Zen and the Art of Being Happy with Microsoft

It might surprise you to know that, by survey, Microsoft has about 120 million happy customers. I’m guessing that, if you are reading this column, you probably aren’t one of them.

You might also be surprised to know that Microsoft surveys as one of the most-trusted vendors in the industry, and you likely wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the company also surveys as one of the least-trusted vendors. I have never seen another company that has an installed base so divided into these two extremes.

Last week’s column “Apple, Linux and BSD: The ‘Other’ Platforms” offered a refresher on the choices you have if you want to switch to an alternative platform. This week’s column focuses on how to improve your satisfaction with Microsoft.

Promises, Promises, Promises

Microsoft, like no other vendor I follow, puts an inordinate amount of focus on product launch events. The end result is that customers are inundated with promises about the great stuff Microsoft will do for them in the future, but they have very little information about the things Microsoft tools can do for them today.

This makes it seem that existing products are always inadequate and that users need to upgrade constantly to reach any level of satisfaction — which, when reached, is always fleeting. Currently, the buzz is about Longhorn, and Microsoft’s primary message about security is that things will get better. It is a message that deemphasizes how to make things better now.

In addition to this, there is a substantial difference between the experience and background of Microsoft employees — who traditionally have been hired right out of college — and that of the company’s customers. Many Microsoft accounts, especially the large accounts, are accustomed to having a vendor jump on command. Microsoft doesn’t do that. As a result, many customers have grown to see Microsoft as unresponsive and arrogant.

The Evil Empire

Much of the news surrounding Microsoft seems to focus on mistakes the company has made in the past. There are reporters with broad followings whose agenda appears to be to bring Microsoft down. This problem is exacerbated by the massive increase in blogs written by people who support other platforms — largely Linux and Mac — who do an excellent job of reinforcing these negative messages.

It often seems as if every mistake or problem Microsoft has is made into a major problem that brings out some supposedly insidious motive. If you constantly see a major vendor as evil or as building low-quality products, it is hard not to see everything that vendor does in that light.

Also, Microsoft’s own success creates one of its larger image problems. At a time when most of its customers are having profitability problems, Microsoft’s own profitability forms a basis for what looks like overcharging. Because Microsoft tends to focus on future features, and doesn’t do “sustaining” marketing or information campaigns to address current products on the market, there is a mismatch between the perceived value of the products the company sells and the perceived price.

In fact, most see the retail price of Microsoft’s products and assume that is what the company actually makes on each installation — when most of Microsoft’s customers actually pay a fraction of the retail price.

This perception builds on the impression that Microsoft must be doing something wrong, because the company seems to have financial resources well beyond what other companies have.

Satisfied Microsoft Customers

But there are a lot of satisfied Microsoft customers. While it is not at all clear if these customers have learned from each other or are just naturally good at creating and maintaining strong relationships, it is here where a customer’s own skills seem to make the difference.

Overall, companies that take responsibility for maintaining and growing their relationship with any large vendor will have a better experience. With Microsoft, it can make all the difference in the world.

Where escalation paths and executive advocates are created and nurtured, the client company gets better support and better early warning. Also, when there is a problem, the client is more likely to get a prioritized response.

From a dollar-value standpoint, even Microsoft’s biggest customers (such as Boeing) are insignificant, but what makes the difference is that the people who own the relationship make themselves significant. If it makes the right moves, a relatively small company can have more clout than a large multinational with regard to future products from Microsoft.

I should point out that this approach works with most large companies in general. If you can build a personal relationship with a supplier or service provider, you generally will be happier with the result.

Premier Support

There has been a huge difference between the companies that buy Premier Support and those that don’t in terms of satisfaction with Microsoft. In talking to both types of customers about the company, you would think they are describing two companies at opposite ends of the customer-support spectrum.

If you have a large Microsoft commitment, part of that commitment must be Premier Support. It is expensive, but that should be factored into the cost of the deal before you make your decision. Not getting Premier Support would be like trying to save money on a new car by leaving out the seatbelts and buying retread tires.

There are places to save money; support isn’t one of them.

Escalate, Escalate, Escalate

Microsoft has recently put in place a global complaint-management tool. Few people know about this tool because you have to escalate a problem to make use of the service. If you are having a problem and it isn’t being resolved by your primary contact, don’t get mad. Escalate.

Microsoft recently changed its employee compensation programs to emphasize customer satisfaction and the actual use of its products. If you buy something and don’t use it or aren’t happy about it, that fact might have a material impact on how someone gets paid at the company. Now, as never before, if you are upset about a Microsoft product, you should take the trouble to escalate the issue.

I ran into a situation the other day in which a company was told by its services vendor to migrate from Windows to Linux because of what was said by a first-level Microsoft support person — who turned out to be wrong. If it doesn’t make sense, if you are upset, or if you just want to get the attention of someone who can actually make a decision, escalate the issue.

One thing I’ve noticed is that if you take the time to know a person, then what others say about that person — both good and bad — becomes a secondary consideration to the relationship you’ve cultivated. Any large company can present different personalities to different customers. If you get to know the company, you are more likely to know how to get the best experience.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a company founded on the concept of providing a unique perspective on personal technology products and trends.

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