The PII Blog

What Investigators Can Learn from an Apple Store

By Miles Grillo

Consider a customer visiting an Apple Store for a technical issue. They are usually upset or frustrated. The experience of having a device not work properly is one we all recognize as incredibly stressful. What follows is often a mini-investigation between the customer and an Apple staff person.

While it’s important not to trivialize the seriousness of investigative work, the expressions of frustration and stress in these retail situations are identifiable in witnesses, complainants, and respondents. Thus, the toolkit used in retail situations can be applicable in some interactions that investigators experience.

Typically, a frazzled customer simply says, “It isn’t working.” The staff person’s job is to help that customer feel comfortable and ask the right questions to get to a place of mutual understanding. Like investigators, Apple staff use a method of starting with broad questions and then focusing in on more important details as they build rapport.

Apple trains on a strategy called “The Three As: Acknowledge, Align, and Assure.” The Three As teach staff to acknowledge what a customer has expressed, align with the customer’s experience of that situation as difficult or frustrating, and assure the customer that they will work together to identify a solution. This strategy is highly effective for talking to people who are angry, frustrated, or emotional. I know this first-hand from my experience working at Apple Stores.

In practice, this might look like telling a customer whose desired iPad is sold out that you understand they are upset and that you would be frustrated to hear that as well, and then helping them sign up for emails tracking the stock levels at stores near them. Or telling a student that you recognize how important their computer is for finals and know how stressful it is to run into obstacles with a project, and then opening Microsoft Word together to check for recovered copies of their paper.

Some examples of when an investigator might rely on the Three As are interviewing a reluctant witness who is concerned about retaliation or interviewing a respondent who is very angry about being the subject of a complaint. With the witness, you could tell them you’ve noted their concerns about retaliation and that you understand why they have concerns, and then going over copies of the organization’s retaliation policies and telling the witness you’ve admonished the parties to follow those policies. With the respondent, you might say you understand their frustration, tell them you want to hear their account of the incident, and assure them your investigation will be fair and thorough.

The last of the As, assure, can be tricky for investigators because the witness is not actually a customer, and we are not in customer service. We are limited by policies, laws, and regulations in what assurances we can provide. But there is one thing we can assure them of: We will conduct a neutral and professional investigation that will seek to get to the bottom of whatever we are looking into. Communicating that commitment goes a long way toward giving interviewees a sense of confidence, both in the process and in us.

In fact, you would be surprised how often simply acknowledging a witness’s situation puts a party at ease and starts to build their trust. Think about this the next time you find yourself being emotionally disarmed by a salesperson who is employing similar techniques. You may be able to add their approach to your investigator toolkit.


Miles Grillo is an investigator at PII. He previously worked at several Apple Stores in California and Colorado.

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