Congratulating Mr Jobs on his clarity and tetchiness
The customer need not always be king, especially when he or she is behaving like a spoilt, tiresome brat, writes LUCY KELLAWAY
LAST WEEK, at the very moment I was writing a column praising Apple for its plain way with words, Steve Jobs was entering into an e-mail exchange with a young woman that took plainness to a whole new level.
Chelsea Isaacs, a student from Long Island University, had got in touch with the Apple press office to get some information about the iPad for a paper she was writing. Six times she tried, but no response. So she e-mailed the chief executive to complain.
“Mr Jobs, I humbly ask why Apple is so wonderfully attentive to the needs of students, whether it be with the latest, greatest invention or the company’s helpful customer service line, and yet, ironically, the media relations department fails to answer any of my questions which are, as I have repeatedly told them, essential to my academic performance.”
Mr Jobs replied: “Our goals do not include helping you get a good grade. Sorry.”
Chelsea composed another long message in which she argued that Apple should have answered out of common courtesy.
This time he responded: “Nope. We have over 300 million users and we can’t respond to their requests unless they involve a problem of some kind. Sorry.”
So she pointed out she was a customer and did have a problem.
He replied: “Please leave us alone.”
It is just possible that Mr Jobs himself didn’t write these e-mails. Indeed, Apple’s media relations department has no more replied to queries on that score than they have to Chelsea’s.
Yet whether he did or not, the world is judging him badly. “Profoundly unhelpful,” says the Guardian. Various Apple-hating readers have gloatingly forwarded the exchange to me, inviting me to swallow my words of praise.
But I’m not going to swallow them. I’m going to spit out some more. Steve Jobs may be a slightly unpleasant piece of work, scary and arrogant. But if these messages are his, I congratulate him on his clarity, his tetchiness and on being entirely in the right.
Chelsea is to be congratulated, too. By goading the head of Apple, she has unwittingly stumbled on a much better topic for a journalistic paper than some nonsense about the iPad.
The first lesson is about brevity. Her initial message was 473 words. His was 12. His words were short and sharp and easy to understand. Hers less so. Even in the one unwieldy sentence quoted above, she makes three elementary mistakes.
She uses the word “humble” when she isn’t. She refers to irony when there is none. And sarcasm is always a mistake in an e-mail, especially if you are trying to get your own way.
The next lesson is that it is okay for a CEO to be rude to a customer. The customer need not always be king, especially when he or she is behaving like a spoilt, tiresome brat. So long as the rudeness doesn’t involve a loss of dignity and it isn’t being used, Michael O’Leary-style, as a tiresome stunt to get attention for Ryanair, then it is fine.
Moreover, in this particular case, Mr Jobs’s grumpiness was in the public interest. He was making a vital, though unfashionable, point about priorities. If I were an Apple shareholder I’d be reassured to know that the company’s top priority did not include helping out Chelsea.
The point needs to be made harshly, because modern students simply don’t get it. I often get e-mails from them saying: “I’m doing an essay on marketing. Can you please send me everything you’ve written on this subject?” Next time I’m going to tell them straight: “No, I can’t. It’s not my job.”
When Mr Jobs was a student, if he needed help I daresay he did what we all did back then: ask a teacher, or work it out yourself. But Chelsea’s generation has been duped by the self-esteem movement into believing its development is a matter of general concern, and then duped some more by the internet, which has taught it that the world is democratic and it can have everything right now.
Alas, these beliefs sit so deep, that Mr Jobs’s forceful messages have not struck anywhere near home: Chelsea was last week still indignantly waiting for the busy head of one of the world’s most remarkable companies to say sorry.
“I have nothing against him,” she said magnanimously. “I hope he gives me a call.”
I trust she will have to wait an eternity for that call, and in the meantime will grow up and get a job and discover that working life is not a democracy and there is a hierarchy, and being just a little humble isn’t a bad way to start.