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Apple Retail's alliance with OnForce: A bad deal for consultants, consumers?

Apple Retail is changing the way that non-warranty support calls currently handled by certified Apple consultants are assigned, and that's making some members of the Apple Consultants Network (ACN) unhappy.

In the past, a consultant who had gone through Apple's rigorous certification process and paid the annual ACN program fees could be interviewed by local Apple Store managers to be added to a referral list. If an Apple customer had an issue that could not be handled in-store by the Genius Bar, the store would provide him or her with a random selection of business cards from local ACN members who were on the list, and the customer could set up an appointment with the ACN.

While this program worked well for many years, it apparently rubbed Apple Retail (the current organization behind the ACN program and the Apple Stores) the wrong way. They had no control over the rates charged by ACN members and also had no way -- other than by word of mouth -- to verify the quality of the work that was being performed by ACNs. That all began to change in 2009 when Apple began testing a new support structure that used an existing organization, OnForce, to distribute support calls to ACN members who wanted to sign up as part of the program.

The way OnForce works is that it obtains work requests from potential customers, fits those requests into a category (i.e., "network setup" or "slow machine"), prices the work and then sends out an open call to consultants to pick up the work order. The consultant agrees to do the work within a certain amount of time at a pre-agreed price, and when the work has been completed, the customer rates the quality of the work done. So far, so good for the consumer and Apple Retail -- the consumer knows up front what the work is going to cost, and Apple Retail gets a good idea of how happy or not happy the customer was with the service provided.

The program was tested in the LA Basin and Boston areas in 2009, and it expanded to the Denver/Boulder and Detroit markets in 2010. Now the program is rolling out nationwide despite widespread concern from many of the Apple Consultants Network members. The OnForce program rolled out last month in the New England / New York / New Jersey market, rolled out earlier this month in Florida, Ohio River Valley, Tennessee, Michigan, Pittsburgh and Cleveland areas, and hits California and Hawaii at the end of March. Most other major markets will be under the OnForce program by mid-May.

So, why are Apple consultants concerned about the program? After all, Apple Retail isn't forcing all ACNs to sign up for the program. Probably the biggest concern is that it is a "my way or the highway" solution. ACNs who decide not to sign up with OnForce can no longer receive referrals from Apple Retail -- the main source of most referrals for the past 10 years or so. Second, ACNs cannot represent themselves or their companies when visiting clients via an OnForce work order. Instead, they are considered to be a generic OnForce resource, so all of the marketing work done by ACNs in the past to create a local name brand and business presence goes for naught. Want to hand someone a business card for your business so they can call you for future work? You can't do it -- it's not allowed. Want to wear that cool shirt with the embroidered business logo on it when you go on a client visit? Nope, that's verboten, too.

A third problem for Apple consultants is that the rates that OnForce pays ACNs for specific work are lower than what many of the ACNs are used to charging. While some of the ACN rates may be considered as high by consumers, the consultants have to pay for training, examinations, the annual ACN membership fee and the usual costs of doing business. Since many ACNs have been professional Apple geeks for many years, they know their stuff and can often fix an issue in much less time than someone who is unfamiliar with Mac OS X or iOS.

As a longtime member of the Apple Consultants Network and a blogger here at TUAW, I've received emails from a number of ACNs across the country who are concerned about this turn of events. Some members who have signed up with OnForce have reported getting pushed out of Apple support work by uncertified consultants with no Mac or iOS experience. Others say that the OnForce accept / decline process, combined with the electronic paperwork after the support call is finished, is taking much longer than their own in-house processes took -- at much less pay. A number of ACNs who I've heard from have said that they're probably not going to renew their memberships after this year as they no longer see any benefit to the program, and there has even been scattered talk of a new group being formed outside of the Apple aegis to take on certification and promotion of Apple consultants.

For consumers who are more concerned about cost than the knowledge and experience of the consultant coming to their home or office to support their Macs or iOS devices, the OnForce / Apple alliance is probably going to make them very happy. For the Apple Consultants Network, the alliance may have the adverse effect of reducing the numbers of ACN members and certified Apple consultants right when Apple is seeing more new customers than ever. And for Apple, the very need to exert control over yet another part of the Mac and iOS world could end up backfiring by antagonizing a large number of consultants who are the company's most vocal supporters.

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