Maybe I’m a pathetic Seinfeld fanboy, but it occurred to me this week that each smartphone handset maker is exactly like a restaurant in the popular ’90s TV series.
Research In Motion, or RIM, which makes the BlackBerry line of phones, is like Seinfeld’s neighborhood coffee shop. RIM phones simply work. Nothing fancy, but they’re very popular, functional and great for every day.
Like Babu’s restaurant, Palm would be popular if it didn’t constantly change the menu, fail to innovate and offer people what they don’t want.
And then there’s Apple. The company is just like the “Soup Nazi” when it comes to both product quality and customer service.
Apple’s iPhone is great. Most people love it. Like the Soup Nazi’s soup, the iPhone is hot, tasteful and appealing. But buying one can be very unpleasant, just like buying soup from the Soup Nazi.
‘You want bread? Three dollars!’
After waiting 45 minutes, he told the AT&T rep he wanted to buy an 8GB iPhone 3G. He was told that in one month he would qualify for an upgrade, and thereby save $200. He was also told that once he upgraded, he would have to renew his contract for two years. Even if he paid the $200 and upgraded immediately, the contract would be reset.
The iPhone is the only phone that I’m aware of that resets the contract for an “upgrade.” Isn’t that why they call it an upgrade? You have your contract, and you’re simply upgrading the phone associated with that contract.
But Apple is different. Apple is special. Apple is ready to send potential customers packing if they don’t play by arbitrary rules that no other handset maker requires.
Of course, a new customer off the street gets the discounted price and the iPhone, both without waiting. My son could have pretended to be a new customer, but he’d have to pay an early termination fee on his contract and lose his phone number.
He didn’t like this arrangement, but really wanted an iPhone. So he decided to accept the one month wait and the requirement that his contract would start over. But he needed a phone. So he bought an unlocked HTC G1, the first Google Android phone, to use with his AT&T account for the next month. His intention was to sell it after the month was over.
It turns out he likes the HTC G1, and now intends to keep it instead of buying an iPhone. In terms of actual hardware, he prefers the iPhone. But HTC let him just buy a phone and use it immediately without penalties, contract resets or other hassles. It seems to him that it actually wants his business, so he’s sticking with HTC.
This experience reminded me of what my wife went through when she decided to buy an iPhone to replace her malfunctioning BlackBerry, an event I blogged about back in September.
Initially, the AT&T store rep told my wife (erroneously, it turns out) that she was ineligible to upgrade to an iPhone at any price. After spending several hours both at the store and on the phone with AT&T, it turns out that she was only eligible to upgrade to any phone in the entire AT&T inventory without penalty — except, of course, the iPhone. That would cost an extra $200.
Like my son did, she felt that the whole attempt to move over to an iPhone was so unpleasant, and Apple so arrogant, that she decided instead to just get a new BlackBerry.
Some commenters have claimed, by the way, that these are AT&T incompetencies and policies, not Apple’s. But you’ll note that while Apple lost two customers, AT&T didn’t lose any. At minimum, what is Apple doing about this unacceptable state of affairs? And why is the iPhone exceptional in so many ways?
‘No soup for you! Come back 18 months!’
An even more extreme example was reported on the Consumerist blog.
A guy named Ronny bought an 8GB iPhone recently. He loved it so much he returned it and bought a 16GB iPhone within 30 days of his initial purchase, which Apple and AT&T allow. Later, he lost the phone. He knew and accepted that he’d have to pay the full, undiscounted price for a replacement iPhone.
But guess what? AT&T refused to sell him one at full price or at any price. Because the company’s system shows that he’s been through three phones, he’s been flagged as an evil doer, an unlocker. It informed Ronny that he would be welcome to come back and buy an iPhone in 18 months!
Can you think of any other company that refuses to sell its product to a loyal fan based on a flimsy assumption that he’s breaking its rules?
What does Apple gain?
I’m not the first person to notice the resemblance of Apple and the Soup Nazi. The comparison has been made based on the experience of some developers wanting to write applications for the iPhone.
A podcast called “The Typical PC User Podcast” complained in one episode back in 2005 that an Apple Store manager acted like the Soup Nazi when he wanted to return his iPod because it got scratches, even though he didn’t abuse it in any way.
Like the Soup Nazi, the line of loyal customers for the iPhone goes out the door and down the street. Apple’s arrogance and hostility doesn’t seem to hurt them… yet.
So whatever happened to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, anyway? Well, he angered one customer — Elaine — so badly that she sought revenge by publishing his soup recipes. So he packed up and moved to Argentina.
The morale of the sitcom for Apple is that when you abuse your customers, some of them will seek revenge when the opportunity presents itself, instead of simply being what they wanted to be in the first place: Happy iPhone customers.