A month ago, we took advantage of a deal at Bon Macy's and opened up a credit card to get 10% off of a large purchase (a mattress). A couple of weeks later, we purchased some sheets and pillows using that credit card.
I promise, this has something to do with Exchange. Bear with me.
Tonight, I received a phone call from the Bon Macy's collection department. It appears that our account was overdue and they wanted their money - an understandable request. I looked on our bank's website and saw that we did pay the bill for the mattress two weeks ago. The collections guy explained that there were two types of accounts under the same number, account type 20 for "normal purchases", and account type 30 for "large purchases". Apparently our check had paid in to account 20 (which was not yet due) instead of account 30 (which was overdue).
I asked him if there was a different account number for these different account types, i.e. should I have two different payees in my bank's website so that this doesn't happen again. He explained that no, there is only one account number, and said that I have two options: I could either phone Bon Macy's after I mail the check and tell them which account type it should go to (smirk), or I could write the account type number on the back of the check. My bank's website which we use for paying bills does not allow us to do this, so I asked if we could put this in the memo field instead, which the bank's website does allow. "I am not sure if the billing department reads the memo field, ma'am."
At this point I got a wee bit frustrated. I told him there was no way I was calling them every time I mail in a check... (I thought it was pretty ridiculous that he even suggested it, I barely have time to brush my teeth in the morning). I told him their billing department needs to start reading the memo field.
"Ma'am, I'm sorry but I do not know how to give feedback to the billing department."
And there is one more issue... there's a negative balance of $70 in the "normal purchases" account type 20 and what did he want me to do? I was a little shocked that he needed me to hold his hands on this one, but I politely explained that I wanted him to take the entire amount of the check we sent in and apply it to the account type 30 that was overdrawn. I then said that after we received and paid the bill for the pillows and towels in account type 20, we would be closing our account because we don't have time to deal with this. I said that I knew he had nothing to do with this, but could he please pass along this feedback to his management as to why we will be closing our account?
"Ma'am, I am sorry but that is the responsibility of a different department and I do not know how to give feedback to them."
Fine, I said, I will wait until the next bill arrives, pay it, close the account and give that as the reason.
I felt pretty bad for this guy... first off, I suspect from his accent that he was overseas. He's probably tired of reading articles from Americans ranting about how evil outsourcing is, and when he calls Americans who think outsourcing is evil to tell them that their bill is overdue, I suspect many of them do not respond so well (perhaps they couldn't pay their bill because they lost their job because it was outsourced? double ouch). Secondly, I was probably a little frustrating to him... although I kept my voice even and calm the entire time (ok ok, most of it), nobody likes dealing with an unhappy customer.
After I hung up, my thoughts naturally drifted to Microsoft's support folks (product support services, aka PSS) and what they have to do, day-in and day-out. I've worked a fair amount with many Exchange and Outlook PSS engineers as well as with the overall process of how we support customers and what we do with the support data and the feedback we get from customers and PSS engineers during that process.
Dealing with unhappy customers is part and parcel of the PSS life, but I'm sure it's more bearable if you actually have the power to fix the customer's problem, or in the Bon Macy experience, at least pass along the feedback to the group that owns the issue about which the customer is complaining. For technical issues with Exchange, that group is (obviously) usually the product team. I don't mean to imply that customer complaints always result in change for Exchange, but IMO it's nice to know that the right person heard the feedback; in this Bon Macy's experience, I just wanted the billing department to know that I think their account management methodology is stupid and they need to make it easier for their customers to give them money! I sincerely hope that any PSS engineer who supports Exchange (or any Microsoft product for that matter) feels that they have a route to give feedback to the right place.
I thought about the "You can call us after you mail a check" option and how ridiculous it was, and then I wondered - what if this was something he was told to say? Did the billing department tell him that was one of the options he should offer to customers? If so, how horrible that must be for him, to be the messenger of such a stupid message. And then I thought of the many times over the years where I've told a PSS engineer "Tell the customer that the workaround is foo or bar or baz"... I'm sure that at least some of the time, those workarounds weren't received with a cheer (well, maybe bronx). OWA logoff comes to mind as one of those difficult messages... In OWA 2000, we did not have a way to securely log off the client without closing the browser (since we used HTTP authentication, the credentials are cached in the browser process - mental note to blog about that later). That's why we implemented forms-based authentication in OWA 2003. I probably have hundreds of mail threads in my sent items archive where I explained this issue and the workarounds, before Exchange 2003 was released... All the more motivation to drive great features like FBA into the product.
Overall, I think that we do a pretty good job taking the data and feedback we get from the process of supporting Exchange and use it to drive product improvements. It's funny, I've had so many customers who I've met through the community, conferences or customer meetings who apologize to me for giving me feedback - "I'm sorry, but I just need to vent about Exchange and feature X." They think that I will somehow be offended - quite the opposite! These are great opportunities for me to learn about what problems my customers have and how to fix them. Of course, to be honest, it is also nice to hear people tell me how much they love the product, which fortunately also happens a lot - everything in moderation. :-)
There is someone in PSS who goes through each call and buckets it according to the root cause of the problem - Jim described that process, called Root Cause Analysis, here. The product team then reviews that data with the supportability program managers like Jim and decides which problems to work on, and develops solutions and fits them into the schedule. The solutions might take the form of improved documentation, bug fixes or features - Jim listed several of the new features in Exchange 2003 that are a result of this process.
Another way we take customer feedback is directly, through the community and other touch points. For example, whenever someone posts a comment on my blog or the Exchange blog about a problem with Exchange, we pass it on to the area owners. Even if they can't do something about it, we want them to hear the complaint. Frequently this means opening a tracking bug in our database, and if more complaints or requests come in for the same issue, we track them in the same bug. Of course, if possible, we try to get a response to the customer. In some cases this becomes challenging, as in this post on the exchange blog - we got a lot of responses and requests for assistance; Greg, Kristian and Alex responded to many of them, but the questions just kept coming, and we decided to close comments on that post and let them get back to their day jobs of improving the next version of Exchange.
I need to wrap this up, it's getting pretty long. One last note though - David also talked about some ways in which we gather customer feedback here and here. And please don't take any of this as an exhaustive list, there are so many things I haven't mentioned - surveys, market research, analyst advice, our JDP program, other programs where we bring customers on-site to test their exact environments in our labs, etc. There are also many members of the Exchange team who are (outside of working hours) helping out charities and non-profit organizations in the Seattle area who run Exchange, which I think is amazingly cool (all the cooler because our VP is the person who started this program). And on Sunday, I'm planning on meeting a few customers at a bar to discuss the product over a few beers.
Oh, by the way... we looked at our Bon Macy's bill. "Account type" is a separate field in a box near the account number field. Obviously, they're expecting customers to just mail in that piece of paper with a check, but I have to assume that in this day and age, we're not their only customers who use online bill paying. Perhaps I'm slow, but it just wasn't obvious that the account type was a critical piece of information to give back to them, outside of the account number. In the Exchange world, this is one reason I'm a strong supporter of programmatic enforcement of support boundaries - the product shouldn't let you do something that isn't supported, don't make it easy for people to shoot themselves in the feet. We're not perfect, but we're improving.
 I'm sure this has happened to many of you... "Thanks for the feedback, I've passed it on. FYI, I can't guarantee that this will result in any changes, and if it did result in any changes, I can't guarantee when those changes might happen." That probably sounds like a blowoff, but I hope you understand why people like me say it - I want to set your expectations. It's not a black hole, just a slow moving one. :-) Plus, we have to take into account the feedback from everyone else and weigh it carefully against the risks, benefits and costs. And even considered joining their forces. Earlier this year I debated interviewing for a position as a team manager in Office PSS, managing a large team of people who help drive supportability improvements into the product. I decided against it because with that many direct reports, I figured that I'd be spending all my time on people management and wouldn't have much time left for the areas about which I am most passionate, i.e. improving the products themselves. Soon after this I got the release manager job, I'm learning something new every day and am incredibly busy [p.s. you know who you are - sorry I haven't responded to your email yet], but enjoying it so far.  If any Exchange PSS engineers who are reading this feel that they have important feedback and no way to get it to the right people, please drop me an email. FYI, I can't guarantee... :-)