42 - Rotten Apple Shop

I only rarely have any problems with my computers. Fifty years ago the valued statistic was uptime  – the hours a week that the machine was functioning. In the eighties we used downtime as the measure and in the naughties we merely get frustrated that the inherently reliable machine does not function as expected, i.e. perfectly. These frustrations fall into two general categories, in my view: software problems, in which I include virus contamination and usage by idiots; and hardware problems, which at the moment is primarily described as power supply problems and over-use problems.

Indeed, those describe the ‘faults’ I have experienced. Once, only once, a resistor failed. The part cost 6p to replace and the cost of finding the offending component was more than 100 times greater. I have had batteries fail regularly – a usage issue; I have lost two screens by using a laptop “too much”. You could argue that I should have replaced these machines earlier and I admit happily that I use machines until they die. My first laptop was the 12” MacBook and it died from a broken screen connector first, then of a broken motherboard. My 14” MacBook died in 2009 of a broken motherboard too and this is now too expensive to repair – by which I mean it is allegedly cheaper to replace the machine than to repair it. My G3 desktop has yet to fail, but I use it largely as a tv and it spends a lot of time off, so I suppose its biggest source of failure will be dust falling inside it.

The G5 power unit has suffered from he same problem; I think there is a power supply problem here in China. My 15” MacBook Pro has suffers only from the failure of its wonderfully clever power supply. Of which I write....

The MagSafe socket has five little pins, the middle one of which is a smaller diameter, in a row across the longer line of symmetry of a roughly rectangular surrounding magnet. This locks neatly onto to the corresponding point on the casing and gives a connection that neatly breaks open when the cable is caught on something such as a passing foot. It saves throwing the laptop on a floor. There are few disadvantages to this arrangement, as the strength of the magnetic contact has been well judged. The five little pins are spring loaded, presumably to give good contact with the matching pins on the casing, and these movable parts are (of course) a source of problems. The springs seem a little weak and the pins tend to stick. I suspect that when the pins fail to make contact the power jumps the power jumps the tiny gap and things get hot around the connection quite rapidly. This sparking in turn causes the transformer to fail. There are issues with the development of this power supply recorded on the internet and Apple have been replacing the unit without argument. The pins stick when they get dirty, but if the cable end ever had a cover then certainly the two replacements I have now had were not supplied with a cover. I found a description of a cover and a home-made tie using dental floss to hold the cover near to the offending part.

I replaced the original power supply when the cable broke within a centimetre of the magsafe unit from overheating and the consequent exaggerated wear. I wrote that off to rough usage: I have a laptop because my needs are mobile and so I move around with the machine and often use a nearby power source. Since the battery works reasonably well still, I can expect a current battery life of longer than a double lesson and so the power cable goes in my bag at the end of a week when going home or away. This means that the cable is scrunched up quite often and I see signs of wear on the European cable I keep available for connections at home.

Recent usage showed me that the cable end was heating up again and I noticed the pins (for the first time and that they) were not extending correctly. A little googling soon showed that I should expect my local Apple shop to replace the offending part without any great issue.

So, my office Girl Friday and I trek to the nearest Apple shop. We have been here before on the previous occasion that the G5’s power supply failed. The shop is on a busy street which in true Chinese fashion has very similar shops nearby. An HP sales centre is next door, several similar shops are within sight. This emporium clearly says it is an Apple reseller but it also sells a non-Apple (Lenovo?) manufacturer’s goods. The shop is maybe 4x10 metres, with the long axis parallel to the curb (unusual here, usually the long axis goes into the building). The display area is quite pretty and while there is actually not much on display there is little repetition except on the shelves of goods for sale – mainly for the iPod and iPhone. There are ten staff including the girl behind the till. Yes, ten. The greatest number of customers observed in my several visits has been three. Customers usually come in pairs, so having more than six visitors in the room is brief but heavy traffic. The display machines are all connected and the staff make use of them. I discover all this during the first visit, in which the replacement part had to be fetched from ‘the warehouse’ and, despite a number of phone calls in advance, this was delayed because the manager was holding the key and was not present in either location. One of the ten eventually went to the warehouse to collect the part and then we collected it from them. The time spent explaining the need for a single power supply caused conversations with seven out the ten staff; the money transaction took as long as fetching the component. The staff in general had no recognition of the part (that is, one did) and clearly not much idea what to do. “We are a sales force” does not explain a lack of knowledge of their products. There was much confusion, perhaps understandable, at my British plug, where a Chinese plug has two flat 15x6x2mm pins about 12mm apart, and so no earth connection at all. No matter, we managed to make the computer work once more. During that visit I was encouraged strongly to use a power supply to sit and do some work while waiting for the conversations to be productive. This we might view as good advertising and I have no issues with this. They were a bit surprised when I pulled out my iPhone and compared the state of email, as if they had not realised the gadgets are supposed to interact.

So on this second visit we have discussed the problems and I have been sent home to find the invoice or receipt from the previous visit. As if I am not the only foreigner they have as a customer. Armed with the news from the internet we are well prepared. What a good thing, too. Yet again we must speak to the majority of the staff, including breaking up a staff-staff conversation so as to command any attention at all. On our arrival there was a customer (sorry, a pair) in conversation with an assistant, with another assistant hovering. Not hoovering; we don’t do that here. We didn’t talk to them but to everyone else (all ten were present). During the whole of our visit one more visitor came and went with less than six words exchanged; we were there for 20 minutes. If we had not done our research we would have been fobbed off with the “this is repair, we are sales” approach that was tried last time. We were fobbed off with the “we don’t have one in stock” and without preparation we would have been charged. I requested to check that there was no fault at the laptop connection – a new idea that clearly had not and would not have occurred to the staff, but was followed by a nicely phrased request that I sit and work while my Girl Friday argued the toss at length.
The part was promised for Monday (this was Friday morning). It turns out that the part was in the warehouse in the city all along and when they rang us to say the part would be available on Tuesday my staff were angry (without help) and the part was collected late Monday afternoon when one of the girls stood in the shop until it was given to her – and that was after explaining through Sunday that this would happen. So the time taken to remedy the problem
in the shop could have been as productively spent with a visit direct to the warehouse or even to Shanghai.

Our explanation of the problem, its cause and its solution were all treated as news  –new news, that is. If we had not gone so armed, there is no doubt in our minds we would have been charged for a sale. Identification of the issue as sales support was something of which we were required to persuade them, not something readily recognised. This suggests not only incompetence but it implies a lack of interest in the customer base—and in the products—that betrays the supplier and strongly suggests this reseller does not deserve to be in business. It confirms the lack of any service-led industry in this country and it defies any management leadership. The same shop in Britain would have two or three staff and might have only one. That few would be competent, well-informed and swift to identify issues and solutions. We received the sort of treatment I am used to in chain eating-houses, not electrical goods stores.

I am concerned for Apple. I can see that the reseller business is fraught. There are too many resellers; each is seriously overstaffed by my direct observation; that staff is under-equipped for making sales. I am concerned for China and its internal markets’ service to customers. I am concerned at the apparent lack of education within the sales-force and the apparent acceptability of having such patently useless people. The implications are dire when the customer apparently needs to be better informed than the service personnel. One such longer-term implication is that sales centres are doomed, as the internet will take over. If we postulate a sale via the net, then when there is a post-sale issue one will want the existence of a local service centre to be the same place that provides after-sales support and repair services – even when all that they offer is sympathy and a re-mailing package. Which in turn does not bode well for the future economy. In a competitive environment the way the customer feels is what engenders what little loyalty exists. In the west we have electrical goods suppliers who survive by providing service and knowledge. Here this has yet to develop and the early birds will reap significant rewards.

DJS 20090701

One of my favourite films is A Knight’s tale (Heath Ledger, Rufus Sewell, Paul Bettany).  The last of these plays (brilliantly) Geoffrey Chaucer, who has a serious betting problem, which is why we first meet him naked and between towns. Subsequently he meets (again) the two enforcers, is rescued  from being shamed again and, given the opportunity to threaten these two, threatens to write about them, to immortalise them in prose; somehow he conveys that this will not be a pleasant result, but then I think better actors (and I rate Bettany as one such) are very good at saying one thing and conveying another. Probably the resulting Chaucer’s Tale would be of the Pardoner and the Summoner. The film has music entirely from Queen, which certainly helps one enjoy the film; wonderfully apposite.

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