“There’s a file size and a file name,” I typed into the empty white space on Apple’s support website, “but nothing happens when I hit play.” I sent the note after audio I’d recorded on my iPhone using Apple’s Voice Memo app malfunctioned. Some hours later, I received a reply with a link to an Apple Forum discussion about disappearing voicemail messages. After attempting once again to navigate Apple’s website in order to get a Genius Bar appointment, it became clear I would mostly likely need to lie and say I was having a hardware issue and not one related to software. Then, realizing how long I would have to wait for an appointment, I gave up and Googled “Apple-certified iOS support Portland Oregon.” Within half an hour, I was able to make a next-day, one-on-one, in-person appointment at Geeks4Mac, a local Apple support shop.
The saturation of iOS and Mac products means more and more people own Apple devices—which means more and more people need help using them. Each iOS and MacOS release reveals a new suite of tools and capabilities, but also new challenges and complications (and sometimes bugs). At the same time, Apple’s Genius Bar has become a purgatory no iDevice owner wants to find themselves stuck in.
Apple enthusiast and analyst John Gruber—better known by his blog’s name, Daring Fireball—recently assigned the company its 2018 report card and addressed its in-store issues. Gruber, who was part of the Six Colors group grading Apple, gave it a C for its retail division. “In the old days you could just walk in with a broken or otherwise problematic device and get an appointment at the Genius Bar within the hour,” Gruber writes. “Now, the Genius Bar is booked for days in advance—sometimes close to a week. In some ways that’s inevitable—Apple is way more popular now than it was pre-iPhone. But inevitable or not, the result is that getting support at an Apple Store now stinks. And frankly, the technical acumen of the Genius Bar staffers is now hit or miss.” The admonishment is in line with the litany and extremity of customers’ internet documentation of less-than-helpful experiences with the Genius Bar. In some cases, users are sent through a series of forced troubleshooting and FAQ browsing until they can request a Genius Bar appointment—it can feel as if Apple does everything it can to guide customers toward digital help instead of giving them real-life attention (which I can attest to). Apple has indeed added more friction to the process of getting an appointment over the years, including making it more difficult to even navigate to the that section of its website. At one point there was even an issue with scalping Genius Bar appointments in China.
Even those who successfully reach the Genius Bar report frustrating experiences. “In a way, [Apple is] sort of a victim of [its] own success,” Apple Store creator Ron Johnson recently told Yahoo Finance. “The stores are so popular, the real challenge is handling the amount of traffic coming through.” There are 272 Apple Stores in the U.S., and all of them—save for the one on Apple’s own campus—have Genius Bars (though Apple’s been trying to rebrand them as “Genius Groves”). Currents stats are difficult to come by, but in 2012, Apple said it serviced 50,000 people every day at its Genius Bars nationwide; that number can only have gone up in the seven years since. MacRumors editor-in-chief Eric Slivka says that because of increasing popularity and pressure, Apple has been forced to readjust its focus for the Genius Bar. “Reports from both staff and customers have highlighted changes like staff being required to handle multiple customers at once and less flexibility to ‘surprise and delight’ customers seeking help,” he told me via email. “Long gone are the days when you could walk into an Apple store without an appointment and be seen by a Genius after only a short wait. At worst, you might have to go wander the mall for an hour. Now you have almost no hope of getting to see a Genius unless you have an appointment, and those are in some cases booked up days in advance.”
Retail was supposed to be Apple’s big sell. Fashion executive Angela Ahrendts left Burberry and joined Apple in 2014 to transform the company’s retail strategy; the idea was for the brick-and-mortar shops to feel less like a store and more like a community center. Ahrendts is now departing Apple, and while certain elements of the stores have been upgraded, Genius Bars were not a primary focus. For starters, Ahrendts launched the Today in Apple series, free seminars held at Apple Stores that teach people everything from how to use the iPhone’s photo-editing tools to programming in Swift. Ahrendts also wanted to evolve the look of Apple Stores, making them more of a place to hang out and explore Apple’s products (and, you know, maybe buy one) versus getting help with them. But in reality, consumers don’t need more space to kill time and play with their iPhones—the existing Apple Stores have already filled that role very well. What is lacking and what they do need are well-trained and readily available support services to help with them. Slivka says that while Ahrendts did redesign the Genius Bar to be more physically integrated into Apple Store’s layouts, little else changed on the support side. He says he’s optimistic about what her replacement, Deirdre O’Brien, a 30-year Apple veteran, will do with the retail operations moving forward.
In the meantime, mounting consumer frustration and less-than-preferable work environments have created a market for third-party, Apple-certified businesses. Ron Gehrmann, who runs a business called Metro Mac Support in Portland, Oregon, says he fell into the job. “I was always sort of graphically inclined and interested in topography and graphic design, and the Mac, of course, was the most amazing tool for that,” he says. “So I taught myself.” In the ’90s, at the dawn of the internet, Gehrmann taught himself web design and did freelance language translation. A friend suggested he look into the Apple Consultants Network and consider a career in client IT help. “I love to work with people and I love technology,” he says. “I feel like I get to be the bridge between those things.” Gehrmann’s been running Metro Mac Support for 19 years; he thinks his oldest clients have been working with him for almost that long now.
Gehrmann says his customers come to him either after a lackluster Genius Bar or Apple tech support experience, or in order to avoid one entirely. One client told him she watched as an Apple Genius unintentionally deleted all of her text messages, including the photos and videos contained within them. Gehrmann agrees that Apple Stores are overwhelmed by customer demand and need for tech support—and he also knows Genius Bar workers aren’t going to be able to offer the kind of expedient attention he can. “[You] don’t get individualized attention anymore,” he says. “But if you come to me, I’m focusing exactly on your questions and your learning style.”
Slivka says he’s always used Apple Stores for his IT needs, and that he hasn’t always heard the best reports about third-party solutions—in part because many times, these off-site stores charge for their services while many Genius Bar sessions are free. “That’s not to say there aren’t third-party service providers out there who will go the extra mile, as I know there are, but in general the reports I’ve heard point toward greater helpfulness at Apple’s own stores.” (Little is known about the Genius Bar training method, save for a 2012 leaked manual that includes sections about how to convey empathy with phrases like “I can see how you may feel that way,” and another with phrases employees aren’t allowed to say that disparage devices.) And of course, when you visit an Apple Store, there is also the chance you could leave with a brand-new device, free of charge. Third-party businesses definitely can’t offer that perk.
However, Slivka acknowledges that in many cases, smaller businesses will literally go where Apple won’t. “One of the primary roles they fill is in smaller markets where Apple has been unwilling to build its own stores,” he says. “For people who don’t live near an Apple Store, third-party shops are their only option unless they want to drive sometimes hundreds of miles to get service from an Apple Genius or rely on telephone, chat, or mail-in service.” Or there are the times when stores are simply overwhelmed. Point in case: Apple’s iPhone battery-replacement offer last year. Some stores were backed up for weeks. “Users could sometimes visit a third-party location and get the procedure done very quickly,” says Slivka.
And in case you were wondering about my Voice Memo sad: Erick, the very helpful owner of Geeks4Mac, helped me recover about half of the file, far more than I was anticipating (which was nothing) and definitely a better outcome than I could find in any of the Apple forums I was directed to. While he worked on it, he sent me text updates and also only charged me part of the fee ($105 total) since he couldn’t get all the audio back. He also sent me a list of better apps I could use for this purpose—all third-party apps, fittingly enough.