Steve Jobs Calling: The Stuff of Customer Service Legend

Kevin Pedraja will be the first to admit he was just spouting off. Back in 2000, after an infuriating runaround with Apple about cracks in the plastic case of his shiny new Power Mac G4 Cube, Pedraja finally lost it and faxed a letter to Steve Jobs, threatening to use his professional PR skills to trash Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) name far and wide.

Someone got back to him right away and promised to ship out a new computer. Case closed, right?

One bleary-eyed morning shortly thereafter, Pedraja's cell phone rang. The caller claimed to be Jobs himself. Pedraja was certain it was a prank being pulled by his roommate, but he soon found his friend fast asleep -- and himself on the line with one of the titans of the tech industry.

When his replacement came, it still had the same cracks -- something that wound up being a widespread problem with that model. But Pedraja was turned around from complainer to advocate. And he had joined the surprising number of people who have reported a customer-service encounter with Jobs over the years.

As the business world and devoted consumers chew over the thought of Apple without Jobs at the helm, these kind of encounters fit into the larger psychic impression that Jobs leaves behind.

Of course, Jobs was surrounded by a large number of very talented people. And his first run through Apple didn't turn out so well. But in the second Jobs era, it was often observed that anything Apple put out felt like it came from one mind, with a singular, beautiful vision. That all-seeing eye was often presumed to be Jobs himself, a detail-obsessed, quirky genius.

It's hard to know whether calls like the one Pedraja received were at all orchestrated, or just random. Jobs has certainly continued reaching out directly when contacted -- now mostly by email, as in the infamous "you're holding it wrong" responses to complaints about the iPhone 4′s antenna.

But that kind of involvement from the highest levels certainly fits into the way many of us perceived Jobs the CEO -- intensely involved in even the smallest details. That's backed up by other stories from business associates, like this hilarious tale from Google's Vic Gundotra.

"How many CEOs would you imagine calling a random customer who complained about a product? It just doesn't make any sense," says Pedraja, who now works in Seattle as a VP for Sterling Communications. "But I took it as an indication of his commitment."

Should all CEOs take such a hands-on approach? As a PR pro, Pedraja says there's a reason that calls or emails from Steve Jobs are a remarkable event -- something like that is incredibly difficult to get right, even if you're not notoriously prickly, as Jobs is often described.

"Not every executive has the wherewithal to get on the phone with a customer and not come across as either very arrogant or very dismissive. And if you're not prepared to fix the problem for the customer, the CEO probably shouldn't call. I mean, he was actually calling to tell me I could have my money back," Pedraja says.

The downside of an approach that's too hands-off, however, is clear: Separation from reality, a feeling that someone else will take care of the details, and an over-reliance on bureaucracy. "That's how some companies end up being mediocre, because there isn't a consistent vision driving the company, and there isn't someone who demands the utmost of everything on every aspect of what the company does."

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Curt Woodward is senior editor at Xconomy Seattle. Reach me at cwoodward@xconomy.com. Get story feeds and more on Twitter @curtwoodward and Facebook on.fb.me/curtwoodward.

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