An email just fluttered into my inbox today that caught my eye, from Jason Buffington, one of our technical product managers, calling attention to a great blog post from one of our customers in the community. Basically, the customer was grateful for receiving direct help from the DPM crew at Microsoft on a problem he was having:

I had a problem.   A major problem.  

It was a report of all things.   The application was working fine but the output from one report wasn’t the way we needed it.

So I went to the blogs and submitted a simple statement

“HELP ME OBIWAN, YOU’RE MY ONLY HOPE!”

Or something along those lines.

So instead of getting a generic response like.  “We thank you for your request.  A representative of some type will examine your comments and smugly ignore them…”

I got a human.  Within minutes.

Listen clearly folks.  Microsoft LISTENS.   To the GOOD and the BAD.

The main point I took from Jason’s message is: when Microsoft is engaged in the community, responding to the needs of the community as human beings helping other human beings, it’s the kind of effort that is repaid tenfold in goodwill and good PR.

Complaint as Invitation

I should say a word or two about the bit about our listening to the “GOOD and the BAD.” The point isn’t that Microsoft wants only praise, and wants to ignore or stifle the blame (much less that we are listening in some kind of Big Brother way). In fact, complaints offered in earnest are really the best kind of invitation to dialogue, because they provide an opportunity for both addressing an issue directly and making a dissatisfied customer happy, and learning how to make better products in the future so that all customers my have a better experience. Even in the former, case, though, helping one customer solve his or her problem through online forums, blogs, etc., usually means that many other customers out in the community can benefit, too.

Limits of Individual Heroics

I may be stating the obvious. But I think it’s also important to recognize the true limits of this approach, which is often underscored by a natural hesitancy of folks within Microsoft for engaging in this fashion with the community because of what obligations it might entail—that is to say, that individual efforts among several thousand at Microsoft can only go so far, since we are all constantly pulled in multiple directions at once and our time for direct customer engagement is severely limited. Our ability to sustain these kinds of efforts usually meets with the harsh realities of project deadlines and fiscal constraints, and the day-to-day grind of email, sync meetings, and status reports. So how do we figure out how to scale? How can we can we engage in real, sustainable dialogue and relationship building with our customers?

Programmatic Approaches

The best answer I could come up with is through programs that facilitate connections but in a limited fashion, that can grow in time as our budgets and resources permit, and that get help and touch where they can do the most good, in the hands of active and influential people in the community who are motivated (altruistically or otherwise) to give to their peers the knowledge and expertise, tips and tricks they have at their disposal. Hence the Microsoft MVP Program, long recognized as an industry standard.

mouse_sclogo_mmsAnd hence, too, our fledgling program in support of a wider community of influencers pertinent to our business, the System Center Influencers Program (soon to be reconfigured to embrace virtualization topics and communities, as well). While we’ve got a ways to go yet in developing the program, with each step that we take I become increasingly convinced that it can work; but it will require continual input and creative experimentation to find just the right mix of activities and assets that works for our audience and the community, and serve to benefit our business by driving improved customer satisfaction, among other things.

And this, too, is a communal effort: to find the right mix, we need the input of the people we’re trying to engage. We don’t just want to put content online or programs in place and hope that they manage to stick—we want to put what we think will work in place and then work with our intended audience to iterate and improve, and build offerings that really do correspond usefully to the needs of the community.

If you are interested in the System Center Influencers Program, please contact scnetsup@microsoft.com and tell us a little bit about who you are and why you want to join. We’ll get back to you promptly.

- dave //