They're off to see Apple's wizards

Things are always buzzing at Apple's Genius Bars, which offer the rarest of experiences for computer users: face-to-face help. Photos: Belly up to the Genius Bar Photos: The iPod Shuffle

IT was just past noon on a recent weekday at the Apple Store here, and the Genius Bar was buzzing.

At one end of the 40-foot maple counter, a cherub-faced Genius in a black T-shirt spoke soothingly to a middle-aged customer whose iPod kept erasing songs. After a few minutes of probing, the Genius announced his diagnosis: the firmware needed updating. Then he showed the man how to do it.

At the other end of the bar, another amiable Genius--Apple's term for its in-store technical support staff--greeted a couple who had arrived with an ailing PowerBook. "Hey, what's going on?" he said, and got down to work.

In an age when human help of any kind is hard to come by, the eight or nine Geniuses on duty at any given time here are a welcome anomaly.

In fact, go to any of the 102 Apple-owned retail stores in the world and--if you are willing to wait--you will be treated to what is an increasingly rare service: free face-to-face technical support.

The walk-up assistance has existed since the first Apple Store opened in 2001, in Washington. Over the years, as the concept gained momentum, the bars have become what Ron Johnson, Apple's senior vice president for retailing, calls the soul of the stores.

"It's the part of the store that people connect to emotionally more than any other," Johnson said.

For the first few years, there was general mayhem around the Genius Bars. Customers would stand four or five deep, broken gadgets in hand, waiting to speak to an expert. Now there is an online system for scheduling free, same-day appointments. And for $100 a year, customers can schedule appointments up to a week in advance with the expert of their choice.

But there can still be long waits. Just after Christmas, for instance, at the Apple Store in SoHo in New York, by 10 a.m. the earliest appointment that could be had was at 4 p.m. People left and came back, or sat for hours, reading, talking on their cell phones or milling about the store.

The San Francisco store, like all the others, has instituted a pager system for those who show up when all the experts are busy, like the man on this day who lugged his iMac to the bar, hoisted over his shoulder like a recalcitrant child. He took a pager and joined a dozen or so others waiting for help.


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The concept of a bar came to Johnson one night when he was thinking about the kind of environment Apple wanted to create in its stores. He said he was inspired by Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton and other hotels where service is paramount.

"We believed you had to bring the people dimension back into retail," said Johnson, who joined Apple five years ago after 15 years at Target. "We thought, What about giving tech support that's as welcoming as the bar at the Ritz?"

Tim Bajarin, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, a high-tech consulting company in Campbell, Calif., said Apple's strategy was sound. "It's all part of a sales process," he said. "They have these guys who are extremely articulate answering customers' questions, which is key not only to the sales process, but the support afterwards."

Other computer retail stores have technical support counters, too. A few, like CompUSA and Best Buy, even have traveling teams of tech support staff who make house calls. But those services are not free. Further, Bajarin said, the wider spectrum of problems encountered at other stores dilutes the quality of service.

"A Best Buy could be handling not just HP, but Gateway and Epson and whatever else they have in the store," he said. "These guys running the Genius Bars are extremely well trained around a single platform."

Hiring those Geniuses--the label was Johnson's idea, too--is not difficult. He said that when the company advertises for an opening, an average of 50 people apply within 24 hours. For the most part, the applicants already have extensive technical knowledge. Apple provides eight weeks of training, four weeks at the company's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., and another four weeks at the store.

Johnson said an initial concern was that the people hired would be geeky, lacking the social skills for a job that calls for continuous interaction with strangers. But he soon found that more often than not, the employees were well-socialized young people who happened to know a lot about computers.

Each employee has an area of expertise--digital photography, say, or the Windows operating system. And they aren't too proud to call on colleagues for help.

"I borrow others' brain cells all the time," said Diana Souverbielle, an employee in the San Francisco store, who confessed to knowing "just enough about Windows to get in trouble."

David Marcantonio, 25, who diagnosed the firmware problem, is the resident iPod expert at the San Francisco store. Marcantonio, who studied criminology in college and has been fluent in most things Apple since age 14, stands out from his co-workers because his T-shirt reads iPod Genius.

"It's a bull's-eye," Marcantonio said of the shirt. Half of the customers at the Genius Bar these days have iPod-related problems.

Sometimes the public misunderstands the purpose of the Genius Bar, mistaking it for a think tank or an intellectual-sounding board. David Isom, 29, who decided to defer a legal career in favor of a stint at the bar, said a man came in recently to discuss an idea he had for a solar-powered subway system. "He had technical questions, and he wanted to pitch it to us," Isom said. "I know nothing about solar power."


Indeed, they are humble experts. When confronted by a thorny problem on the fringe of their expertise, they might conduct a Google search to consult sources that are "not necessarily endorsed by Apple," Isom said.

And the experience of one customer whose keyboard had a sticky "e," which was cured by Souverbielle's mere touch, suggests that the experts might even have healing powers. Souverbielle declared that it was merely a coincidence.

Invariably in their 20s and 30s, and predominantly male, Apple's experts do keep lofty company. Behind each bar is a screen with a rotating display of quotations from half a dozen better-known intellectual luminaries, like Leonardo da Vinci ("The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding") and Michelangelo ("If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem wonderful at all").

But could Michelangelo have executed a clean startup from an external drive on a PowerBook G4?

Could Leonardo have restored the video on Joe Montana's iBook?

That task was performed by Chris Tichenor, a 24-year-old Genius in San Francisco. No matter that the concierge mistakenly entered Montana, the famous quarterback, into the appointment queue as Steve Young, Montana's successor on the San Francisco 49ers. "He didn't seem to mind," Tichenor said.

By Johnson's estimate, each of the company's 500 experts handles some 200 customers a week, taking as long as is needed to solve each problem.

The stores in general and the Genius Bars in particular have been credited with creating a halo effect for Apple. The iPod owners who own PCs and go to the unrelentingly chic stores for an expert's help are often seduced by Apple's self-conscious hipness.

Paula Mauro, who lives in New York and recently spent several hours at the Genius Bar in the SoHo store, got that message when getting help with iPod-to-PC communication. As she sat at the bar with her 10-year-old son, William, who aspires to Macintosh ownership, it became evident to her that synching an iPod to a Macintosh computer is relatively seamless, while her 3-year-old PC posed no end of technical challenges.

"The next computer I buy is going to be a Mac," she said.

The Geniuses are patient even when people show up with problems that only a technophobe could create. Isom said people have come to him with an iPod that they insisted was dead--until Isom showed them that they had pushed the Hold switch, which inactivates the iPod's buttons, mainly so that it cannot be turned on or off inadvertently.

If a problem can be solved on the spot, the Genius may disappear into the back and re-emerge with a piece of equipment restored to health. Broken iPods are often replaced at no cost, Marcantonio said, because if the warranty applies, the easiest thing to do is to hand the customer a new one.

In some ways, this has little to do with keen technical knowledge and a lot to do with astute customer service.

The experience of Cecilia Joyce, a marathon runner who claims to be unable to live without her iPod, is a recent case in point. Joyce's iPod is packed with music like Boy George's rendition of "The Girl From Ipanema," which inspires her to run longer, sometimes even faster.

When her iPod's battery stopped holding a charge, Joyce went straight to the Genius Bar in San Francisco. She apologized to Marcantonio for having bought the device at a different Apple Store. Unfazed by this mundane detail, and without further ado, he gave Joyce a new iPod.

Were it not for the Genius Bar, Joyce might have gone an untenable two weeks without a device, the amount of time it could have taken to send it to be repaired or replaced.

Soon after the elated Joyce left, Marcantonio glanced down at his computer to see what troubled device was coming next.

"Oh, it's an iPod Shuffle--this is going to be interesting," he said, delighted by his first encounter with the tiny new flash-based iPod.

Marcantonio picked up the white plastic stick and gave its miniature controls a quick poke.

Unlike the clerk in the Monty Python dead parrot skit, who refuses to concede that the bird he sold to a customer was in fact deceased, Marcantonio knows a dead iPod Shuffle when he sees one. The solution: Give the customer a new one.

Genius.

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