Decoding the Genius Bar: A former employee shares insider secrets for getting help at the Apple Store

Whether you broke your iPhone or you need to learn how to edit video on your Mac, the Apple Store has services to assist. Here are tips to navigate it from a former employee.

The Apple Store in Grand Central Terminal.
Image: Sarah Tew/CBS Interactive

The Apple Retail Store can be a confusing place. Stainless steel and bright lights frame modern furniture and a deluge of screens. For Apple fans, it's mecca. For first-timers, it can appear chaotic and intimidating.

Apple routinely tops the list of highest retail earners per square foot, and for good reason. The stores are well-designed and the products are in-demand. Nevertheless, it can take a few visits to really understand what is actually going on.

As a former Apple Retail employee, I loved working at the Apple Store. My colleagues were fantastic and I met some of the most wonderful customers, but there were numerous times when I had to explain how the store works.

The store itself is broken down into three sections:

1. The "Red Zone" (for sales)

2. The "Family Room" (for creative training and mobile technical support)

3. The "Genius Bar" (for computer technical support)

The Genius Bar is technically part of the Family Room, but for sake of clarity I will refer to them as separate areas, and I will be breaking down each section to help you better understand the Apple Store experience; but let's start with the Genius Bar.

The Genius Bar

The Genius Bar is the most contentious aspect of the Apple Retail experience. It has earned much lauding, but it has also been jabbed at by popular television shows such as The Big Bang Theory. In reality, the Genius Bar is an unparalleled retail service in the tech industry. According to Gartner research vice president Van Baker, the Genius Bar is a major part of the value proposition for Apple Retail.

"There is one thing that I think really differentiates the Apple Store. They give away their most valuable offering, namely the support," Baker said. "The Genius Bar is a real differentiator for the stores and the fact that it is free really sets the stores apart from the other offerings in the industry.

"The quality of the support is far superior to competitive retailers in the market. There are other features of the retail stores that one can call out but they pale in comparison to the Genius Bar feature."

The first thing to remember about the Genius Bar is that you always need an appointment. Think about it like any other specialty service you employ. You wouldn't walk into your doctor's office off the street and expect them to see you immediately. You can make an appointment online with your computer or phone from your specific store's webpage. Appointments are for a set amount of time (usually 15 minutes), so if you have multiple issues to address, or you think your problem is serious, make a second appointment in the next, adjoining timeslot.

Pro tip: Always back up the device you are bringing in for service. Appointments are for a set amount of time, and backing up at the store limits the time a Genius can spend with you.

The second rule of utilizing the Genius Bar is to be a decent human being. Contrary to popular belief, raising your voice will not get you better service. Trust me, they understand that your device is one of the most important material possessions you own, but that truth resonates with every other person who needs help, not just you. Calm down, check your ego, and recognize that this is a computer we are talking about here, not a heart transplant.

If you are a business customer, consider signing up for Apple's Joint Venture program. That will get you priority access to tech support, including loaner machines if yours is being worked on. You can also get access to training for your business team.

Whether you are a business customer or a regular consumer, the ultimate thing to remember about the Genius Bar is the fact that it is a place to get technical support, not training. If you want to learn how to use the software or become more proficient with your device, you need to head back out to the Family Room.

An Apple Store in San Francisco.
Image: James Martin/CNET

The Family Room

The Family Room comprises two types of Apple employees, those who provide creative training and those who provide mobile support. For mobile support, the process is the exact same as the Genius Bar, except for where your appointment takes place. You still need to make an appointment online, and you should still refrain from screaming at the staff.

Mobile support is done by employees called Family Room Specialists, and they will more than likely take your appointment somewhere in the Family Room to free up the Genius Bar for Macs. There will be an employee with an iPad somewhere in the Family Room that can check you in for any type of appointment. This is a critical step because if you don't check in and let the employees know you are in the store, they will cancel your appointment.

Pro tip: If you are bringing your phone in because you dropped it in the toilet, make the employee aware of this fact before they take possession of the phone. Nobody wants to barehand a toilet phone.

Apple mobile products commonly come with a one year warranty that covers defects in the product itself, and 90 days of complimentary AppleCare phone support. It's worth noting that the standard warranty does not cover physical damage or liquid damage, so if you want to protect yourself from those things you need to opt for the AppleCare+ coverage.

Broken phones are drama producers in the Apple Store. It's understandable to be upset when your phone is broken, but yelling obscenities at an employee won't increase your chances of them being empathetic to your cause. When you bring a broken iPhone into the store, it will play out in one of four ways:

1. If the phone's screen is cracked, the employee will present you with the option of replacing the screen for a set cost, which will be done in store.

2. If your phone is physically damaged or presents signs of liquid damage, the phone will need to be replaced. If you have AppleCare +, you can replace it twice within the time frame for $79 plus tax.

3. If you do not have AppleCare +, you can replace it with a refurbished phone for a set cost.

4. Or, you can always buy another new phone outright.

Here is how phone purchases work. When you purchase a 16GB iPhone through your carrier, you typically pay $199 if you have an available upgrade. The thing is, the retail cost of that phone isn't $199, it is $649. Your carrier will happily eat that $450, because they know they have you on the hook for hundreds of dollars each month for the next two years; but that cost reduction is usually only available each upgrade cycle. So, when you come in with a broken phone and want a new locked carrier phone for the same price, you are asking Apple to eat that $450 profit instead of the carrier, and they aren't going to do that. Keep this in mind so you have realistic expectations when you go to get your phone fixed.

If you are going to the Apple Store to learn how to use your products, you might come in contact with a Creative. Creatives are employees who are certified in Apple's software applications and can train you on things like making a movie with Final Cut, or on simple things like organizing your pictures. Customers can get access to Creative training with the purchase of a One to One membership.

A One to One membership costs $99 and is only available with the purchase of a new Mac. One to One members receive access to a portal where they can sign up for personal or group training. One to One members also get the option of having the Genius team transfer all of their data from their old machine (Mac or PC) to their new one.

It's up to you whether or not you think it's worth it, but if you are new to computers or tend to ask a lot of questions, I would recommend that you purchase this service. Apple Store employees are happy to answer your questions, but pulling them away from customers so you can ask an in-depth question isn't very considerate of other customers' time.

If you don't feel like purchasing One to One, or you just need more general help getting started, most Apple Retail Stores offer free workshops that go over the basics and help you get started. Bigger, standalone, stores have dedicated areas for trainings, but some of the smaller stores hold trainings in the Red Zone.

The Red Zone

The Red Zone is Apple's sales floor. When you first enter the store, there will be an employee at the front of the store who will direct you to the appropriate section of the store to address your needs. Do not ignore this person. I can't tell you how many times a customer blew past me and walked straight to the Genius Bar asking to buy a phone. Engage the person at the door; it will keep you from looking like an idiot and you'll probably get the help you need more quickly.

There are two types of employees in the Red Zone, specialists and experts. Specialists are general employees who can sell most of the products, while experts are specially trained and certified to know everything about a specific product line. So, if you have some complex questions about the current Mac OS, ask to be connected to a Mac Expert. None of the Apple employees in the Red Zone work on commission.

There are a few different ways to make purchases in an Apple Retail Store. If you make a purchase through an employee, they will scan the item and take payment on their modified iPod known as an EasyPay. They can take cash, but you will need to walk to a cash drawer with the employee to get change.

If you aren't purchasing an expensive device you can make a purchase through your phone using the EasyPay functionality of the Apple Store app on your iPhone. You must have location services enabled for this app, and you have to be on the store's Wi-Fi, but you can scan a barcode with the phone's camera and pay through the credit card attached to your Apple ID. You can also order a device to pick up in the store with the Personal Pickup option.

Pro tip: Avoid the children's area at all cost, as a child has probably relieved him or herself there. These areas are cleaned and sanitized daily but, still, kids can be disgusting.

Once you have purchased a product, you have the option to have an employee help you set the device up before you leave the store. If this is your first Apple product, it is a good chance to get to know your device and make sure you don't have to walk through the initial setup alone. If you want to go ahead and sign up for your first One to One training, or a workshop, the employee can help you with that too.

Apple Stores can be busy, especially around the holidays or back-to-school, so be patient. I know it looks like there are a ton of employees in the store, but everyone has a different role to play. If the store is packed, there will be someone trying to connect customers with employees. Be clear about what you want and understand that it might take a few minutes to get the right person to help you out.

Apple has done a fantastic job with the retail experience they have created. Going into an Apple Store you will get the help you need, but it starts with having the right expectations. Employees genuinely want to help, but their job can be taxing too. The first time you meet an Apple Retail employee, it's safe to assume they have already been berated that day by a privileged suburbanite, so take it easy on them.

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