I stopped into Babies Backwards R Us this weekend, and at the counter buying my merchandise, I was reminded about something that frustrated me with a completely different business a few months ago: Apple. It bothered me so much that I almost butted into a conversation I wasn't a part of, and kind of wish I had now that I'm writing this. You see, over the Christmas holidays, my Apple TV -- which had been giving me constant trouble with failing to connect to my iTunes account, failing to connect to my PC, and other issues -- completely bricked itself. It was the night that my whole week off was about to start, and we were going to settle into some movie watching. I applied the most recent update when Apple TV asked me to, and...nothing. I got the "plug this thing into a PC with a connector that you don't own" screen, and there would be no TV watching, no music serving, no nothing for a whole week, because the next day was Christmas, and I couldn't get anything replaced or looked at.

After the break, I took my Apple TV to the store. I just wanted a new one. Granted, I knew that it was about a month out of warranty. But I also knew several things. One, I've been a pretty good Apple customer, having bought an Apple TV, an iPod (two of them, actually, since I accidentally dropped one into a cup of coffee), an iPhone, an iPad, and did almost all of my movie, music, and TV show purchases through iTunes. And two, I knew that Apple had a reputation for being pretty reasonable about replacing broken stuff, especially since my Apple TV only broke after applying an update that clearly bricked it.

But the "genius" at the bar explained to me that it was out of warranty, and they would only replace it if I had paid for the extended warranty, which I hadn't. Otherwise, I would have to pay $60 for them to repair it, and even then they couldn't guarantee it would work. I explained to them that I had had many problems with this Apple TV, and that I wasn't trying to scam anyone out of any money -- I had paid $100 for it, and I simply wanted to exchange it for one that worked. He continued to repeat the policy at me. Not once did he actually tailor his response to my specific situation, or attempt to talk to me as a thinking person. He just quoted the policy at me. I explained that I could go out and spend $60 on a Roku box instead, and take the hundreds and hundreds of dollars of iTunes purchases with me that Apple would never see again. And again, he quoted the policy.

I ended up walking out of that store and calling Apple customer service. And again, I got the policy quoted at me, this time with an annoyed edge, as if the person really thought I was trying to scam them out of something. When I hung up empty-handed, I ended up writing a long letter to Tim Cook about my experience. I wasn't angry that they didn't give me an Apple TV. What I was angry about was that one of my favorite companies, known for its attention to detail and customer service, had failed to give me the user experience that I had come to expect from the company. And it had failed because it committed a crime I see happen so often now at businesses: it didn't empower the employee to really look at the customer as a person and say, you know what? It's not going to cost us that much to make this person happy, and that's going to end up paying back in multiples. So why don't I just go ahead and get her what she needs?

In the end, someone from Apple who called "on behalf of Tim Cook" (rather impressive) ended up calling me. They said they really liked my letter and really took it to heart, and they ended up making everything right regarding my experience and my Apple TV.

I saw this happening again at Babies R Us. I know the company isn't known for a high level of customer service or satisfaction like Apple is. But it made me think of how much they would gain in those areas by improving on things like the interaction I witnessed.

A harried and stressed mother came into the store and had a baby monitor out of the box that she wanted to return. She said that from day one it never worked, and she just wanted a new one. The sales clerk -- with a patter that belied how much she'd memorized this -- explained the return policy to her: it was something like 45 days, and after that they could only do some kind of partial compensation. The customer explained that she didn't live anywhere near a Babies R Us, and got it back in June.

The salesclerk repeated the exact spiel she just gave her. Without any change, or without addressing her situation. The customer looked at her blankly. I would have, too, because the customer gave her a situation and the clerk replied with something that didn't do anything to address what she was asking about at all. So the customer, exasperated, looked at her and said, "so, am I out of luck?"

What did the sales clerk do? She again repeated the exact spiel. She never once answered her question. She never said, "I'm sorry, ma'am." She simply repeated the same speech a third time.

Watching this, I felt horrible for the customer. She was asking the clerk if someone could help her, and the clerk wasn't answering her question at all.

I really wanted to pipe up and say, "look, she's asking you a question. She's a customer, and she has a concern, and she's asking if you're going to help her. The answer is clearly 'no', but you refuse to own up to that answer. So you're just repeating useless information at her like a robot, and clearly giving the term 'customer service' a bad name. It would cost your company almost nothing to simply walk over to the shelf and replace the product she just wanted to work, but instead you're completely ignoring her right to her face, three times in a row. If you can't or won't help her, just say so."

I didn't say it, but I wish I had. In the end, the sales clerk cheerfully went off to find the manager when the customer asked for one, probably because she could finally walk away from this situation in which she wasn't allowed to do anything but repeat the return policy when people asked. Because that is surely what's happening, and it's what angers me about the way companies have gone in customer service. If this had been a small store run by a family or small business person, it's almost a guarantee that the person behind the counter would have happily helped the woman. Because when you have a direct connection to the business you run, you know that the cheap monitor will be paid back in dividends by solid customer service. No one at tiny, mom-and-pop hardware stores ever turns a customer away when a tool doesn't work if they're a little bit past the return policy date. It would be foolish.

But many companies don't empower their employees anymore. In fact, it's actively discouraged. Employees are frequently paid barely minimum wage and given rigid guidelines to do their job, so that they don't need to hire anyone who can think or evaluate anything -- anyone could do the job, so anyone fits the bill. But when companies hire people who are given some incentive to care about the company they work for and the customers they serve, the improved user experience of customer service would pay back in dividends.