Editor’s Note: This article is the first of a three-part series adapted from the new e-book “Letters to Steve: Inside the E-mail Inbox of Apple’s Steve Jobs,” written by CNN tech writer Mark Milian. He self-published the book on Amazon Kindle, and it is not affiliated with or endorsed by CNN.
Apple's Steve Jobs sometimes fielded customer service inquiries by e-mail
Jobs sometimes provided exceptional support but could also be cold
"I just wanted to apologize for your incredibly long wait," Jobs told one customer
Among chief executives, Steve Jobs was an outlier. CEOs of public companies are generally hands-on, but Jobs was involved in practically every detail, from determining which industries Apple should invade to the material used for the iPhone’s screen.
Jobs even got directly involved in customer service, which was a part of Apple’s business for which he exercised a great deal of attention and patience. He fielded e-mails about broken laptops and intervened on support calls.
By comparison, a representative for AT&T, Apple’s longtime carrier partner for the coveted iPhone, threatened a customer, who had twice e-mailed company CEO Randall Stephenson complaining about price hikes, with a cease-and-desist notice.
“I don’t think even Steve Jobs can spin 2 GB for $25/month as a good thing for the consumer,” the customer, Giorgio Galante, wrote in his recap, as reported by Wired, which is a CNN.com content partner.
Unlike other leaders, Jobs was not only handling an unusual number of his company’s own basic customer service inquiries, but he also fielded some of Stephenson’s, since AT&T and Apple were conjoined on various business interests relating to the iPhone and iPad.
When a customer asked Jobs via e-mail in 2008 why BlackBerry owners could tether their phones to their computers for wireless Internet access but the same could not be done with an iPhone, Jobs wrote, “We agree, and are discussing it with ATT.” The feature eventually came.
Asked about tethering an iPhone to an iPad on AT&T, Jobs replied only, “No.”
Jobs consoled another AT&T customer, Mark Trapp, who expressed his frustration over his cell carrier’s plans to discontinue unlimited data plans. “I think its (sic) going to work out just fine for almost all customers. Try it,” Jobs wrote, but he was less supportive in a message to another customer, Dennis Wurster, about the same matter: “It’s between you and ATT.”
Steve’s proclivity for responding to e-mails, and the reputation that came with that, made his inbox a prominent target for customers looking to overstep rows of supervisors to get broken computers replaced and generous credit for service outages. This approach intensified as his legendary reputation and Apple’s customer base grew.
Apple took notice and repurposed the messages to be used as data points for internal use, evidenced by a graph charting customer complaints about the ill-fated Internet service, MobileMe.
Long before that, however, Jobs was extraordinarily embedded in handling customer complaints. On October 11, 1999, not long after Jobs returned to a dying company and took on the title of interim CEO (or iCEO), he fielded an inquiry from a customer named David about iBook laptop shortages.
“We are doing the best we can with a limited supply (which is finally now increasing). Please remember that some of the first pre-orders came from CompUSA,” Jobs wrote.
Dozens of stories have floated around the Web about the times when an e-mail to Jobs yielded a phone call from an executive support team and an outcome that far exceeded reasonable expectations. In 1999, a customer got his G4 Tower desktop repaired after an e-mail to Jobs resulted in a phone call from the mysterious Executive Relations team.
In 2001, a student software developer was told by Apple support that, despite his sob story about dropping the hard drive connected to his laptop causing damage, they couldn’t resolve an issue that resulted from physical abuse. After writing to the CEO, he got a call from one of Jobs’ associates who asked him several questions and then tempered his expectations by saying similarly that he did not meet the standards for a comped repair.
But a month passed after he took his computer in for repairs, and there was still no charge from Apple. The customer recalled on an Internet message board: “I contacted the support people, and they said the charges had been waived by ‘someone higher up.’ Uncle Steve must be smiling on me.”
Jobs would not always grant customers’ wishes, and he certainly did not buy into the adage that “the customer is always right.”
For example, a customer complaining about Apple not honoring its warranty for his computer received the following response from Jobs in 2008: “This is what happens when your MacBook Pro sustains water damage. They are pro machines and they don’t like water. It sounds like you’re just looking for someone to get mad at other than yourself.”
Jobs didn’t often pick up the phone to go back and forth with customers, but at least one Apple customer, Scott Steckley, recalls a time when an e-mail to Jobs, explaining how there seemed to be no end in sight to his wait for a computer repair, was met with a phone call.
“Hi Scott, this is Steve,” Steckley recalled hearing from the other end of the phone.
“Steve Jobs?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Jobs said. “I just wanted to apologize for your incredibly long wait. It’s really nobody’s fault. It’s just one of those things.”
“Yeah, I understand.”
Then Jobs explained that he expedited the repair. “I also wanted to thank you for your support of Apple,” Jobs said. “I see how much equipment you own. It really makes my day to see someone who enjoys our products so much and who supports us in the good times and bad.”