Saturday, July 12, 2008

Do Not Visit An Apple Store This Weekend Under Any Circumstance

'Provisioning' is the verb used for taking a mobile phone, a piece of dead electronics made to work on any network, and attaching it to the billing system for a specific operator and setting its settings. Provisioning is difficult because it includes not just hardware negotiations of attaching a SIM to a billing plan, but a peopleware negotiation of confirming identity, selecting a plan and passing a credit check for that specific plan, porting your number, and in case of having been a previous customer, canceling your old plans, seeing which discounts you are eligible for, and pushing it all through.

Now realize that the customer usually does not know the data required to do all this. They just want a phone, they know who they are. The operator needs to make sure who they are, and have the SSN their current plan is registered with (usually not the customer's SSN if they are on a family plan) and what plan they are on already, because front-line billing systems have a tough time knowing these pieces from you just telling them who you are, they much preferr you tell them this data. Now ask yourself how many people walking into a store know the last four digits of the owner of the family plan they are on. Or that they are on a family plan.

Now ask yourself how many of them will pass a credit check easily in ten seconds.

Now ask yourself how many of these people from all ages and walks of life will have a readable credit card for that credit check. No, no manual keying in of numbers because that means a stolen credit card number can be used. Has to be a real card. To be scanned on a finicky portable payment device used by roving store reps.

Now ask yourself how much time a company gunning for Secrecy and Big Bang Reveals has given its floor reps to familiarize themselves with the myriad of plans and price points for those plans, and all the disclaimers and small print and discounts.

Now ask yourself how much time a company gunning for Secrecy and Big Bang Reveals has given its floor reps to train on the process with real live customers or even role-playing other store reps to get through the whole thing.

Now ask yourself how much QA a company gunning for Secrecy and Big Bang Reveals has done on the software used in the finicky handheld payment terminal that has to transmit all the data like former phone number, SSN, IMEI number, etc, to the mobile operator. The terminal is a WinCe device.

Now ask yourself how much this company gunning for Secrecy and Big Bang Reveals actually has control over the mobile operator's back-end system. Hint: none.

Now remind yourself how many times you have been told one thing by some mobile operator's rep that turned out to be a complete lie according to another rep from the same mobile operator, because mobile operators do not keep their reps on single message since their customer-facing systems are a reflection of the spaghetti that keeps their billing system together, an insane diagram of boxes all trying to create a coherent picture of a user's account, with different phone reps able to influence different things, at different levels of empowerment, at different 1-800 / 888 numbers. One can edit a number-port request, but can't cancel it. Another can cancel it but doesn't know the discounts. Nobody knows who where what for the whole picture.

Now multiply that across 200 stores. Now multipy that accross the lines you saw at those stores stretching for hours and hours.

You should be coming to the conclusion that Apple became an AT&T kiosk this weekend, and it was hell on retail earth.

Apple workers are hand picked and empowered to give the best experience they possibly can to clients they really want to please. Apple stores have some of the absolute lowest staff turn-over numbers in malls because people are happy to work there and happy to sell what they are selling to mostly customers happy to buy what they are buying. It is the real reason Apple stores work even though by all narratives of mall sales, they should have been a miserable failure between Sharper Image and Best Buy, but instead Apple stores are a huge success because their store workers believe and are allowed to make customers happy using an incredibly thought out smooth retail process. And this weekend they had to deal with a tsunami wave of consumers to be handled with an organizational process made to deal with the amount of people a wireless phone selling cart in the food court gets. Because, basically, AT&T did business as usual, which is what put them and all other mobile operators at the bottom of the list of companies people like to deal with, below used car sales dealerships and insurance providers.

No, the problem isn't the activation, which eventually you can go do at home. It was getting to the point where you can send a customer home to try to re-activate their brick over iTunes because you entered everything so AT&T knows who they are. My IMs have lit up with stories of floor managers in Apple stores crying. 6 hours to sell a phone. The Apple forums went offline after 2M5 views on iPhone support forums, 400K devoted to in-store problems. And why? Because this time AT&T is paying Apple so much for each phone AT&T insisted no phone was to be sold without having a plan attached. None. No buying a box and provisioning at home. This launch is costing AT&T so much in hardware they want revenue from Day 1, so no sending out a phone without a plan to do the provisioning through iTunes. No no no. In store provisioning, all of them, each and every one. And Apple did not work the process out enough, not train long enough, nor QA their handheld payment terminals enough, which are only now being found to be sending bad IMEI -- that's the serial number of the phone -- and number porting data to AT&Ts back-end, lest someone leak a soooooper seeekret plan detail through a lolcat or something. Which means that during this sale, AT&T had to be called. To edit a port request. Or cancel it. Or both. Or neither. And what plan can this person be on? Only AT&T phone reps knew -- well, kinda.

And this was Friday. The real weekend starts now. I hear Apple stores are now open normally agains with Genius Bars and Personal Training and no extra staff was planned for phone sales, because the initial rush should have been over.

Do Not Go To An Apple Store This Weekend. No.