Apple and their use of symbols

This blog is about a recent experience I had with Apple (the company). Although, I was interacting with them as a customer (not consultant), I was blown away by some of the organisational processes and symbols that they had in place. The rest of this article both describes my experience, as well as identifies some lessons that we can all learn about more effective use of symbols in shaping organisational culture.

I had never dealt with Apple before purchasing my current iPhone. As such, I was completely unprepared for the experience that I recently had when I went into their main store in George St, Sydney to get my phone fixed.

When I got to the Apple store at 7:30am there was already a line-up of 6 people waiting for the shop to open. I assumed that they were lining up with faults (just like me) but was a little shocked to discover that they were all lining up to purchase products. I felt a little queasy to be honest, as I stood there overhearing excited stories about Apple products from converted disciples of the company.

I started looking around, in an attempt to avoid eye contact with the Apple fanatic / cyclist (still wearing his helmet) standing in the queue next to me. That’s when I noticed muffled clapping and could vaguely make out a group of employees (all in red shirts) standing in a circle inside the building. They were obviously having a pre-start meeting but it sounded more like a pep rally.

Shortly thereafter, one of the staff came outside the locked doors to talk to each of the people in the line to check what we were here for and give us advice about what to do once the store opened. I couldn’t believe that they have so many people lining up before they open that they need a standard process to deal with it! After working his way through the line, the staff member in the red shirt (and board shorts) gave me advice on what to do once I entered the store. Although I didn’t understand what he was saying at first (due to some jargon), I eventually figured out that all he was saying was that I needed to speak to someone with a red shirt on (in other words speak to practically anyone and they will be able to help you).

At this stage it was already clear that this company was a bit different, but then the doors opened….

What’s so interesting about that? Well, there wasn’t an old, disgruntled employee with a tired and mildly irritated look on their face opening the door. Instead, there were three people, all with smiles on their faces and together they opened the three bi-fold doors simultaneously, in an almost theatrical manner. At the same time all the other staff (who by this stage were stationed throughout the store) began to cheer, whistle and clap! By the time I walked into the store I was so disoriented I had completely forgotten to be mildly irritated about my broken telephone!

Sure enough, I went to the first person with a red shirt and she was able to help me. She booked me in for an appointment and then I went upstairs to find a technician. There were literally 50 or 60 staff standing around so I had no trouble finding the right place. I sat down to wait for my technician then was greeted by name (not sure how they did that) and asked to come up to the counter. I immediately sat down and started to talk about my problem… only to look up and see that the young guy was holding his hand out and smiling to introduce himself. After we had shaken hands I told him my problem and within 30 seconds he informed me “Matt we need to give you a new phone. Have you backed up your data?”… “Yep” was my response. “That’s great… just wait right there”. 2 minutes later and I had been given my new phone, signed a 1-page form, had shaken my technician’s hand again and was walking out the front of the store with a brand spanking new phone!

The purpose of this blog is not to give a free advertisement for Apple or the iPhone (I have a feeling that they are doing pretty well without my help). The reason I felt compelled to write was because I had never come across a company before that utilises symbols so well! A symbol to me is something highly visual that communicates what a company values in the workplace. Symbols are particularly important in business because they have the potential to shape an organisations culture much more than many other decisions or actions that a manager might take. Lets list some of the most obvious symbols that I noticed at Apple:

– Everyone wore red t-shirts and mismatched pants (ranging from board shorts to jeans). This symbolised to me that the company is young, they value individualism, and of course are a bit cool.

– The young man coming out to greet us before the doors opened symbolised to me that the company cared and appreciated that I was waiting.
– The doors being opened simultaneously by three guys was a bit weird. However, it did demonstrate how they were a company that had considered the customer experience very carefully; down to the finest detail.
– The cheering as we all walked in really did not feel very Australian. I felt a bit like I was walking into an American-style pep rally. However, who could escape the key message… We want your visit to our store to be an exciting event and we are all excited to see you!
– The deliberate attempt to shake my hand showed me that this was a technician that cared about the people side of the problem.
– Even the fact that the 1-page form I signed was written in plain english and was no more than 100-200 words. There were no catches, no fine print, no tricks! At no stage did someone try and hint that maybe this was my fault.

I could probably go on and on about my experience with Apple (by the looks of the length of this post I already have). However, like I said, this isn’t meant to be an advertisement for Apple. The point is that this is a company that, without words, communicated to me that it was different. They appeared to care about my situation even before they were open for business, and once they did open, they exceeded all of my expectations in terms of the simplicity and speed of the process.

Wouldn’t it be great if more companies used symbols to communicate with their employees as efffectively as Apple does with their customers? Symbols are more than just a nice to have, but in the time poor world we live in they are essential to convey our message effectively. True leaders should dedicate sufficient time to defining what they want their employee experience and organisational culture to be, then put in place the processes and symbols that are required to effect that experience.

We don’t all have the ability to define the strategy of a large multi-national success story such as Apple. However, all managers and organisational leaders have the ability to improve their use of symbols in communicating with their immediate teams.

Had any interesting experiences utilising symbols in organisations? Why not post a comment below!

For more reading about the use of symbols in organisations:

http://www.henricksconsulting.com/2010/the-undercover-manager/

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