Apple customer service has a split personality

Apple seems to have two kinds of customer service. The public-facing one in the retail stores, and the corporate policy that accepts no blame and provides little help. Why?

A recent experience with Apple's online and phone support has led me to believe that there are two support organizations within Apple.

The public face of the Genius Bar at the retail stores has been an unexpected source of customer support pleasure. I know that when I walk into an Apple store for my Genius Bar appointment, they have been uniformly helpful and courteous, and even provide alternative solutions if something is out of warranty and they are unable to cover the service.

I recently had an issue with a Mac Mini belonging to one of the employees in my office, and due to the service desired--upgrading the hard drive to a third-party SSD drive--they were unable to assist. They did, however, provide me with the names and locations of alternative authorized Apple service locations that were able to accommodate me without voiding my warranty.

Then there's the phone support. My employer had a MacBook Pro 17" model that had the expanding battery issue. Since my foray into the Apple world is still relatively recent, I wasn't really aware of how big an issue this was.

I checked the serial number of the laptop and saw that it was outside of warranty and AppleCare coverage. However, I also knew that Apple will handle out of warranty replacements if hardware is defective .

When I called phone support, I was told that since the laptop was out of warranty, we would simply have to buy a new one. I countered that a battery which expands so much that it literally breaks the laptop is, by definition, defective. I was then informed that the battery expansion was actually by design, to prevent it from exploding at the end of life.

I pointed out several things that render this declaration to be asinine. For one, batteries typically just stop working. If they have a tendency to explode at end of life, you don't design them to expand. You don't even sell them. You send them back to the manufacturer and get ones that DON'T EXPLODE. For another, designing a battery to behave in such a fashion is like designing a car to drive you off a cliff with you in it when it's time to buy a new one.

Finally, there are plenty of people who experienced this issue in the middle of the battery life-cycle. Normally it lasts for about 300 recharges, but there are quite a lot of people on the Apple support forums that experienced the battery expansion only halfway through the recharge cycle lifespan.

Apparently the only way they will replace the obviously defective, dangerous battery is if it actually explodes or does physical damage to the rest of the laptop. Otherwise you're on your own. I've since discovered that the quality of these batteries has not improved over the past few years, and the third-party ones are even worse.

The conversation with the phone support person and the supervisor I asked to be escalated to did not improve after that point. I accepted that since the battery was out of warranty, I would have to buy a new one and consider myself fortunate that the MacBook Pro hadn't been damaged.

In hindsight, however, I wonder if I wouldn't have simply been better off just taking the expanded battery to an Apple store and asked if they could replace it. It's too late now, but I suspect that my experience in front of live people instead of a faceless phone support person might have been a lot more agreeable and productive.

It seems to me that there are two support policies at place within Apple. The stores themselves seem to have a lot more autonomy and leeway to deal with specific issues, and the online/phone support follows a hardline corporate policy of "it's not our problem".

This is disappointing, and is something Tim Cook should look into improving for the future. It would go a long way to expanding into the corporate sector, where service and support are paramount in large organizations.