It all started with an insult.
An Apple store customer in Australia complained that a store employee had "questioned my intelligence" by insisting he use Apple Pay for a transaction.
That customer was fed up with the pushiness and walked out.
I, however, wanted to help him. I wanted to see if this behavior was widespread. So I walked into a couple of Apple stores to learn whether its salespeople really are incentivized to push certain products or services.
None would admit to any sort of commission payments.
I did, though, receive word from former Apple store employees who said, in essence, that these salespeople may not appreciate everything that's really going on.
These former employees revealed a little more of the innards of store operations and how certain products or services might, indeed, get special attention.
A former senior store employee told me: "The frontline retail Apple employees aren't paid on commission or receive a bonus. From a paycheck-to-paycheck perspective, there's no real incentive to push product A vs product B."
However, he said, each store's Leadership Team is under pressure and incentivized: "The direction or pressure for employees to sell a certain product comes from the retail leadership team. This means the Store Leader, Senior Leaders, and the Product Zone [Sales Manager] Leader."
He explained: "The Store Leader receives a breakdown of metrics and goals in the form of a Market Report from their Market Leader [regional manager]. Retail leadership teams do, in fact, receive a performance bonus based on quarterly sales results, a fact which is never explicitly revealed to the frontline teams."
Ah, so it's a case of slightly more subtle tactics? It seems that, sometimes for possibly idiosyncratic reasons, a store might sell far more, say, third-party accessories than many other stores. On the other hand, it might lag in iPhone sales.
Subtle psychological pressure is then applied, he said, in order to redress the balance. It's all about "directing customers to the product that's lagging," without actually pushing that product.
How does this "direction" of customers work? "Consultative selling," said one former sales manager.
He explained: "After an interaction had concluded, I would frequently check in with the Specialist and ask them, 'What 3 things have you learned about your customer today?'. The Specialists who learned and remembered their customers' names, and knew what they did for work, did very well. Apple began really pushing their in-store business services around 2014-15. This could lead to 5- or even 6- figure sales if you are able to close a local small or medium-sized business. Even better, if you knew the customers' hobbies, you were likely to be by far the more successful salesperson."
As for leadership bonuses they aren't, said my sources, dependent on what specific percentage of sales go through Apple Pay or how many customers buy AppleCare. Which doesn't mean that AppleCare and Accessory attach rates aren't closely monitored and, yes, pushed. There's a lot of profit in the little things.
The Power of The Crowd
So why might the insulted customer have been pressured to use Apple Pay? Well, it may well have something to do with the crowded nature of Apple stores, apparently.
Said one former manager: "The push for Apple Pay comes from the familiar dilemma of being in a crowded Apple Store and not having any idea how to get cashed out for that lightning cable in your hand. At a senior level, Apple leadership has decided, based mostly on customer satisfaction metrics, that customers appreciate the ability to pay for something themselves. I think they thought there's a certain cool factor there like Amazon's cashierless stores."
Apple following the taste-free pirates at Amazon? Can this be? Still, about the alleged pushiness. This is where the fun comes in.
"This [Apple Pay push] led to 'fun challenges' laid out by store leadership to challenge people on the sales floor to get a certain amount of Apple Pay transactions done," a former manager told me. "You can imagine that if this is done skillfully you can engage a customer, get them to download the Apple Store app -- a valuable touchpoint for future transactions and services -- and have them feel involved in the process."
And if it isn't done right?
Another former Store Leader explained: "We were all pushed to push Apple Pay in every transaction. These measurements were brought up in employee reviews and promotions. They were usually focused around the behavior observations. If you blew the behavior out of the water, you increased your chances of being favored."
That wasn't the experience of other Store Leaders. One told me: "I have promoted or given raises to a lot of sales staff over the years, and not a single time has that [Apple Pay] ever even been a part of the conversation between myself and my peers in determining a promotion."
Pressure Pushing Down On Me.
Perhaps some Store Leaders react to pressure better than others. In any case, I was told, some salespeople are simply better than others.
A former Store Leader told me: "Employees with high Apple Pay transaction completions are also usually the top performing in sales for all other products, as well as having the highest customer satisfaction scores. Is this because Apple Pay is the hardest sell of them all? I'll leave that to you and your readers."
It could be, then, that Apple's just like every other corporation, with varying employee performance and some employees vying to be favored by their superiors. And there you were thinking everything at Apple was magical and revolutionary.
Naturally, I asked Apple for its view on how it incentivizes store staff. The company declined to comment.
I sense Apple is very keen to make clear it would never incentivize staff by offering a certain percentage to a certain salesperson for selling a certain product.
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That simply wouldn't be consistent with the way the brand presents itself as customer-focused above all else.
It surely wouldn't be surprising, however, that at least some sort of bonuses are paid to at least some staff for exceeding broader performance goals.
Ultimately, Apple's stores have been one of the most powerful pillars of the company's success. The fact that you can go to your local mall, stroke the products and even get a gadget fixed is, to the ordinary human, a truly valuable feature.
Moreover, I've generally found Apple store staff all over the country to be engaging, efficient and remarkably honest.
Yet as Apple's business veers toward greater profit coming from the services side -- and with its head of HR now in charge of the stores -- could a little more pressure be applied to all store staff in order to send those services numbers even higher?
It had better be subtle pressure.
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