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All in one: Owning the experience is key to Apple's customer satisfaction

If you regularly listen to Apple’s quarterly conference call, Tim Cook’s repeated use of the term “customer sat” for “customer satisfaction” is probably a well-worn square on your bingo card. Apple’s customer satisfaction numbers are the envy of the technology world—and probably several other worlds—and Cook is rightly proud of that fact. Turns out owning your customer experience pays off. Who knew?

Well, Apple knew. That’s why the company (cliché warning) “makes the whole widget.” There was a time when that just meant making both the hardware and the operating system, but these days that’s not enough. And at this month’s Worldwide Developers Conference Apple showed it continues to look for opportunities to own the experience in the key services that users rely on heavily.

Serving many masters

In the Windows and Android worlds, ownership of the experience is a filthy scrum of competing interests.

Who do you contact when you have a problem with a Windows computer: Microsoft or the hardware manufacturer? It can be confusing, and each party can be quick to point the finger at the other. Microsoft doesn’t completely own the desktop Windows experience, as Windows PC makers take the liberty of installing their own helpful wares in order to push their own services. (In the Common Speech of Middle-earth these are known as “crapware.”) Buy a computer from HP, for example, and you get an HP Windows install disk with all HP’s fabulous extras—whatever they are.

Microsoft Stores can provide some support for PC users, but the company isn't the only party involved.

Now, if you live near a Microsoft store, you can buy a PC on which Microsoft does own the desktop experience: The devices the company sells in its own stores come with a clean installation of Windows, blessedly free of the meddling of those other vendors. Alternatively, you can bring in a PC and have Microsoft clean it up for you, even working with the hardware manufacturer on your behalf to solve problems.

For a fee.

That seems crazy to Mac users. But as a Windows user, one either lives with the crapware or pays Microsoft or a third party to clean it up—yes, that’s right: clean up your brand new computer.

Android phones are similarly jacked up with crapware, often installed by not one but two parties: the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and the carrier. Oh, boy! Do I want to use Google’s music service or Samsung’s? Or maybe Verizon’s? Man, if only I had bought a case with this phone maybe I’d have a fourth choice.

Of course, you can buy phones and tablets directly from Google, in which case they come with a vanilla Android install. (I don’t think that’s actually one of the OS version names, but who can keep track?)

Google does sell its own branded versions of devices, but they make up a relatively small portion of the Android market.

But just like most people don’t buy Windows computers from a Microsoft Store, most people don’t buy Android phones from Google. For the majority of Windows and Android users, the user experience comes pre-cluttered with a confusing cacophony of attempts to steal your eyeballs. And, since those two platforms are used by more people than Apple’s, that means most of the people in the world go through their desktop and mobile computing lives like this.

Isn’t that sad? Self-destructive behavior usually is.

From soup to nuts

Apple can’t and won’t do everything itself—but it will, however, try to make sure it’s your first point of contact for the services you use most.

For example, when the company first made a maps app, it used data from Google but designed its own app around it. The disagreement that led Apple to change that relationship was about Google wanting to control more of the experience and get more of the user data. That Apple wouldn’t allow this to happen should be as obvious as the stickers on a Windows computer.

Meanwhile, with Messages on iOS and OS X, Apple has already taken over the texting experience—if not always perfectly. (You didn’t need your messages to be in order, did you?) But messaging is a service Apple’s not content to leave in the hands of the carriers. Why should two of its customers have to pay a carrier to send message to each other? This is something even BlackBerry figured out years ago.

icloud continuity sms

Starting in Yosemite, you'll be able to make and take phone calls and SMS messages on your Mac, thanks to your iPhone running iOS 8.

With Yosemite and iOS 8, Apple’s taking this a step further. Not only can you (theoretically) get your text messages on both iOS and the Mac, but you’ll also be able send and receive phone calls from your Mac or send voice messages through Messages. Those cellular and broadband companies? They’re just big dumb pipes that Apple sends stuff through. (If you went to the doctor, you wouldn’t want the landlord of the building to be in there too, right? What’s that guy doing there?)

That’s not the only place Apple’s attempting to impose control. While Apple devices have long defaulted to Google search, Apple showed at WWDC that Spotlight in Yosemite would use Internet search from Bing. And Safari in Yosemite and iOS 8 will also include DuckDuckGo as a search option. Really, Apple would like you to think of search as just another back-end service, like map data or cellular networking or broadband—a back-end service that you just happen to access from Apple hardware and software.

When digital music was on the rise, Apple bought SoundJam and made iTunes. It made iLife for digital photography and video and it created the boy band formerly known as iWork for users’ basic productivity needs. The goal is clear: Apple tries to identify the main things you’re going to do with your device and control that experience. As Maps has shown, in some instances it’s easier said than done to detach data from the quality of that user experience—but either way, Apple is still determined to own it.

You’re the customer

To hear Tim Cook talk about it, Apple takes customer satisfaction very seriously, far more seriously than its competitors. But that may not quite be it: The difference between Apple and its competitors is that Apple’s customers and end-users are one and the same.

By now you’ve heard the adage that if you’re not paying for a product then you are the product; hence, Google’s true customers are advertisers. Microsoft’s situation is more muddled: Many of Microsoft’s customers are corporations that care more about cheap licensing and centralized management than user experience. When Microsoft sells a license to an OEM, the OEM is kind of a customer, as is the end user. I doubt OEMs would give Microsoft high customer satisfaction ratings, but maybe advertisers would give Google high marks.

Apple may not get the experience exactly right in every instance, but you at least know whose experience you’re getting: Apple’s. And that ownership of experience is part of what makes its customers so sat … isfied.

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