According to newspaper reports this week, Apple is gearing up to provide systems inegration, networking and server assistance, and other technical support to small businesses through its retail stores.The Wall Street Journal's story pointed to recent Apple job postings that read, "Thousands of businesses run on Apple products. Many more would like to, and that's where you come in."
Apple, as usual, had no official comment on the matter, but the Journal spoke with two Apple employees who claimed knowledge of the initiative. According to them, each of the company's nearly 300 retail stores already has a salesman specifically tasked with working with local businesses. In addition, the company is also paying more attention to negotiating leasing and pricing terms for business customers. By working through the stores, the company can establish a relationship with local businesses that make purchases directly.
One group of small businesses is worried about the initiative, though, and that's Apple's authorized consultants. They have often wound up providing the advice and on-site support that business computer buyers need, often through referrals from the Apple stores. There's no indication that the new SMB program will provide on-site consultation and support, but any increased business-oriented service from the stores could threaten the consultants. At the same time, if more businesses end up buying Apple computers because of this initiative, the result could be that the consultants do get a smaller slice but of a large pie.
As someone who has long touted the benefits of Apple computers for small businesses, I'm happy to see this move on Apple's part. SMBs often make their IT purchases on an as-needed basis, buying from whatever vendor is offering the best deal at the time. If Apple can offer the kind of attention shoppers at the Apple Stores have come to expect plus business-friendly buying terms plus Genius Bar-level service after the sale, I think they'll find themselves with a lot of happy customers. One task: overcoming the false stereotype repeated in the Journal's story that "its computers are generally more expensive than comparable PCs, prompting cost-conscious companies to look for cheaper alternatives." The key is the word "comparable," and that's the case Apple's new sales teams are going to have to make.