Microsoft’s transition to a customer-centric company

High-technology products can be divided into many different categories. One such segmentation is to divide products into those you want to use vs. those you have to use.

For the first group, many Apple products almost certainly come to mind. Its devices are beautiful and designed to enhance the overall user experience. Together, the hardware and software are recognized as being among the best—if not the very best—around.

When it comes to products you have to use, however, did Microsoft come to mind?

While this might have been the case for many years (decades, perhaps), Microsoft is undergoing a significant transformation in an effort to reinvent itself as a customer-centric organization. While this change might not yet be apparent to everyone, it is a very interesting one to watch from the outside. (I have no insider knowledge of what must have started before Satya Nadella took over as CEO in February 2014, but things seem to have significantly accelerated since then.)

As I pointed out in my article about customer delight, this is about putting smiles on the faces of users who try your products and services. It’s about understanding those users and delivering a complete experience that enables them to be more creative, productive or innovative when it comes to their tasks or achievements.

And it’s about customers loving your product and services and wanting to use them rather than using them only because they have no choice. It’s ultimately about having a product or service that matters to the customer, one that builds an emotional connection with them.

It appears Microsoft is going there, full steam ahead, driven by a very strong vision from its leader.

At the October 2015 “Windows 10 Devices” event, CEO Satya Nadella talked about this new direction. “The innovations you saw today drive home the point of why we build devices. We build them to create and complete magical experiences. We think of ourselves as being in the experience business. We’re not just building hardware for hardware’s sake. To perfect the experience, we obsess about every choice that matters across silicon, the hardware system, the operating system and even the applications that run on them.”

In other words, Microsoft is crafting its products and services with care and passion. Take Microsoft’s first laptop, the Surface Book, for example.

During that same event, the company’s corporate vice president of hardware, Panos Panay, was talking about feeling the rhythm of the product. There is a clear understanding at Microsoft that its users have to be at the center of the team’s thinking—the whole user experience matters. The Windows and the Devices teams (as well as the rest of the organization, I am sure) are hard at work to move from products you have to use, to ones you want to use and, ultimately, ones you love to use.

A July 2015 article titled The Story of Windows 10 from Inside Microsoft published by The Verge outlines what appears to be a  planned and deliberate shift in focus.

Terry Myerson, EVP for Windows and Devices, explained the company’s new underlying philosophy. “It isn’t one guy comes down from a mountain with a tablet [saying] what the right product is. We just believe the customer feedback shaping the product is how we’re going to build clarity and confidence that we have a great product.”

He also talked about the “crafted with care” approach at the “new” Microsoft. “Xbox had this passionate focus on their fans and engaging with their fans and listening to their fans. Something that [Microsoft’s head of Xbox] Phil Spencer just has at his core is his caring. He lives for those Xbox fans.”

Writing in Wired about the Surface Book, David Pierce provided a detailed view on the inside story of that new product. The article speaks at great length about the attention to detail and amount of caring that went into creating this new generation of hardware and how the team behind it focused on creating the laptop users want.

Having read the article and experiencing the new device first-hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to find the signatures of the core team engraved inside the case, something the Apple team did with its first Macintosh.

I’m not saying that everything with Microsoft is perfect. The road to transformation is a long, winding one with new and exciting obstacles at every turn.

Truth is, Windows 10 was released with many features lacking. That’s especially true when used with Microsoft’s new Edge browser that innovates in some ways, but lacks some core functionality that makes it unusable for a more advanced user. (Trust me, I can’t wait to get off Chrome, a browser that drains batteries at an impressive rate).

The Surface Book is another amazing piece of technology, but it’s still a version 1.0 product and a few features are noticeably lacking. The backlit keyboard, for example, isn’t controlled by a light sensor—you have to manually control the light’s intensity. The battery in the clipboard (the actual computer integrated into the screen that can get detached) isn’t able to recharge from the keyboard battery when it gets reattached.

I was also quite surprised to find out that while the box that included the laptop had a pen, it lacked the collection of pen tips that Microsoft sells for an extra US$10. With beautiful packaging and a starting price of US$1,499, it somehow feels cheap not to include these.

Only the future will tell if Microsoft can completely reinvent itself and deliver products and services people want and love to use. All indicators say the company is headed in the right direction, that it is crafting its products with care and a new-found passion. If a company as big as this Redmond behemoth can turn itself into a customer-centric organization, that’s great news not just for other companies but for technology users around the globe.

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