Johnson and Jobs wanted ambassadors whose ostensible role was not to sell products – uniquely, Apple store employees receive no commission – but to create positive customer sentiment and repair trust in the brand when it broke.
In 1984, a group of professors at Harvard Business School published a book, Managing Human Assets, aimed at updating workplace organization for a new era.
Previously, the book argued, labor discipline could be achieved in a relatively straightforward top-down manner, but now it required something else. “The limitations of hierarchy have forced a search for other mechanisms of social control,” the authors said. The mechanisms they proposed consisted, at root, of treating employees as nominal stakeholders in business success, but within narrow limits that would increase rather than challenge shareholder profitability.
How do you create an engaged, happy, knowledgeable workforce that can pass, however implausibly, as an entire battalion of geniuses in towns across the country? More importantly, how do you do all of that without the stick of the authoritarian boss or the carrot of a juicy commission?
Apple’s solution was to foster a sense of commitment to a higher calling while flattering employees that they were the chosen few to represent it. By raising the bar of admission, crafting a long series of interviews to weed out the mercenary or misanthropic, Johnson soon attracted more applicants than there were posts. Those keen enough to go through the onerous hiring process were almost by definition a better “fit” for the devotional ethos of the brand, far more receptive to the fiction that they weren’t selling things but, in an oft-repeated phrase, “enriching people’s lives”, as if they’d landed a job at a charity.
“When people are hired,” Johnson explained, “they feel honored to be on the team, and the team respects them from day one because they’ve made it through the gauntlet. That’s very different from trying to find somebody at the lowest cost who’s available on Saturdays from 8 to 12.”
While not the lowest, the cost of these eager staff was still low – relative to industry averages, to the amount they made for the company, and to the $400m that Johnson earned in his seven years at Apple.
Lower wages also had another, less obvious effect. As Apple store managers explained to the New York Times, the lack of commissions meant that the job didn’t pay well enough to support those with dependents: older workers were functionally excluded from representing the brand without the need for a formal policy – or the attendant specter of discrimination lawsuits that it would raise.
Products are clapped, customers waiting overnight to buy them are clapped, their purchases are clapped, claps are clapped. Clap, clap, clap. “My hands would sting from all the clapping,” said one manager. Claps, cheers, performances of rapturous engagement provided, by design, a ready-mixed social glue to bind teams together, reaffirming both the character of the brand and employees’ cultish devotion to it.