11:53 AM
Dave Methvin
Dave Methvin

Microsoft Hindered By Retailer Failures

The company would be wise to take a page from Apple to overcome its reputation for poor customer service delivered by its point-of-sale partners.

In the past month, a couple of incidents showed me what a tough situation Microsoft is in when it comes to growing its business. They demonstrated a phenomenon that should make Steve Ballmer fear for both his job and for the future of Microsoft: It will not matter how good Microsoft products are if consumers don't have a positive overall experience in buying and owning the product.

The first incident happened to my son, whose Macbook Pro developed a problem with the screen. Unfortunately, it was several months out of warranty, and his local Apple Store said that a repair would probably be $1,200. However, the associate at the store had the ability to make exceptions. Perhaps he took pity on a poor college student, but no matter the reason; he said Apple would cover the cost. That is the kind of service that creates customer and brand loyalty, and it's not an isolated incident. Others have noticed the quality of Apple's customer service as well, and put it on par with other legendary customer-focused companies such as Nordstrom.

Now for the dark side. A few weeks later, my daughter went to get a case and screen protector for her iPhone. Our local Apple Store (a different one) didn't have the one she wanted in stock, so she went to Best Buy. The next day she noticed that the edges of the screen protector were starting to peel, so she went back to the Best Buy. The sales associate there said that it was a "warranty issue" and she would need to take it up with the manufacturer through its website. Perhaps he figured he could put one over on a poor college student, but it outraged my wife, who went over there and set them straight. Instead of asking them to simply reapply the screen protector, which is all my daughter wanted, she got a full refund. Then she waited for the Apple Store to get the product back in stock.

I know we are not alone here. Go to Yelp and search for just about any city. You'll find that the comments for Best Buy generally are negative and Apple reviews are generally positive. The same goes for sites like PissedConsumer; the Best Buy comments live up to the site's name, but the Apple comments are pretty tame. Many of the Apple complaints were about crowded stores and products that were in such high demand that they were out of stock.

I'm sure you have a similar kind of stories, ones that make you love or hate a company forever. Fair or not, consumers and small businesses do hold a grudge, especially when they feel they were treated unfairly. My father hated Ford cars and refused to buy them for most of his life because of a serious problem he had in the 1960s with a Ford. Even when Ford improved its quality significantly, it had to try and overcome the reputation it had created over several decades. Ad campaigns with slogans like "Have you driven a Ford lately?" were intended to woo back the doubters like my father, but it never worked. Such is the power of a negative experience.

I can't say that I've been impressed by any brick-and-mortar PC purchase experience over the years. The sales people who assist you on a purchase at Best Buy, Staples, Office Depot, or any of the other retail outlets aren't usually anywhere near experts on the computers they sell. That I could almost overlook, but not the often high-pressure tactics and deception used to pack on extended warranties and outrageously priced accessories. A six-foot USB cable for $30 is highway robbery.

As far as Best Buy goes, I've had my share of poor-to-mediocre experiences with them too many times. Even when the staff want to help, they often don't have enough knowledge about the products to provide meaningful assistance. I had an episode like that a couple of years ago when buying an uninterruptible power supply. One Yelp reviewer of a Chicago Best Buy location summed it up nicely: "You need to do your research ahead of time for the products you want or know exactly what you want when purchasing from the store because you won't get much help from the employees. Also you would have to need that item that day because there is no reason to pay some of the high prices they have for their products."

Still, even in this era of online commerce, many people are willing to pay a premium for the immediacy of a brick-and-mortar purchase. If my experiences are any indication, kids growing up in the age of the Apple Store will simply think that is the place to buy electronics whenever possible--and they'll be right. It's a powerful advantage for Apple's own products, and for the manufacturers of the accessories and software the stores carry.

That's why I've become convinced that Microsoft needs to take control over more of the process by expanding its own store initiative. By showcasing a quality set of hardware without the trial-version junk that many PC makers insist on bundling, Microsoft can provide both a good product and a good purchase experience.

Of course, there is much more to the product experience than just sales, service, and support. Historically, Windows has taken hits for being more susceptible to viruses and spyware. However, the signs are that Apple is catching up on malware thanks to its rising market share. Apple's support response to these new threats hasn't been very Apple-like, and it will be very interesting to see how the company addresses a problem that Windows users have lived with for more than a decade.

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