Apple Tech Support Rating
Apple has prided itself on devoting a lot of attention to the tiniest details of its hardware and software, so it only makes sense for the company to apply the same fanatical focus on user experience to its tech support. Detailed Web pages, a stellar live-chat feature and friendly phone support that emphasizes answering your questions instead of keeping you on hold have helped Apple maintain its grip on the top slot in our annual tech support ranking.
When you buy a new Mac, you'll get 90 days of complimentary phone support to go with a yearlong warranty on your new hardware. (Most other manufacturers offer a year of phone support.) If you pay $249 for Apple Care, you can extend that warranty to three years while also receiving free phone support over that same period. The 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina display we used for testing is still covered by Apple Care, so we put Apple's tech-support savvy to the test with a trio of questions: How do I reverse the way scrolling works on my trackpad, how do I manage which photos appear in my iCloud Photo Library and how do I use the new feature in the OS X El Capitan version of Safari that lets me silence a single tab while letting audio play in another open tab?
Web and Social Support
Apple's support page is easy to find — a support link appears prominently on the company's home page — and just as easy to navigate. That may be a bit of a surprise for a company that sells such diverse products as watches, phones and laptops, but Apple wisely organizes the support site into sections for its major product lines. A More Products link below the six major categories (Apple Watch, iPhone, iPad, Mac, iCloud and iTunes) brings up even more options. It may seem a little overwhelming — do I select Mac, OS X or iCloud to ask a question about sharing photos? — but Apple has done an excellent job of making sure that all support roads lead to the same answer.
Select Mac from the list of topics, and Apple gives you more choices to narrow down your search (Mac Apps, OS X and Mac Hardware) and more choices after that when you pick a subtopic. It may sound like a lot of navigation through a topic tree — because it is — but the end result is that you should be able to track down answers to general questions fairly quickly. When researching a question on reversing trackpad scrolling, I selected Macs > Mac Hardware, followed by MacBook Pro. The New to the Mac link seemed promising, so I clicked that. I found an article on using multitouch gestures, and it didn't directly answer my question but pointed me to the proper system preference that had the answer I was looking for.
If that sounds like a lot of hunting and pecking, you can always use the search tool in the upper-right corner of the menu bar on Apple's website. When I was unable to find out more on how to mute audio on tabs in Safari, I typed in that search term, and the first link that came up was an article outlining how I could silence those autoplaying ads that plague my browsing.
Apple's Support Community also offers a handy way to get answers. Start typing in your question — for example, "How do I share photos in iCloud?" — and Apple will bring up a list of similar questions that other users have asked. If the suggested questions don't exactly match what you want to find out, you can submit your question and see if other users have an answer.
The most helpful tool on Apple's support site is a live-chat feature you can access through the contact support page. Provide your question and your Mac's serial number, and after roughly 20 to 30 seconds in which Apple reviews your request, a representative will start messaging you with potential fixes for your problem.
I spoke to Billie, a very personable tech support agent, at 1:54 p.m. PT on a Tuesday afternoon. After some pleasant small talk (I asked Billie how she was doing and learned that she was feeling "magically brilliant" that afternoon), we got down to the matter of figuring out how I could share the photos on my MacBook Pro to my iCloud library. Billie explained the differences between my iCloud Photo Library and a Photo Stream, and how I could create a shared album. Most importantly, she asked me if her explanations made sense. When I was satisfied with the answer, Billie offered to pass along a document explaining how to set up a shared photo album on iCloud. After I agreed, the download appeared right in my chat window. All told, I had an answer and a handy how-to document after 11 minutes and 41 seconds of chatter.
Apple's chat interface indicates when the other person is typing — a feature that's helpful for knowing that you aren't just shouting questions into the void. That said, when Billie was looking up answers to my questions, the chat window was understandably idle, so be prepared to exercise a little patience with Apple's chat. I also had some difficulty finding the feature when I selected specific topics, such as iCloud questions. I had better luck getting the chat option to appear when I selected the more generic Other Topics followed by a "topic is not listed" subcategory. I wish a feature as helpful as Apple's live chat were more prominently displayed.
If there's a downside to Apple's Web presence, it's the company's ongoing refusal to incorporate social media into its support arsenal. Apple has no official Facebook page, nor does it field tech support questions about its computers on Twitter. Very recently, Apple took its first tentative steps toward a social media tech support presence, setting up a Twitter account to field questions about its Apple Music service. But even that account directs you to Apple's support site if you have questions about any other Apple products.
Given how deftly Apple handles both Web and phone support, it's hard to tell the company that it's doing things wrong. Still, a bigger Apple presence on Facebook and Twitter would give Mac users another way to contact the company with concerns, and the lack of that resource keeps Apple from achieving a perfect grade for its online support.
Apple likely realizes that waiting is the hardest part, because it's taken steps to ensure that if you call for help, you will not spend a lot of time on hold. On the same contact page where you can initiate chat sessions, you can also schedule phone calls with Apple tech support. You have a few options: Apple can call you immediately, you can schedule a time for an Apple rep to call you or you can set an appointment to make the call at your convenience. In each case, you fill out contact information ahead of time, including the nature of your problem, so the tech support rep you talk to is prepared to answer questions.
The result? On my first call, I elected to have Apple call me back immediately to tell me how I could reverse the direction of scrolling on my trackpad. Roughly 10 seconds after I entered my phone number, my iPhone started ringing. An automated voice on the other end asked if I still wanted to speak with a live rep. After I pressed 1 to continue, it took another 10 seconds to connect with Mary, a very friendly tech support rep in Texas.
Mary walked me through the process of going to the Apple menu on the MacBook, launching System Preferences, finding the trackpad menu and adjusting my scrolling settings. The entire session took 3 minutes and 26 seconds, and would have been even shorter, had Mary not corrected me when I apologized for taking up her time with such a seemingly stupid question. "Don't say it's stupid," Mary told me. "It's very hard to find."
A second call, in which I scheduled to have Apple call back an hour after filing my question, was also swiftly dealt with, even if the callback came 6 minutes later than the appointed time of 10:45 a.m. PT. Again, an automated voice was on the other end of the line, asking if I still wanted to go through with the call or reschedule it. When I opted to proceed, the robo voice warned me about high call volumes — which was confusing, considering Apple was calling me — but I was connected to Darlene in less than 10 seconds.
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She wasn't familiar with the El Capitan-specific feature I asked about — which is understandable, since our conversation took place two weeks after the OS X update's release. But after putting me on hold for 1 minute and 16 seconds to research the problem, Darlene came back with everything I ever needed to know about muting tabs in Safari, and even fielded a follow-up question. Our call lasted 6 minutes and 5 seconds, hold time included.
Ah, but what happens when you call Apple unannounced? I gave that a try one evening at 7:01 p.m. PT, skipping the process of filling out any forms on Apple's support site and dialing up Apple's 800 number directly. Because I was calling from the phone number I had used on previous support calls, Apple's tech support recognized me. The automated voice asked if I was calling about my MacBook Pro and if this call was related to any previous issues I had contacted Apple about.
Still, I saw the benefits of giving Apple tech support a heads-up about the nature of my call after talking to Steven in Orlando, Florida. He was pleasant enough but spent a lot of time on our call looking up information to answer my questions about the iCloud Photo Library. We arrived at the right answer eventually, and Steven shared a pair of iCloud Photo Library documents that arrived in my inbox just as our 11:29 call concluded. The lesson here: Apple has set up a very solid system for logging your troubleshooting questions before you even dial a phone, so it's a good idea to make use of it.
Apple's phone lines are open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET, and you can schedule calls through 10 p.m. ET. For those 9 hours when phone support isn't available, you can turn to the live-chat feature on Apple's support site.
After many years of putting tech support services to the test, it's clear that Apple has this down to a science. The company's tech-support staff remains as personable as ever, and user-friendly features, like the ability to schedule support calls, may banish the dreaded hold music to the dustbin of history.
Apple could make its chat feature easier to find, and expanding its social media presence would give Apple's customers another avenue to reach the company. Perhaps the newly launched Apple Music Twitter account is a sign of things to come. Even if it isn't, though, it's hard to find much fault with Apple's tech support offerings, which set a standard that the rest of the industry would be well advised to follow.