As Microsoft enters more competitive markets and faces increased grumbling over its litany of security flaws, the company is trying what -- for it -- is an unusual tack: paying more attention its customers.
Yes, it sounds obvious. But even some at Microsoft concede that when you're the world's largest software company it's easy to lose focus. That is, until your customers start to balk -- and look to other options, such as cheaper Linux-based technology.
For years, Richard Thompson tried everything, but he couldn't get anyone at Microsoft to reply to his e-mails.
Thompson isn't a nagging wannabe employee or a deranged computer geek. He's the chief executive of a company that sells Microsoft products to other companies. Even so, for years, "We couldn't seem to find someone to explain to us how to join that merry band at Microsoft."
Things have improved recently for Thompson's Surrey, England-based TVision Technology Ltd., and it's not a coincidence.
Kevin Johnson, Microsoft's group vice president in charge of sales and marketing, says the company realized about two years ago that it had significant customer satisfaction problems.
Computer viruses targeting vulnerabilities in Microsoft software were clogging computer networks, sometimes even shutting down businesses for days. Updating Microsoft products to ward off attacks was onerous, costly and time-consuming.
Amid a weak economy and tight corporate budgets, customers complained that some of Microsoft's latest technology, the cool factor notwithstanding, wasn't helping solve real workaday problems. The image-tarnishing antitrust cases against Microsoft didn't help either.
Such factors fed interest in competing technology, led by the Linux operating system. Proponents say such open source software is cheaper to run and less of a target to security threats because the underlying code -- and any improvements -- are freely shared.
Johnson says Microsoft's decision to completely revamp the way it deals with customers is just beginning to pay off.
One big customer complaint was simple logistics: there were no good systems in place to respond to difficult complaints -- or even to track whether a number of customers were having the same problem.
So Microsoft created a sort of heat map to track which problems are systemic and which are individualized, and it developed a response system to more efficiently route questions to the appropriate business units.
With security complaints, employees took things a step further. They set up phone trees so key people could respond to threats quickly, and they ran middle-of-the-night drills. In a specially designated situation room, the company can now track security threats much like a chemical company might monitor a toxic spill.
Microsoft also says it is talking more to customers about what changes they want to see in software.
For its latest small business server product, Johnson sent Microsoft employees to spend time at small businesses and report back on what improvements were really needed.
"The whole thing about driving satisfaction, it's not just a tag line, it's not just a slogan," Johnson said. "We've really re-engineered the company to enable us to serve the customer."
Many analysts say it's too early to tell whether Microsoft's efforts will produce results, though they credit the company for its work on meaningful security improvements.
Even so, some analysts say security problems linger as an issue.
"Frankly, that gets in the way of a lot of discussions Microsoft might have with customers," said Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC.
In some ways, Microsoft has become a victim of its own success. Its huge and pervasive presence in the technology world may comfort some, but it's a turnoff to others.
The city of Paris recently said it would consider using open source software rather than Microsoft products for a nearly $200 million upgrade to its obsolete systems, prompting Microsoft France CEO Christophe Aulnette to say the company might cut prices.
French officials say the choice will come down to security issues and how open the two systems are to upgrades. But they also concede that political pressure to move away from Microsoft's dominance may be a factor.
The governments in Brazil and Munich, Germany, also have embraced Linux in a big way.
Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, thinks some of Microsoft's efforts to improve customer relationships are a response to the perception that the Linux community is more open and collegial while Microsoft is "seen as a faceless corporation."
Along with soliciting feedback and offering more technical support, Microsoft has begun giving software vendors tips such as how to build an effective business plan, said Barry Baker, chief technology officer for eOptimize Inc. in Kamloops, British Columbia.
Baker, whose company's products include scheduling software, also credits Microsoft with doing a better job of communicating useful information, such as when products will be released.
After years of unanswered e-mails, TVision's Thompson believes Microsoft has realized it needs to build better relationships if it wants to succeed in competitive markets such as his own.
"They're a big company, so it takes people time to sort things out," Thompson said. "But there are key people there that I've spoken to (and they) understand that they do need to listen to what people like ourselves have to say."
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