An Unusual Apple Customer Service Fumble With iPhone 4S Return For Exchanges

iPad 2 Launch Apple Store Friendswood, TX. (Credit: David W. Martin)

Here’s a story I feel is worth telling about Apple customer service. Generally Apple’s customer service is the best, but every so often a customer service issue comes up and Apple falls flat on its face. This story is about one of those times and how my complaint may have gotten Apple to make changes in their iPhone retail return policies that will benefit future Apple customers that find themselves in my situation.

I am like most loyal and long-term Apple customers. I  am interested in a new iPhone release so naturally I ordered one to be shipped directly to me as soon as I could order one. I ordered an iPhone 4S 32GB AT&T model in black from Apple’s online store on October 7th with expected delivery on launch day — October 14th, 2011.

As expected the iPhone 4S arrived via UPS on launch day, but by then I had buyers remorse and I had decided that I wanted the 64GB model instead. No problem I thought I’ll just exchange it at the local Apple Store.  So I grabbed the unopened iPhone 4S and headed over to the local brick and mortar Apple Store at Baybrook Mall in Friendswood, Texas.

I arrived at the store and stated my intent to exchange the iPhone 4S for a different model to the staff on hand. There was a line still, but it wasn’t very long yet I was told I had to get a ticket for the 64GB model I wanted and that I had to stand in that line. I managed to get the “golden” ticket that would guarantee my being able to get the 64GB iPhone 4S and I was again directed by store staff to stand in line. I stood in line for over two hours and I was finally allowed into the store. This is where things went south.

I explained to the store staff that I wanted to exchange the unopened 32GB model for a 64GB model. They told me at the time that since I purchased it from the Apple online store that they could not return or exchange the phone. I was surprised, expressed my disbelief and pressed the store personnel to rethink their stance on the matter. They wouldn’t budge.

Well I left the store shocked, surprised and a bit angry for having my afternoon wasted and for being mislead by the store staff. However, things got considerably worse when I contacted the Apple Store online.

They told me that the entire process to return and exchange my iPhone 4S would take two to four weeks. Yes you heard me right the whole process could take as long as a month. Well that wasn’t good since I’d sold my iPhone 4 and I couldn’t be without a phone for two weeks let alone a month. I rely on it a lot for calls, business and earning income. However, that was the best option they had to offer. I was beginning to wonder about Apple at this point, because none of this is their standard fare for customer service.

So I did what any savvy consumer would do — I started writing letters. First, I wrote to Tim Cook and I received a response from his Executive Relations Team that wasn’t very helpful. They basically said the same thing that the retail store said I could only exchange or return the phone through the online store. I reached out to Ron Johnson before he left Apple for JC Penny and I didn’t get a response.

A week or so later the local retail store, that I had all the initial trouble with, called to tell me that they wanted to take care of this matter for me. I was a bit surprised. I told them at this point that since I had been ignored and that I hadn’t gotten an answer in my favor I did something I loath doing. I had filed a civil suit in Small Claims court. I don’t take doing this lightly, but when you want to get a corporations attention this will get it. I know this from past experiences with Sony and Verizon Wireless. Although I never asked my guess is that this is why the store was calling to try to fix things.

I told the store my story again, told them where I was at with the civil suit and that although I was still interested in getting the iPhone 4S I wanted I was no longer interested in paying the $108.00 difference for it. Especially after all the trouble I went to in the first place.


This is the point where I got the customer service I’d expect from Apple. They offered to get me a new iPhone 4S 64GB version of the model I had even though I had opened the one I got on launch day and I was well past the 30 day return policy. However, problems with AT&T, my cellular account and other factors made things complicated. I had to go to an AT&T store to get my new iPhone 4S. No problem for me since I didn’t care how it was handled only that it got handled properly.

I headed to the AT&T corporate store located near the Friendswood, Texas Apple Store  to complete the transaction. Prior to my arrival an Apple Store manager actually went over to the AT&T store with the $108.00 difference in cash. An AT&T representative used it to pay the difference on my replacement iPhone 4S.

I left happy knowing that the customer service I’m usually used to getting from Apple was still there, but even better AT&T surprised me too. AT&T hasn’t done well lately in ratings for cellular services, but this time they did well. Apple and AT&T retail both get gold stars for how they handled my exchange, but I just wish it had been easier and that it had taken place a lot sooner than it did.

So I finally got the iPhone 4S that I really wanted. What did you get? Well what you got was the right to return or exchange the iPhone that you might be thinking about buying from the Online Store at an Apple brick and mortar store. Simply put if you purchase your iPhone from Apple’s Online Store you’ll be able to return or exchange it at any local Apple store without the hassles I had to go through. Apple has basically updated their point-of-sale and inventory systems to accommodate this very basic customer need. I don’t think that this would have happened if I hadn’t complained as loudly as I did.

According to Apple employees I spoke to the new return and exchange program was implemented around the 4th of December. I’ve checked with a few local stores, one in California and one in New York and after speaking to employees at these locations it looks like the changes really were implemented. However, in one case the old policy was allegedly in place. Regardless of the circumstance the biggest thing to remember is — don’t give up! Reach out and make your voice heard. You might eventually get what you want.

I did and I not only got the iPhone 4S with the memory capacity I wanted I also got one with a screen that wasn’t defective. The latter was a complete and unexpected surprise.


About David W. Martin

David W. Martin has more than 20 years of experience in the industry as a programmer, systems and business analyst, author, and consultant. David has written for CNET's iPhoneatlas.com, MacLife.com, CultofMac.com and BYTE.com. He has a deep knowledge and passion for the all things Apple. Follow David on Twitter @david_w_martin.
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