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A Worm in the Apple

Anonymous on a company that’s rotten to the core.

apple store george st

The first thing I noticed when I walked in were the non-disclosure agreements sitting neatly in front of every seat. I had applied to work for Apple and was about to begin what was, I realised later, the first of many group interviews for the job. Nothing could start until we signed. Nothing we heard that day would ever be repeated for the unanointed to hear. We were about to become the insider, members of a secret club, the ones who knew how it all really worked.

All 25 of us signed.

What followed was an hour and a half of lectures about Apple. Despite the intense secrecy it was mostly just videos and pop quizzes you could assemble from five minutes of Google searches.When called upon I made worthwhile interjections; my regurgitation went something like this:

“Apple is so great precisely because it doesn’t give us choice—the genius of Jobs was to draw Bauhaus design principles into modern computing, bringing us the essence of products rather than the complete product. The reality is we can’t always get what we want from Apple products, but, crucially, we get what we need.” (Or words to that effect.)

The trainer applauded me. The interview was over. Before we could leave, Apple store gift vouchers were thrust into our hands, “A free song! A gift from us to you.”

A few days later I received an email inviting me to a second round interview, and instructing me to assent to a Federal Police accredited criminal records check. I never saw my interview cohort again.

A roughly similar process was repeated several times. Finally I received a call, the golden ticket, a contract with a fresh non-disclosure agreement and reams of corporate jargon.

***

Training for Apple is a process barely distinguishable from the interviews—the only difference is that they have to pay you for training.

I was one of the lucky ones; I wouldn’t be on the sales floor, instead I’d be a “Family Room Specialist”.

To understand the role you have to understand Apple jargon. First, dissuade yourself of the notion that the sales floor is a sales floor; it’s actually a “Red Zone”—a term borrowed from American football for the space before the goal line where the action happens. You can’t walk into an Apple store without having to walk through the Red Zone first.

If you make it through the Red Zone without being tackled by salespeople you’re in the “Family Room”—a space that encompasses tables for Apple’s One to One training (only $129 a year!) and the Genius Bar. The metaphor made me wish Steve Jobs had kept up his creative relationship with acid. I’ll spell it out for you like they had to in training: the Family Room is so called because it’s the place you return to once you’ve fronted up the cash and bought your way into the Apple family.

That might explain why the place is so dysfunctional.

Family Room Specialists are meant to be jacks-of-all-trades. In reality, you spend your time being passed off as an “Apple Genius” to customers, a role you fill with substantially less training and far lower wages than the real Geniuses.

That’s not the end of Apple’s whimsical linguistic games. They have three categories of words: “Do Not Use”, “Avoid” and “Use”. We were to follow the guide in our own speech. But we were also to rephrase and de-escalate customer complaints. In Applespeak “hot” is “warm”, “unfortunately” is “as it turns out”, “bugs” or “problems” become a “condition”, “issue” or “situation”.

An ideal interaction would go something like this:

CUSTOMER: “My iPhone’s been getting really hot, here have a feel.”

GENIUS: “Yeah, it is quite warm.”

CUSTOMER: “Surely that’s a problem.”

GENIUS: “Yeah, it is a bit of an issue.”

CUSTOMER: “Unfortunately, the battery just exploded and burnt me.”

GENIUS: “As it turns out, burns aren’t covered by the Apple warranty.”

The greatest obfuscation is the rebranding of the refurbished products given to customers as “remanufactured”—that particular linguistic trick comes with a back story for the more curious of our customers.

“No, remanufactured is different from refurbished, really. We like to avoid waste, so when you give us your broken device we disassemble it and test all the parts. The parts that work, we put together with a new case and battery, and that’s your new, remanufactured device.”

I never did work out how that was different to refurbishment.

***

On the last day of training our teachers took us out of the high-rise office that had been our classroom, walked us across George Street, and asked us to turn and face the store. We spent the next few minutes in silence watching the store buzz with activity.

“This Apple Store is the most photographed building in Sydney after the Opera House and Harbour Bridge!” exclaimed our teacher.

I wondered how they came up with the figure.

***

A few weeks into my time working at the Genius Bar I was asked to serve a couple, heartbroken that their near-new iPad had stopped. I told them I was happy to replace the product—they picked up what I left unsaid, and immediately asked if the replacement would be new, or refurbished.

I told them it was remanufactured, they asked what that meant and I explained; they said they didn’t want a refurbished iPad. They insisted on a refund so they could buy a brand new one. Feeling guilty, I told them that their consumer law rights meant they were probably entitled to ask for one, but that I’d have to speak to a manager to arrange it.

My manager was unimpressed. She told me it wasn’t my place to give “legal advice” to customers. I should have stood my ground, she told me—despite the fact that Apple had, only a few weeks earlier, accepted a court enforceable undertaking from the ACCC to respect consumer rights.

Eventually we found a compromise; we told the customers to walk to the Dick Smith where they’d bought the iPad, and ask them for a refund instead.

Another happy customer.

Apple staff swear blindly that their replacement devices are as good as new. They’re not. Two-thirds of the devices I saw were our own replacement phones coming back to us—often the replacements we were giving out simply wouldn’t turn on.

***

If you’ve made it this far you’ve probably worked out the biggest secret to the Apple magic—it’s the same dull corporate viciousness as any other company, wrapped in anodized aluminium. My time with Apple was the greatest acting lesson I ever took.