Leap years have been a fixture of the Julian calendar since it was put into effect in 45 BCE. A recent customer service failure shows Apple still isn’t quite clear on the concept.
It started innocuously enough. The rear-facing camera and flashlight on my older kid’s hand-me-down iPhone 8 Plus suddenly stopped working. I scheduled an Apple Store appointment for the next day. Once there, an Apple employee rapidly confirmed the problem, said the part was in stock, and estimated that the repair might take an hour.
The only problem? Apple’s internal systems showed that the iPhone’s warranty had expired 2 days earlier, on 29 February 2020.
However, it shouldn’t have expired at all—I had seen an $8.80 charge appear on that date for the recurring monthly extension of AppleCare+. Apple began offering an indefinite extension of AppleCare late last year (see “Is Your AppleCare+ Expiring? You Can Now Renew It,” 19 September 2019). I had purchased AppleCare+ for this iPhone 8 Plus, and when I upgraded to an iPhone 11 Pro for research purposes (“Sure, dad, for research…”) my older kid got the iPhone 8 Plus and its ongoing warranty.
I showed the Apple Store guy my credit card app, but the charge appeared as “Pending” and didn’t include a reference to AppleCare+, just Apple. He asked if I had a receipt, but I download all my email instead of storing it on a server, so I couldn’t produce one on my iPhone. But surely Apple would know about my AppleCare+ extension—an employee at an Apple Store should be able to check, no?
He went off to consult and came back. No luck. He said as long as the records he could access didn’t show the warranty was active and I didn’t have a receipt in hand, I’d either have to pay for the repair or come back.
I suspected the leap day. A 20-minute call to Apple Support later confirmed my suspicion. A person in billing there was able to verify that my warranty was active and confirm the charge was pending but not rejected. He said that the Apple Store should have honored the warranty, and noted that problems like mine were a common call for the day, due to a billing error clearly caused by leap day.
Apple has long had trouble with handling dates. In just the last few years, the 1970 date bug bricked iOS devices when it cropped up in early 2016, the iOS reset loop bug seemed date-related in December 2017, Macs suffered from the High Sierra wrong time zone bug, and Mac OS 8’s Y2K20 bug earlier this year threatened to cast computers running that version into the permanent past. Those are just Apple’s recent date-related blunders.
This particular problem would appear to be the fault of Apple’s back-end computer systems. Based on how fragile and inflexible everything is, I have a nagging suspicion that Apple still relies on ancient WebObjects code powered by exhausted hamsters. Somehow, Apple Store employees can’t see the system that Apple Support phone reps can, nor can they retrieve a receipt sent to me as a customer. It’s weird for an Apple employee to ask me for a receipt generated in the company’s own system.
But the true issue is empowering employees to provide exemplary customer service. Apple doesn’t trust its store employees enough to give them the authority to say, “You know what, this is clearly messed up, so we’re going to authorize the repair, and if it turns out there’s a problem, we’re going to own that, too. We trust you, and we can see you’ve spent [a number that must exceed $100,000 after 34 years of buying Apple products] with us. So let’s go ahead and make you happy since it’s probably a glitch. Leap day! What a world!”
Just a few days ago, my wife and I, frustrated with United Airlines’ apparently broken system for booking international flights with frequent-flyer miles, spent an hour on the phone with the greatest customer service person in the world. When he heard our problem, he waived the $25-per-ticket phone fee, then proceeded to replicate our issue. Because it was United’s fault that we couldn’t complete an online booking, he put us onto flights with a similar route but that consumed far more miles (about 60% more) than the ones we could see on the site, but not book. We weren’t “charged” extra miles or additional fees, however.
United trusted this phone support rep much more than Apple trusts its store employees. And, yes, we got the United rep’s name and details, wrote a glowing recommendation email, and received a personal reply from his managers.
Apple’s tech support is routinely rated among the best in the industry because of how it solves problems. It would be nice if Apple extended trust and support to all its employees such that they could solve problems like this one, rather than leaving me and many others who ran afoul of a leap day bug unhappy.
When I got home from my failed appointment, I checked my locally stored mail. Sure enough, there was a receipt that showed me paid up through 30 March 2020.
I was also able to find another place the Apple Store employee hadn’t thought to have me look: in Settings > Your Name > Subscriptions on my account, not my kid’s, as I was paying for the warranty. That screen also showed the correct expiration.
My wife returned to the Apple Store the next day with two other phones needing service, the printed receipt, and a text from me showing the active subscription. It still required more than 10 minutes for her to convince them, even after she brought me in via speakerphone. Eventually, they relented and agreed to repair the iPhone 8 Plus under AppleCare+. The best part? One of the techs checked his own phone and discovered that its warranty was marked as expired, too, even though he too had a pending credit card charge!
Why my iPhone can know the warranty is active when an Apple Store database doesn’t, only the deep innards of Apple’s hoary code could reveal. But what this experience really reveals is that there are bugs in both Apple’s code and in the company’s customer service policies.