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Monday, February 21, 2011, 09:15 pm PT (12:15 am ET)

Apple repair consultants upset over changes to Apple Retail referral policy

Members of the Apple Consultants Network are displeased with a recent change in policy by Apple that now outsources non-warranty support calls to a third-party service and has consultants compete against each other for referrals, according to a new report.

Apple has begun working with computer repair service provider OnForce to setup a new support structure for contracting non-Genius Bar repairs to certified Apple consultants, TUAW reports. Existing members of the Apple Consultants Network (ACN) are reportedly unhappy with the move.

Previously, Apple Store managers would create a referral list by interviewing consultants who had completed Apple's certification process and paid the annual ACN fees. Customers at the store whose issues could not be resolved by the in-store Genius Bar were provided with business cards of eligible consultants.

This method, however, has reportedly "rubbed Apple Retail the wrong way," as it gave Apple little oversight of pricing, quality and service.

According to report author Steven Sande, in 2009, "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." After initial testing in the LA Basin and Boston areas in 2009 and the Denver/Boulder and Detroit markets in 2010, Apple is now rolling out the system on a nationwide level, the report noted.

The new system relies on OnForce to receive work requests from customers, categorize the requests, set a price for the work and then send an "open call" to participating consultants. After the job is finished, customers rate the quality of the work.

However, Apple consultants have expressed concerns about the new program because of its "my way or the highway" solution, said Sande. Though consultants aren't required to join the OnForce program, those who decline will be unable to receive referrals from Apple Retail. ACN members are also unhappy with rules prohibiting them from representing themselves or their companies during site visits contracted through OnForce. Also bound to draw criticism is the fact that OnForce quotes are generally lower than what most consultants are used to charging for comparable work.

The report also notes that consultants have complained of excessive paperwork and increased competition from uncertified consultants with no Mac or iOS experience.

In response, some consultants are planning to discontinue their Apple Consultant Network memberships and may even band together to create their own alternative certification group.

Apple's recent changes to its third-party repair policy, however, don't reflect a lack of emphasis on in-store repairs by the Mac maker. Apple Retail mastermind Ron Johnson has called the company's Genius Bars "the heart and soul of the Apple retail store experience." Last year, Apple made several changes to its Genius Bar service in order to improve wait times, overnight repairs and Genius multitasking.

The rise of Apple's retail stores has been a remarkable success story. In the first quarter of fiscal 2011, Apple's retail sales nearly doubled year over year to reach $3.8 billion in the quarter. Half of the record 851,000 Macs sold in its stores last quarter were to customers who had never owned a Mac before.

International store volume now exceeds U.S. store volume, with Apple's retail stores in China leading the way with the most traffic and highest revenue. Apple is reportedly planning new retail stores in Shanghai, Palo Alto and New York's Grand Central Terminal.