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Lessons all executives should know from a former Senior VP at Apple.

Do you remember when walking into an Apple Store was a fantastic customer experience? The iPhones, iPads and Apple gadgets looked great. The staff were attentive and helpful, enhancing the in-store experience. At the time, Apple Stores were unique in mass-market technology retailing.

The success is often attributed to one man. Bill Johnson may be an unknown name outside of the USA. But as Apple’s Senior VP of Retail Operations, it was Bill Johnson who transformed that customer experience in Apple’s stores. And a key element of that transformation was Apple’s own customer service acronym:

  • Approach customers with a personalized warm welcome
  • Probe politely to understand all the customer's needs
  • Present a solution for the customer to take home today
  • Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns
  • End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return

A.P.P.L.E. – simple, powerful acronym and amazingly effective in bringing about a positive transformation.

Unfortunately, the Bill Johnson story does not end well. In 2011, Johnson left Apple to become the CEO at another famous US-retailer, J.C. Penney.

For some reason – probably best known to himself – Johnson took an aggressive line with his transformation vision, undermining J.C. Penney’s culture, confusing his own employees and ignoring customers.

Management failures. Johnson immediately brought other outsiders to form the core of his executive team and top managers. The hoped-for revolution failed. It cost a staggering  $170 million, plus a dramatic fall in employee morale.

Competing cultures. The incoming, mostly ex-Apple managers created  a “sub-culture within a culture”. The newcomers failed to integrate and did not communicate effectively with other managers and employees.

An over-aggressive revolution. It is one thing to start a revolution. It is another thing do it by shocking people, when they are already suffering. Frightened people often hold on to what they know (policies, processes, relationships, etc.) not because it is best for them. They hold on to what they know because the fear of letting go and stepping into the unknown is too big. Executives leading turnaround transformations ignore this at their own risk.

Not listening to core customers. Johnson allegedly thought customers would come to J.C. Penney because the stores were “a fun place to hang out”. Apple stores may have had that kudos; J.C. Penney’s certainly did not. The customers wanted discounted prices. Johnson continually ignored this need.

It remains a classic case of a transformation gone wrong. At its core, the failure was trying to implement an almost identical copy of Apple’s formula for successes into the J.C. Penney world.

And yet, the solution was there for everyone to see. The transformation could have been hugely more successful if the incoming former Apple team had adapted their own acronym.

  • Approach managers, employees, stakeholders and customers on a personal level.
  • Probe politely to understand each stakeholder group’s needs. (This does not mean agreement; it means understanding – winning heads and hearts.)
  • Present a solution – the next steps for employees to implement “today” with a clear over-arching strategic direction.
  • Listen for and resolve any issues or concerns that stakeholders have. Spend time with people.
  • End with a fond farewell and an invitation to return and re-engage in the next phase of the transformation.

This approach to transformation has been used time and again, with great success. Why these simple, powerfully effective steps eluded Johnson and his fellow executives will forever remain a mystery.

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