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Another Look At Apple Support Problems

All right, we all know that Apple Inc. traditionally gets better marks for customer support and service than pretty much any other PC maker or even consumer electronics company on the planet. Certainly those accolades are well-deserved, and they largely come from customer surveys.

So even Consumer Reports, which still doesn’t understand how to evaluate a PC versus a Mac properly, can at least report statistics correctly, since it’s primarily raw numbers.

However, the line of demarcation between good and excellent may be so wide that Apple can’t easily bridge it. While I’m sure most of you will tell me that you’ve had great experiences getting support for your Apple gear, I’m also sure many of you can tell me about war stories, where you take a problem up through several levels of support hierarchy, spend hours on the phone, and you can’t get your problem resolved.

This is not to say the issues are never addressed. But sometimes you have to call Apple’s corporate office and demand to speak to an executive before they will examine your specific support questions and get them straightened out. Steve Jobs has reportedly telephoned a few customers to reassure them and make sure that their specific troubles are resolved on the spot. I suspect, in those cases, the people who monitor his own email account go through the messages and locate the ones that require his special attention.

It seems to me that Apple is trying to do right by its customers. They aren’t trying to cheat anyone, and, even when forced kicking and screaming into confession mode, they’ll eventually admit to serious problems that might impact a fairly large number of users. All right, that’s fair enough.

But I still maintain there are things they can do to make sure that products are released with fewer defects and that bug fixes are not only clearly explained, but made easier to receive.

Clearly, Apple learned something from the MobileMe fiasco, witness the rapid-fire management change. Eddie Cue, Apple’s new Internet executive, previously managed iTunes, and he did a pretty good job leading a team that built the world’s largest online music retailer. If he can bring that expertise to other Apple-based Internet services, then we all benefit.

Without discussing the possible shortcomings of Rob Schoeben, Apple’s vice president of applications marketing, who previously headed up .Mac, certainly Steve Jobs had to put out a nasty fire real fast before things blew up in their faces.

Apple is evidently no longer advertising MobileMe as “Exchange for the rest of us.” Perhaps Microsoft complained, and since they license ActiveSync technology to Apple, it made sense to back off. Or maybe Jobs realized that this claim implied a level of service reliability they couldn’t achieve. So if they do indeed meet his goal of providing superior performance by the end of the year, maybe that phrase will be resurrected.

In the meantime, what else can Apple do to provide better support? Well, I do understand that support techs are human, they make mistakes, and they come with different skills and shortcomings. A support position usually exists at the entry-level in a company, even though it is by a wide margin perhaps the most important service they can offer.

So some support people are just getting into the job market, after getting their degree. Maybe it’s a seasonal job for some, but it just doesn’t fit into their ultimate career path. In this situation, they might not feel they have a stake in maintaining excellence, so they will coast and quickly move on to greener pastures when the right opportunity arrives.

However, many support people believe in the old adage that a job worth doing is worth doing well, and they will strive to perform their assignments to the best of their abilities.

Past the support level, let me repeat what I’ve said before: Apple needs to provide detailed information about what they fix in an update, so you know whether or not your particular problem has been addressed. You might see that information in a system update, or security fix, but not so much elsewhere. If Apple hopes to break into the enterprise market big time — and the situation is really improving by the way — they will have to work closely with system administrators. They need to deliver the critical information needed to help admins determine how and when — and even if — the patch should be deployed.

Another argument I’ve voiced before is that Apple needs to develop alternate ways to distribute those huge update files. Even the iPhone 2.0.1 update came in at just under 225MB, and that may be a walk in the park if you have a fast broadband connection. But millions of people don’t, and some can’t get a speedier connection unless they pay for an expensive satellite Internet system. Even that assumes that they don’t live in a wooded area, for example, with no clearing in the direction from which the satellite signal emanates.

I have suggested an optional software subscription system, where Apple will make monthly or bi-monthly CD mailings of all the updates you need for your Mac. I realize there are some programs of this sort in the business market, but the consumer may be most impacted. You may be in a situation where you have to depend on a reliable dial-up connection that can sustain itself for hours as the download progresses.

Remember, even now, AOL has over eight million members, most of whom still use dial-up. EarthLink also has millions of dial-up customers.

Will such things make Apple’s support perfect? Not by a long shot, but these and other improvements might take Apple closer to that worthy goal.