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Microsoft Executive E-mail 

Connecting with Customers

Published: October 2, 2002

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I spend a lot of my time thinking about how Microsoft can do a better job of serving its customers. I'm convinced that we need to do more to establish and maintain broad connections with the millions of people who use our products and services around the world. We need to more thoroughly understand their needs, how they use technology, what they like about it, and what they don't. I'd like to share with you some of what we've recently begun to do and are planning for in the future to better connect with our customers.

Software and Snack Food

In my career, I've worked at only one other place besides Microsoft. I marketed brownie mix and blueberry muffin mix for one of the largest consumer products companies. I'm glad I decided to join Microsoft 22 years ago, when it was a little software startup, but I have great admiration for successful consumer businesses, and I believe Microsoft can learn from them. Behind the leading brands are companies that really know their customers. These firms devote a great deal of time and energy to gaining an intimate understanding of consumers, their reactions to every aspect of products, and how those products fit into their lives. Even so, not every new grocery or drug-store item succeeds. But by using the huge volume of data that feeds back from the daily purchase decisions of millions of consumers, marketers manage over time to figure out what consumers want in cake mix, soft drinks, shampoo, and so on. And these same products often go on satisfying consumers for decades.

Satisfying customers is what it's all about with technology products, too. And customers expect the same high quality and reliability in computing devices and software as they do in consumer products. But meeting their expectations is much harder, and not just because information technology is more complex and interdependent. The challenge has more to do with the flexibility of technology and its continual, rapid advance. To take advantage of this and expand what people can do with hardware and software, computer products must constantly evolve. As a result, products are seldom around long enough in one form to be fully time-tested, let alone perfected. And customers continually come up with new uses for their technology, new combinations and configurations that further complicate technology companies' efforts to ensure a satisfying experience, free of hiccups and glitches.

If technology products are to approach the satisfying consistency of consumer staples--and clearly they should--then we in the industry need a more detailed knowledge of customers' experiences with our products. We must do a better job of connecting with customers. For a company such as Microsoft, with many millions of customers around the world, the connections must be very broad. While we are working to deepen our relationships with enterprise and other business customers, we also need to make innumerable, daily connections with the very wide array of people who use our products--consumers, information workers, software developers and information technology professionals.

In the past year, we specifically identified some near-term objectives on the road to further product improvements and greater customer satisfaction. Among them:

Obtain much more feedback from our customers about their experience;

Offer customers easier, more consistent ways to update their products;

Provide customers with more effective, readily available support and service.

We have a long way to go, but we're excited about the results so far from some of our recent efforts. I'd like to share just one great example, and then I'll tell you how you can learn more about what we're doing along these lines.

A New Pipeline for Customer Feedback

Let's acknowledge a sad truth about software: any code of significant scope and power will have bugs in it. Even a relatively simple software product today has millions of lines of code that provide many places for bugs to hide. That's why our customers still encounter bugs despite the rigorous and extensive stress testing and beta testing we do. With Windows 2000 and Windows XP, we dramatically improved the stability and reliability of our platform, and we eliminated many flaws, but we did not find all the bugs in these or other products. Nor did we find all the software conflicts that can cause applications to freeze up or otherwise fail to perform as expected.

The process of finding and fixing software problems has been hindered by a lack of reliable data on the precise nature of the problems customers encounter in the real world. Freeze-ups and crashes can be incredibly irritating, but rarely do customers contact technical support about them; instead, they close the program. Even when customers do call support and we resolve a problem, we often do not glean enough detail to trace its cause or prevent it from recurring.

To give us better feedback, a small team in our Office group built a system that helps us gather real-world data about the causes of customers' problems--in particular, about crashes. This system is now built into Office, Windows, and most of our other major products, including our forthcoming Windows .NET Servers. It enables customers to send us an error report, if they choose, whenever anything goes wrong.

There are risks in offering this option to have software "phone home" like E.T. One risk is that error reporting could compound a customer's irritation over the error itself. We therefore worked hard to make reporting simple and quick. We developed a special format, called a "minidump," to minimize the size of the report so that it can be transferred in a few seconds with a single mouse click.

Also, customers may wonder what we do with their reports and whether their privacy is protected. We use advanced security technologies to help protect these error reports, which are gathered on a cluster of dedicated Microsoft servers and are used for no other purpose than to find and fix bugs. Engineers look at stack details, some system information, a list of loaded modules, the type of exception, and global and local variables.

We've been amazed by the patterns revealed in the error reports that customers are sending us. The reports identify bugs not only in our own software, but in Windows-based applications from independent hardware and software vendors as well. One really exciting thing we learned is how, among all the software bugs involved in reports, a relatively small proportion causes most of the errors. About 20 percent of the bugs cause 80 percent of all errors, and--this is stunning to me--one percent of bugs cause half of all errors.

With this immensely valuable feedback from our customers, we're now able to prioritize debugging work on our products to achieve the biggest improvement in customers' experience. And as the work proceeds based on this new source of systematic data, the improvement will be dramatic. Already, in Windows XP Service Pack 1, error reporting enabled us to address 29 percent of errors involving the operating system and applications running on it, including a large number of third-party applications. Error reporting helped us to eliminate more than half of all Office XP errors with Office XP Service Pack 2.

Work continues to find and fix remaining bugs in these and other existing products, but error reporting is now also helping us to resolve more problems before new products are released. Visual Studio .NET, released last February, was one of our first products to benefit from the use of error-reporting data throughout its beta testing. Error reporting enabled us to log and fix 74 percent of all crashes reported in the first beta version. Many other problems were caught and eliminated in subsequent testing rounds.

And we're not keeping this great tool to ourselves. We're working with independent hardware and software vendors to help them use our error-reporting data to improve their products, too. Some 450 companies have accessed our database of error reports related to their drivers, utilities and applications. Marked decreases in some types of errors have followed. Those involving third-party firewall software, for example, have dropped 67 percent since the first of the year. Also, we've created software that enables corporations to redirect error reports to their own servers, so that administrators can find and resolve the problems that are having the most impact on their systems.

This Is Just the Beginning

We're working to make error reporting a much more supple tool that provides helpful information to customers while enabling us to improve their experience in new ways. As we understand more errors, we're adding an option for customers to go to a Web site where they can learn more about and even fix the errors they report. In the future we want to enable customers to look up the history of their error reports and our efforts to resolve them. And we're trying to create easy ways for customers to send us more nuanced feedback about their experience with our products--not only about crashes, but also about features that don't work the way or as easily as people would like.

Microsoft Error Reporting is just one of the ways in which we're trying to create broader customer connections. Another is through our software update and management services, which make it easy for customers to keep their software current. We're also making significant changes in our product service and support to enhance their value, and to speed the resolution of customer problems. Soon we will commit to a new policy that will give customers greater clarity and confidence about our support for products through their lifecycles.

There's much more I would like to share with you about these and other initiatives on behalf of customers, but I wanted to be (relatively) brief. If you would like to know more, here are information and links to help you drill down even further.

Ultimately, we're trying to change how software developers do their jobs on a daily basis. We're working to establish more of a direct, interactive connection between developers and customers, leading to better software and happier customers. To get there, we intend to listen even more closely to our customers, consult with them regularly, and be more responsive. This is the message I am sending to all of Microsoft's employees, and it is my commitment to you.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.

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