An Apple a day keeps outsourced support away

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Sydney reseller AppleCentre Taylor Square is aiming squarely at support -- the demon that bedevils sales -- by beefing up customer service with a new training centre and customer lounge adjoining its main store.

Ben Morgan, director at AppleCentre Taylor Square, said the taylorsquareacademy initiative, tipped to open early July, was part of his four-year plan for the reseller, which he will have owned for four years come May.

“We have been growing sales but finding it very difficult to retain those customers and stop those customers from running around [to other stores or service providers],” Morgan said.

He said that IT was increasingly complex and end-users needed more support. Yet sales staff tended to be too busy, untrained and unrewarded for post-sales customer service and the only help was frequently through some outsourced vendor support centre in India.

taylorsquareacademy would give customers access to “qualified, certified, professionals” -- not sales staff -- who would train the customers up on their new purchases and provide support onsite, he said.

“There are no resellers doing this here in Australia, and I think the reason is a lot of the [Apple] dealers are struggling as it is,” Morgan said. “But we are putting our bets on this horse, and I'm positive it is going to win.”

Personalised service had long been a Holy Grail for many businesses. Customers always wanted it, everybody talked about it, but nobody really knew how to deliver it, he said.

Apple in the US had offered similar Mac academies but often charged customers, who had maybe already paid thousands for a computer, extra for the privilege. “That's un-Australian,” Morgan said. “In the US, they have these Taj Mahals of stores ... that play a big part in getting customers.”

AppleCentre Taylor Square's facility would be in a separate, two-storey building next to the store, lengthening the brand's total Flinders Street frontage to 350 metres. It would have a theatrette with space for 15 permanent seats, 15 collapsible seats and workstations to cater for an average class size of 10 to 25 customers wanting help with their Apple purchases, he said.

He said the support and training, valued at around $1,800 for a year, would be offered -- including 40 minutes' access to support free of charge each week -- to each store customer, with annual facility memberships also available for around $49.

Morgan was planning for a team of 10 full-time trainers to support the facility, up from three full-timers and six part-time. “We're calling for part-time skilled trainers in all fields,” he said.

Staff with Macromedia, Adobe and Microsoft expertise and certification would be needed. Skills relating to other brands would be brought in over time, he said, as qualified certification would be a big part of the initiative.

He said that AppleCentre Taylor Square was more suited to such an initiative since its customer mix differed from that of many other Apple resellers. Many were about 70 percent consumer-based -- but Morgan's store had an approximately equal share in consumer, SMB and education customers, he argued.

“Microsoft was most excited. Traditionally, they are very eager to see us provide certification training on all their products,” Morgan said. “Where in Australia can you go to get Microsoft certification for the Mac? If you can, put your hand up, because no one's heard of you.”

The theatrette would also have a cinema-grade projector and THX surround sound, with a view to renting it out in the evenings to community groups for such events as short film festivals or other digital presentations, he added.

“We're right in the creative heart of Sydney,” Morgan said. “This is going to create a cult following. There will be the die-hard Mac community who will use this place like it's home.”

A customer lounge would offer apple juice and iPod listening facilities. Wireless internet would also be available, Morgan said.

The company had grown 850 percent in the last three years and hoped to grow faster as a result of the new facility, he said, which would in itself help fund it. He would not say how much the company was investing in the plan, but said that it was less than $250,000.

“The gamble is that we're going to strip-mine a lot of our competitors,” Morgan said.

Adam Steinhardt, MD at rival Apple reseller Next Byte, said a market for Apple training had always been there.

“But it is hard to make work without a large commitment. It will be interesting to see how it goes,” Steinhardt said.

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