I’m at the Genius Bar of the Apple Store to get help with my laptop. As usual the customer service is top notch. I’ve had two service staff assist me, and done so in a collaborative way. Both are supporting other customers at the same time that they are helping me, yet I do not feel neglected or that I’m losing time when they work with others. Why is that?

As a diagnostic runs on my laptop, the two support staff are only a few feet away talking with other customers, and I notice that they occasionally look over to check the progress bar on my computer screen. Suddenly a message in all caps fills the screen about a software problem. I’ve dug into the guts of computers (PCs) to replace hard-drives, memory, and power sources, and explored operating system options and control panels without hesitation. That warning in large bold text raised my heartbeat with dread as one of the support staff. He must have noticed my concern because he used an analogy to explain the potential problem and the recommended options. Frankly, I understood only half of what was said, but my anxiety minimized at his attempt to soothe, as he communicated calm and “no worries.” This is huge considering that I’m proceeding to reformat my hard-drive.

Here are some questions that the experience evokes for me:

How can customer support provide high quality service that…

  • engages clients into the support dialog?
  • assists multiple clients simultaneously?
  • ensures clients leave with answers they can work with?

I should point out that service I’m getting at the store inside Briarwood Mall is what I’ve experienced at other Apple stores in Michigan and during my travels to other states like Delaware and California. I can only speak to my experience. Unsatisfying outcomes can happen everywhere. Yet I hear similar stories about good service from others. I’ve had good service from other businesses, but, with only a few exceptions, no where else can I say that the same level of quality was consistent regardless of who I talked to or what location I visited.

Apple staff utilize several Global Skills (21st Century Skills) to great effect:

  • Communicating with understanding
  • Collaborating through influencing across networks
  • Problem solving through Think Alouds

There are other skills that could be added but the current list represents elements that are critical to develop in students across the globe.

Communicating with Understanding

On the surface, communication seems pretty straightforward. Yet there is a subtle quality to this skill that makes some more successful than others. Compare the customer service at Apple with another tech store or a department store. Often times the “consistent” experience is not the same. Talking to the Apple support staff, I felt like I had their complete attention and that they would patiently listen to my concerns, and include me in the diagnostic dialog. At other tech competitor stores, the conversation with the support staff, while polite and professional, seemed in “Fix it” mode. This often meant, I felt rushed to describe the problem before the staff “took over.”

When teaching our students, communication with understanding should be modeled after “Seek to understand before being understood” (Stephen Covey). Habit #5 helps us understand through the eyes (perspective) of others, which can lead to creating paths of solution and innovation that are mutually understood and supported. Students engage more into learning experiences where they feel heard and understood. The result is they have a voice in the work to be done.

Presentations should not be the only mode of communication practice, nor its cousins–debates and classroom discussions. Dialog through listening is a critical tool for students to learn how to communicate with understanding. Active listening skills help others in the conversation to feel that they are being heard. If in the classroom and at staff meetings listening strategies are used with reflection, the result would be greater depth of understanding and inquiry into content–and the related context to apply such communication skills in their lives outside of school. Some support activities include: Fish Bowl (site 1 & site 2), Chalk TalkSave the Last Word for Me, and Final Word). A result is that when students get jobs, their skill-set will be a powerful asset to clients and/or customers returning for future service.

Collaboration through Influencing across NetworksInfluencing across networks

Collaboration is when two or more people work together towards achieving a shared outcome. There is an interdependent element to collaboration that is heightened when a person or group draw upon their contacts and resources to assist with completing the task or project, what Tony Wagner calls “Influencing across networks.”

From the moment I entered the Apple store until I left, the staff’s goal seemed to be that at no time would I be unsupported and that my needs would get addressed before I left. Here’s what it looked like:

I’m greeted at the store entrance by a sales rep. On sharing that I had a Genius Bar appointment regarding laptop issues, the person led me to one of the schedulers. I had already signed in using my app, but I’d not shared this information because I was curious what would happen. The scheduler immediately notified me that I was signed in and informed me that my support person would be there presently. At this point, the scheduler paused while making eye contact that encouraged me to speak in case perhaps I had a sales question while I waited. No names announced on an intercom like a cattle call. I suspect that they take pictures of customers, because a support tech approached me using my name. In the process of assisting with my support needs, the tech brought in another tech to ensure that the diagnostic software was properly run–I suspect it was a learning opportunity for the first tech. From that point on, both techs supported me, while assisting others when a diagnostic process was running on my computer.

There are those in education that express concerns that students are not learning enough about working with others through collaboration, while others fear that the skills for learning how to work alone is being sacrificed. In today’s globally competitive society, both are needed. Students need in-depth understanding on how to collaborate towards a common goal, instead of just cooperating on parts but leaving the problems and challenges for completion to others. This is where Tony Wagner’s Influencing across Networks helps. In collaborative work, each person takes on responsibilities that they are expected to complete themselves.

In doing our best work, we will pull in people and resources that can help us do a great job. For example, I recently developed a 5 week elementary school project under contract. I reached out to several people who I knew to have expertise in areas that could help raise the quality of the product. I got great advice and leads that helped me to deliver a high quality project. This included a valuable experience when my boss coordinated a feedback session with national experts in curriculum. We met virtually and they gave me feedback on the project that I used when working on revisions. Such networks can be used for individual assignments and to help teammates to complete the shared outcomes.

Given a complex problem, students need experiences where they can identify when to bring in others to help and when not to. Also important is recognizing when support is no longer needed by a teammate, and encouraging the person towards the solo work, while being available if help is required. At the Apple Store, the staff’s collaborative support functioned smoothly and effectively as staffing and resources flowed in and out as needed. It was like a perfectly played band, where each instrument played pitch perfect and in tune with each other, so that the audience experienced a quality performance.

Problem Solving through Think Alouds

Working out a solution is a standard outcome that all businesses seek to achieve. From a customer service perspective, not all approaches are equal. For example, even if say three competitor tech stores had a 100% success rate at solving the same computer problems, I would choose Apple’s approach. Typically, the problem solving process is that the consumer brings a computer to the store, tells the tech the problem, and answers a couple of questions. The tech then takes the computer into the backroom to run diagnostics and find a solution to the problem. It reminds me of the movie “The Wizard of Oz” where the great and powerful Oz does his work behind a curtain, until the dog Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the true wizard.

Not so at an Apple store. Yes, their techs do at times take equipment into the back room, but this is not their primary step. Their starting point for solving the problem is by involving the client. They explain every step so that the customer builds an understanding of the problem-solving process. Most times the issues are solved with the customer, who feels like they contributed–at least I do.  If the support tech decides to take the computer into the back room, the client will be invested and have a certain level of understanding about why.

A powerful teaching practice is called Think Alouds. It’s where the teacher models thinking when solving a problem or demonstrating a critical thinking skill. It might be used when working through a math problem, constructing an effective counter argument in an essay, or conducting an experiment using the Scientific Method. Coaching students on becoming proficient in Think Alouds goes a long way to helping them strengthen reflective thinking, problem solving, and communicating to clients–like me– at an Apple Store.

Colleges and especially businesses need people who have these skills…

  • Communicating with understanding
  • Collaborating through influencing across networks
  • Problem solving through Think Alouds

Think about when as a customer you had a problem in need of solving. What has been your experience at different stores? The key element is that the store or chain provides the same consistent system of service, or does it largely depend on where, when, and who you go to. For your own exploration of these skills, I invite you to visit your local Apple Store and speak to someone from the Genius Bar. During a student’s education, what if they learned these skill sets early on and practiced them often–what kind of challenges could they handle?