I envy those of my co-workers who smoke. It’s not just because they look cool. I bet taking a couple minutes off every few hours during your work day to watch traces of your own breath hang and fade on the air must be quite meditative. It’s probably healthy, mentally speaking. On the other hand, there’s the pretty much guaranteed cancer.
My friend Max, a veteran Specialist, thinks he’s a guru to me.
“I’m like a guru to you, JK.” He says, coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other.
“No,” I reply, fanning the smoke away. “You’re really not.”
On Sundays, I take my afternoon break with Max near a parking lot several storefronts down and around the corner from our own. There’s no smoking right outside our Apple Store. Max still does sometimes, as though our front wall isn’t made of glass. I suspect he likes to test to see which managers might give him pushback, like those velociraptors tapping different sections of the electric fence in Jurassic Park.
He probes, “You excited for the store meeting tonight?”
I say, “Ain’t no party like an Apple party, ‘cause an Apple party is MANDATORY.”
He smirks. One of our Managers, Jen, suddenly clip-clops past in black boots. How can she stand in those all day? She carries what looks like a keg of coffee with a handle stuck on it.
“What up, Jenniferocious?” Max says.
“Oh, hey.” She says. “How are you? I’m presenting a Keynote for you guys tonight. I’m nervous.”
“That gallon of coffee should calm you right down,” I quip.
“Helps me focus.” She turns on a heel and clip-clops away. “See you later.”
Max stubs out his cigarette and snorts, “Right. A Keynote. For us.”
I ask, “You don’t like Keynotes?”
“I like boots,” he says. “Don’t think for one second that these meetings are for our sake, Padawan.”
We Have To Stop Meeting Like This
Publications like Forbes and Bloomberg News occasionally take measure of how Apple has “managed expectations.” This is a simple, but far-reaching social concept, crucial to anyone in customer service, and we deal with it at the Genius Bar every day. If you tell someone you’ll meet them at 7:15 pm, but you don’t arrive until 7:30 pm, you’re late, and they’re justifiably annoyed. However, if you tell them you’ll meet them at 7:45 pm, and you arrive at 7:30 pm, you’re early, and they might be impressed. That is, your reception often has far less to do with your performance (you arrived at the same time in both instances) than with what expectation you set.
This is my biggest gripe with Apple Store Meetings, which happen at least once per financial quarter. I don’t want them to suck. Nothing makes my retail job feel further removed from the sterling standards of Apple’s generous benefits, savvy international marketing, sleek industrial design, and advanced innovation than forcing every employee to come in on a Sunday night to watch the Managers throw together a last-minute pep rally.
What Max said has me thinking. What and who are these meetings for?
When I get to the rented theater that night, the lobby is so jam-packed that most of us get stuck loitering outside. If unity is one of the Store Meeting goals, strike one. Not only is it jarring to see everybody out of uniform, but waiting splinters the crowd. Geniuses, Creatives, Back of House, and Specialists each clump together by profession. The Managers are nowhere to be seen. Max slinks off to a circle of smokers. It feels cliquey, tribal, extremely high school.
I know that Abercrombie & Fitch makes customers wait in a faux nightclub line outside their store to heighten the excitement of actual entry, but I’d like to think we were above that.
Inside, there’s a long line to get your name checked off, which must be why the lobby is so bottlenecked. The attendance point system has become more stringent this year, and it’s no joke. Naomi from HR says they want to make sure we get credit for our time, but I’m pretty sure this also helps them check who didn’t show up.
We file in. Here are all the Managers, on their feet, applauding disarmingly in the aisles and down front by the screen. It’s an Apple thing, the “warm welcome.” You get clapped in, and someday, on your last workday, you’ll get clapped out. Music’s blasting. The Managers wear their blue shirts, which makes them match each other, but stand out more from us.
As we find seats, I can see toes tapping and heads bobbing a little. Using loud music to rile up a crowd is such a cheap shot. I hate that it works. I shake my head, and someone laughs behind me. Of course, it’s Max.
“Unnh!” He bites his lip and bounces his shoulders. “Boogie down Sunday night! Isn’t this your guys’ Sabbath?”
“They really want us to want being here,” I say.
“Psy ops, brother.” He says. “Oh, P.S.? Do not ask a question during Q&A.”
“I’d rather chew my own face off, thanks.”
Our Store Leader asks how we are, thanks us for coming, and has us clap in the new hires, who enter through a side door. We applaud. As they come in, a few grin and flash peace signs. Many seem to fight back smiles. What else can you do facing an unexpected, standing ovation? Noobs. I was once like them. Actually, they’re a pretty cool bunch, I like them. I wonder if Max sees me like that.
I read somewhere that people unconsciously laugh louder and more easily for their superiors. Would our Store Leader’s welcome speech get so many chuckles if he weren’t our boss? Actually, yeah. The guy is solid, smooth, and confident. His voice projects without strain. I wonder how many meetings he’s addressed. He makes public speaking look easy.
Jen reminds us it’s actually not.
“I’m going to talk… Oh, wait.” She resets. “How are you guys? Good. Good. I’m going to talk…”
First, I realize Managers must be trained to ask how we are before they say whatever they need to say. Once you notice it, you can’t stop noticing it. Second, it’s seriously not fair she has to follow him. She’s one of the Managers who didn’t come up through Apple, but instead hopped over from another retail chain. (Rhymes with “star ducks”) Some Geniuses resent her lack of technical knowledge, but she has a strong reputation for having your back on the sales floor. Third, I’m suddenly—and I mean like rabidly—rooting for her as she reads awkwardly from each Keynote slide. It was never us that made her nervous. She’s performing for that hard line of blue shirts in the front row. This is some test/initiation/competition on her long road to admiration and promotion among them. This is her Store Meeting right now, so far as I’m concerned.
When she concludes, it’s like her whole body exhales. She exits stage right. Clip clop. We applaud yet again, although this time I mean it. That was earned. I try not to check my watch. Only six more speeches to go.
Back when Ron Johnson was the head of Apple Retail, he would often record a video greeting to be played at Store Meetings, and I miss them. Though a branding mastermind, and by all accounts a smart, super nice guy, wow, was RoJo bad at speaking on camera! He’d slow chop his hand to emphasize points so often that I would count how many people in different rows picked up and mocked the gesture. The fallibility should have been more endearing, but Corporate thank yous feel like they’ve been transmitted from another planet. The guy on that screen is a multi-millionaire, one of the wizards for whom we act as meat shields. He’s our boss’s boss’s boss’s boss.
I picture Apple hierarchy like levels of celebrity. At the highest Corporate levels are the superstars. Think of Sir Jony Ive, Senior Vice President of Design. No offense, Tim Cook, but that’s a front man, with a British accent and knighted to boot. At that level, you’re Jennifer Lawrence or Aaron Paul. You could poop on the sidewalk, and people would tweet-worship your daring.
The rest of Corporate is mostly A-List, any actor who attends the Academy Awards on a regular basis. They may not make it to the podium, but they’re at the party in designer clothes. Is Wozniak Nicholson? Meh.
Regional Leaders are the pinnacle of Retail, but in my imagination, they don’t get invited to sit at the same lunch tables in Cupertino as Software Engineering or iTunes. Maybe they’re stigmatized, they’re more TV stars than movie stars. They’re older. They’ve seen things. They’re any actor from Ocean’s Eleven besides the headliners like Clooney, Pitt, Damon, or Roberts.
Store Leaders occupy an interesting space, because you see them all the time, which makes interaction more casual, but you’re not really on the same level. It’s like if you lived near a cast member from a cult hit like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Community. You love their work, and at parties you tell the story of how you had an actual conversation that one time, but part of you knows they sport definitive B-List fame, where fans feel deferential, affectionate ownership. You want to claim you knew them before they got even bigger, which they should and hopefully will.
All of which leaves Managers at the C or D-List level of celebrity. This must be one of the harshest places to live, worse than not being famous at all, because the low-wattage recognition somehow converts to disdain. “Oh, I know who you are, but you’re not all that.” Other than having become a manager, they’re like you. Their flaws are less forgivable. They walk less intimidatingly. They do make more money, deal with more angry customers, and have the unenviable duty to enforce policy. That makes them easy to blame for things like Store Meetings. This makes them Rebecca Black, Corey Haim, or either Culkin. (Lindsay, you’re circling this. We worry.)
The idea of Store Meetings, I imagine, trickles down from a place far, far above, occupied by luminous beings who need not attend, except in cameo.
Back to it. One Manager reports on how well Retail is doing financially. Another announces new training programs or initiatives. Another celebrates recent promotions, a number which seems inflated, because moving from part-time to full-time is considered a promotion, and many bumps, such as those to a Mentor position, are changes in title only. This is all about as riveting as it sounds.
One soul-searching moment is guaranteed. They call up to stage those employees who have been with Apple Retail for five years. Questions hang in the air for recipients and spectators alike. Did I see this coming? What do I have to show for this? Is that me, someday?
The absolute worst part of any Store Meeting is the Q&A. You’re close to three hours in at this point. There is no question on Earth important enough to keep the entire store’s staff hostage any longer. The co-workers who ask questions now, my guess is it’s the first chance they’ve ever gotten to hold a microphone.
They introduce themselves with, “What’s up, (insert name of your Apple Store)?” They give shout outs to their co-workers by name, like we haven’t just had three hours of exactly that. Sooner or later, after babbling about how it feels to speak to everyone, they self-narrate that they’ve remembered they’re supposed to ask a question.
This question will take one of two predictable forms. They will either ask a joke question as though they are a champion of the people, “Can every employee get a free iPad? We work hard, am I right?”
Or, they will ask something that is both obsequious and pointless at the same time, such as, “How awesome do you think everything is going to be during this upcoming holiday season? Since this will be my first time, can we please be gentle? Ha ha, did you see what I did there? Was it too far? Maybe it was too far. My bad. Sitting back down, now. Peace!”
Both questions set the Managers up for punchy responses. Neither gets me back the eleven minutes of life I’ve just lost. Somehow, I imagine open Q&A was not Steve Jobs’ idea.
What It Is Good For
In high school, the only people who cared about pep rallies were cheerleaders. It was clearly all about them, but every second they would be shouting how it was all for us. If I believed that, you wouldn’t have to force me to come. The night’s soured me on the idea of managing, which seems to be the only route to Corporate. I know it’s insane, but yeah, once in a blue moon I think about these possible aspirations. I don’t know a single employee who doesn’t.
I leave feeling tangled in many different levels of Us versus Them.
A Store Meeting probably looks decent on paper: warm welcome, video, updates, Keynotes, video, training, recognitions, Q&A, review, music by employees who play in bands, fond farewell. But it’s too much and too long, and if you think of the whole thing as an Apple product, the user experience is terrible. Corporate spends 20,000 hours perfecting iOS font animations, why can’t they design a better Store Meeting?
We walk out, free at last. I have another shift in several hours. Max checks out his friend’s five-year award. The plaque is signed (or possibly stamped) with Tim Cook’s signature, and the text ends with, THANK YOU—FOR ALL YOU HAVE DONE AND ALL YOU WILL DO THROUGHOUT YOUR JOURNEY AT APPLE.
“You know they changed it, right?” Max notes, lighting up another cigarette.
The five-year awards used to be signed (or stamped) with Steve Jobs’ signature, and the text ended with, WE HOPE YOU SHARE OUR FEELING THAT THE JOURNEY IS THE REWARD.
Those are pretty different takes on journey. Tim’s line sparkles with possibility. Steve’s speaks to an attitude. Which one better manages expectations?
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Max,” I say.
Thanks so much to everyone for sending in your retail stories from all over the world. Your experiences shall not stay unsung. The following story has a lot to do with managing expectations and was submitted by Z, who notes, “I like this one because it’s happy, not sad, and because it’s kind of ridiculous.”
A guy brought in his 5-year-old MacBook (the old, white, plastic kind) and told us he thought there was something wrong with it. It wouldn’t turn on. I suspected liquid damage (which is the jaded answer) or a logic board issue (which was unlikely, but slightly plausible), because there was just no reviving it. The poor laptop was really dead.
We went through a few trouble-shooting steps to make sure it wasn’t the battery, power supply, Magsafe, etc., and then offered to send it to “Depot” (the refurbishment center for Macs). The customer agreed, and we warned him that if the machine revealed further internal damage, they might have to re-estimate the repair cost.
A few days later, Depot called. The machine was indeed damaged by liquid and internally corroded. Did the customer want to pay $600 to refurbish the machine? He said he did not, so we had Depot ship back the machine, unfixed, to our store.
Then we got a call from FedEx. The shipping box, with the laptop in it, had been run over by a forklift! FedEx would pay damages up to the insurance amount taken out on the package.
We couldn’t give the customer back a shattered, run-over MacBook, even if it hadn’t been working in the first place, and so escalated the issue to Corporate. They told us to give him a current-generation, comparable model.
Needless to say, when we told this guy he would receive a brand new, 11-inch MacBook Air for free, he felt like he had won the lottery!
Thanks again for reading. I’m working on future articles about Cupertino headquarters and what it’s like to be a female Genius. Please drop me a line if you want to share your stories!