So, what does this have to do with you? Well, while my situation changed rather rapidly due (it seems) to my status, for whatever that's worth, there are some basic things you can do in terms of support calls to generate a better response than otherwise. Some of them I'm drawing from common sense, and some are from having worked on the other side of the phone line, dealing with irate customers.

These aren't entirely just to do with Apple — feel free to use them whenever you've got to deal with phone-based support, or even in person generally:

Rule #1: It's OK to be angry at the problem, but not so much at the person.

For any complex problem, you'll probably deal with multiple support people. It's a good idea to take notes and names where feasible, but it's also important to make a distinction between frustration at things going wrong, and frustration with support people. Nobody calls support to find out the cricket scores; they do so because everything's going wrong. Being polite but firm is fine. Losing your cool, temper and language restraint isn't, and many support workplaces will allow a phone representative to hang up on you if you go down that route.

If you must, go hit a pillow fifty times after the call to cool down. But keep cool on the line, and you'll get better results. I wasn't happy with Apple, and my punching bag in this case was Twitter, not the people I was talking to.

Rule #2: Their script doesn't have to be your script.

There's a reason why so many support calls go down a scripted line of thinking. It's often the most efficient way to get at the heart of a problem, and a good way to deal with the different technical expertise of different users.

Here I've got to give Apple serious credit, as the support people I dealt with listened to my diagnosis of the problem and picked up on it, rather than just launching into an irrelevant script that wouldn't have changed the outcome.

Rule #3: Have patience, but keep a timeline.

Repairs take time. Parts can be late shipped, or dead out of the box, or a given technician may come down with Venezuelan Insanity Flu on a given Wednesday. That stuff happens, and it's why very few repairs happen "instantly".

At the same time, if you're given a timeline for when things will happen, it's not unreasonable to expect that to be the case, give or take a day or two.

The key here is communication, and it's arguably what the Apple Store people got wrong in my case. By telling me one thing ("Three days") and then switching it to something wildly different ("Three weeks"), they shattered my faith in what they were telling me. Whether either claim was ever realistic is rather difficult to say, but if they'd said upfront that I'd have a three-week wait on my hands I wouldn't have been thrilled — given that AppleCare is a paid service, not a warranty freebie — but at least would have had some certainty.

Rule #4: The customer is not always right.

Apple was, it's got to be said, pretty generous in my case, offering to replace the machine entirely. Would it do that in every case? I can't say one way or the other, although the offer of replacement came way before I'd talked to Apple PR about it at all. What's important here (and I'm speaking from experience in phone support) is that some customers will expect that a warranty entitles them to everything served on a silver platter, no matter what.

It's never that simple, and it rarely works. If you've dropped your iPhone under a steamroller, expecting an in-warranty replacement is foolish. Equally, just because your Lisa stopped working twenty minutes ago, it doesn't mean that Apple should replace it with a Mac Pro. Whether or not these calls get made may come from way up above the communication chain and well above the authority level of the representative that you're talking to at the specific time.

Honesty is still the best policy. Back when I worked phone support, I picked up a wealth of stories that would make you shudder, and more than just a few folk who were genuinely trying it on when they knew they were in the wrong.

Discuss it with me at MacTheForum!