Dealing with Microsoft Haters
Microsoft may be the world's best-known brand, but it's not necessarily the best-loved. Here are ways to overcome deal-busting objections.
- By Anne Stuart
- July 01, 2006
When it comes to Microsoft bashing, partners have heard it all.
They've heard prospects gripe that Microsoft products cost too much.
They've heard customers complain about frequent bug and security patches.
They've heard tirades denouncing the company as Byzantine or a behemoth,
difficult to navigate and glacially slow to respond to complaints and
calls for help. They're well aware that some people view Microsoft as
the biggest monopoly since Standard Oil. And they occasionally still hear
snide remarks about Microsoft's founder, who, despite his generous donations
to charity, remains the world's wealthiest individual.
Of course, some of those sentiments are unfounded, unfair or outdated,
and channel partners whose companies depend upon Microsoft's success do
their best to counter them. At the same time, even executives whose companies
deal solely in Microsoft solutions understand what's behind the negativity.
As one veteran partner puts it: "Sometimes I hate Microsoft myself."
Therein lies one of the biggest challenges of representing the world's
most famous corporate name.
From Hate to Respect
True, Microsoft has come a long way since the mid- to late-1990s,
when it battled antitrust allegations and crushed Netscape in the browser
wars. Back then, the Web was littered with sites with names like Microsoftsucks.com,
Boycott Microsoft and The Official
Microsoft Hate Page. A particularly virulent subset targeted Microsoft
Chairman Bill Gates, depicting him as a dictator, a devil or the Antichrist
and inviting visitors to punch out, blow up or behead an animated effigy.
Technology magazines ran editorials with titles like "Time to Break Up
Microsoft" and quoted spokespeople from organizations such as The Committee
to Fight Microsoft (which, at one point, announced plans to open a national
headquarters in Washington, D.C.). The phrase "evil empire," which, during
the Reagan era, referred to the Soviet Union, became a synonym for Microsoft.
Relentlessly forwarded e-mail messages spread anti-Redmond humor all over
the planet. (Remember this one? Q: How many Microsoft engineers does it
take to change a light bulb? A: None. Bill Gates will just declare Darkness
the new industry standard). In 1998, author Po Bronson told The New
Republic that Microsoft bashing was so prevalent in Silicon Valley
"that it's like talking about the weather in Minnesota."
Fast forward a decade. As Microsoft has matured and gained respectability,
many of those vehement detractors have shut up or disappeared. True, the
blogosphere remains rich with Redmond-related chatter, but today, it's
typically more focused commentary about, say, a postponed product release
or the latest round of restructuring rather than generic sniping and griping.
And when was the last time you opened an e-mail with another batch of
Microsoft jokes? Meanwhile, Gates—now a respectable 50-year-old father
of three—is widely perceived as a force for good. In addition to his philanthropic
work, he's currently leading a campaign to curtail intellectual property
theft in China, an effort likely to benefit the entire U.S. software industry—including
some Microsoft competitors.
All in the Packaging
a gift, mostly, but also a responsibility. Microsoft
hands its partners what experts call the most valuable
brand in the world. In this package of articles, Redmond
Channel Partner magazine editors explore what makes
the Microsoft brand so strong, what responsibilities
Microsoft places on its partners to protect that brand
value, and how partners handle cases where the brand's
baggage outweighs its benefits. Also read:
Probably for all those reasons, many partners say that they seldom hear
flat-out "I hate Microsoft" sentiments anymore. In a recent survey of
about 500 Redmond Channel Partner readers, many indicated that
they still hear plenty of grumbling about specific issues—some legitimate,
some from left field—ranging from costs to customer service to security
concerns. But overall, partners told us, clients' big-picture attitudes
toward the Microsoft brand typically fall somewhere between resignation
and respect. And while that might initially seem like faint praise—wouldn't
it be better to be admired or adored?—experts say respect is the single
most critical attribute for market leadership.
"You don't have to love a leader, but you do have to respect a leader,"
says marketing strategist Jack Trout, president of the Trout & Partners
Ltd. consulting firm in Old Greenwich, Conn. "Nobody ever loved IBM, but
they still had enormous respect."
In Microsoft's younger days, its reputation for ruthlessness created
a major hurdle to earning that level of respect, says Trout, author and
co-author of several books on brand management (see "Books About Branding,"
this page)."Microsoft's problem is that [it's] been a little difficult,
a little aggressive, a little muscular," Trout says. "[It] used a two-by-four
instead of a scalpel on some of those markets. [It] needed to offset those
perceptions that [it's] too rough." Today, Microsoft remains a fearsome
contender, but balances its competitiveness with leadership activities,
such as initiatives using technology to improve education.
As a result, Trout says, Microsoft now commands the high regard that
accrues to a market leader. Even if sometimes given grudgingly, that respect
is a boon to partners who might have once avoided discussing Microsoft's
market dominance for fear of feeding customers' views of the company as
a competition-crushing monopoly. In fact, Trout recommends that partners
promote Microsoft's No. 1 position as a genuine customer benefit: "Who
wants to run with No. 2?"
Microsoft's ubiquity does make it easier to sell, says Bob Prince, founder
of NetSys+, a systems consulting firm and Gold Certified Partner based
in Sioux City, Iowa. "There are a lot of repeatable, predictable solutions
in the Microsoft world," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, we
can walk in and say, 'Here are systems that can do exactly what you want
them to do. I can even show you how it works on my own system because
we use it, too.'"
|Following are some recommended marketing
and brand-management guides:
Portfolio Strategy: Creating Relevance, Differentiation,
Energy, Leverage and Clarity, by David A. Aaker
(Free Press, 2004)
Sense: Build Powerful Brands Through Touch, Taste, Smell,
Sight and Sound, by Martin Lindstrom (Free Press,
Brand Identity: A Complete Guide to Creating, Building
and Maintaining Strong Brands, by Alina Wheeler
The Battle for Your Mind, 3rd edition, by Al
Ries & Jack Trout (McGraw-Hill, 2000)
Brand Management: Building, Measuring and Managing Brand
Equity, 2nd edition, by Kevin Lane Keller (Prentice
22 Immutable Laws of Branding: How to Build a Product
or Service into a World-Class Brand, by Al Ries
and Laura Ries (HarperCollins, 1998)
Getting the Word Out
Even respect won't convert every skeptic into a fan, but that's
no problem, another expert says. "Every brand has supporters and detractors,"
says Tim Calkins, an associate professor of marketing and co-director
of the branding curriculum at Northwestern University's Kellogg School
of Management in Evanston, Ill. If detractors seriously dislike your brand,
you're unlikely to change their minds: "Brands are based on associations,
[which] are hard to debate," says Calkins. "It's much easier to debate
the ins and outs of a particular product. You need to go beyond the brand
to the product features."
Microsoft itself has made a major push to help partners do exactly that
by making a seemingly limitless supply of relevant, up-to-date information
easily available, says Geoff Nyheim, vice president for Microsoft's Central
Region Enterprise business. The best-known example: The "Get the Facts"
campaign, an ongoing effort to quantify Windows' benefits over the open
source Linux platform. The campaign's centerpiece is a growing online
collection of white papers, third-party analyst reports and case studies
about high-profile customers who ultimately opted for Windows (recent
examples include Royal Caribbean Cruises, 7-Eleven and fashion designer
Tommy Hilfiger). Says Nyheim: "Our approach was simply to drive the conversation
back to a very rational assessment of the facts and a clear decision framework
for evaluating Microsoft against competing alternatives."
That's exactly how David Wertz, founder of PC Works Plus, a Gold Certified
Partner based in Bellwood, Pa., responded to a hard-core Microsoft-hater
at one customer site, an educational institution. The school executive
insisted that Linux was more functional, more reliable and more secure than
Windows. "We showed him the functionality that Microsoft provides out
of the box for SharePoint or Exchange," comparing features
point by point, Wertz recalls. "That pretty much ended the argument."
Microsoft now uses a Get-the-Facts-style approach to address potential
customer questions or confusion about many o f its product lines. "There's
so much information that's available to help in the conversation, the
moment of truth when a partner is eye to eye with a customer," says Nyheim,
noting that material is available both on partner portals and the company's
public Web sites.
If, for instance, a customer asks you to stop by to answer some security
questions about a product, you can grab the most relevant information
online—perhaps something like the number of critical patches issued by
Microsoft and its closest competitors over the previous year. "That way,
you walk in the door as knowledgeable as you can be, and you have information
you can leave with the customer," Nyheim says. And by providing hard numbers
rather than mere brand evangelism, "you take the customer conversation
away from perceptions and emotions and move it toward a fact-based decision
Common Complaints and Counterarguments
Partners say that today's Microsoft bashing varies from company
to company and day to day, depending on news developments and Microsoft
announcements. For example, Microsoft's decision to postpone the release
of Windows Vista was among the biggest lightning rods of recent months.
Ongoing grousing tends to focus on several key areas: costs (both for
initial licenses and upgrades), security threats and bugs. In all three
cases, partners must deal with both perceptions and reality.
"With most of the systems we sell, such as Outlook and Exchange, the
customers have a perception that the product is worth maybe $120 to $180,"
says Prince, of NetSys+. "In reality, it costs $400 and up. Even with
discounting, it winds up somewhere in the middle, maybe at $350 or $375."
That discrepancy makes it particularly tough to convince customers that
they need upgrades: "Usually, there's very little motivation on their
part to say, 'We need new Office products because we have 52 new things
we want to do,'" Prince says. Instead, they insist that what they've got
works well enough, thank you very much.
So how does he overcome cost-based resistance? By demonstrating to decision
makers that new versions of the solutions in question probably offer far
more capability than they realize. "Most of the companies we deal with
are not that tuned into Microsoft," Prince says. Sometimes simply raising
awareness about the latest new features is enough to do the trick.
Wertz, of PC Works Plus, defends Microsoft against price-related complaints.
"We do software and application development ourselves, so I know the cost
of that," he says. "I haven't the foggiest clue what the costs are in
developing [Microsoft] operating systems, but it must be incredible."
He tries to help customers understand that that $400 software package
is the en d result of billions of dollars in research and development,
"not just more money in Bill Gates' pocket."
As for security issues, Wertz expects customers to contact him when Microsoft
issues new security bulletins. What surprises him is when they we get
in touch about problems that were addressed months or even years earlier,
such as old vulnerabilities in Microsoft Outlook. He simply spells out
how Microsoft has resolved the issues in question, concluding by noting
that "Microsoft is not perfect and never will be—but at least what you're
hearing in this case is old news.'"
Two Cents Worth
We recently asked RCP readers whether they encounter
prospects who, for any reason, simply hate Microsoft.
Following is a sampling of responses:
- Yes, but not as often as in the past.
- Some people are just brand-centric, and that's not
easy to change.
- No, not really. They just hate keeping up with upgrades.
- Rarely. We explain that Microsoft has changed over
the years and that many [former] issues are now non-issues.
- Yes, Novell and Unix and Mac users.
- Yes, but the rate has steadily declined [to] two
or three per year.
- Yes, at least monthly.
- Yes, one or two a month.
- Yes, weekly. They complain but use the products
- Yes, weekly. I steer around them and work with folks
who understand business value.
- Yes, every day. I just let them rant.
- Yes, 40 percent of the time.
- Yes, 20 percent of the time.
- Yes, 10 percent of the time. Their objections are
usually irrational and uninformed.
- [Yes, but] not often. A clear explanation of ROI
is the best way to win them over.
- Yes. I don't bother [trying to overcome their objections].
They are in the "Microsoft is evil" camp—and they
generally don't have any money to spend to boot
J.B. Fields, an independent Microsoft trainer and Registered Member,
tries to put customers' security fears in context with a big-picture explanation:
"We had pretty good security on our old mainframes, but we didn't have
agility in accessing [outside] information. Then we chose agility over
security. We hooked our PCs to networks, then hooked our networks to the
Internet"—and Microsoft, like every other technology vendor, has been
fighting off Internet-borne security threats ever since. In other words,
he says he tells them, "security is a problem, but it's an industry problem,
not just a Microsoft problem."
Realistically, though, people will still complain. For that reason, experts
say the No. 1 brand-management best practice to keep in mind is to resist
the temptation to join in the Microsoft bashing. "Never apologize for
the brand," says Calkins, the Northwestern marketing professor. "You always
have to defend it. After all, if the people associated with the brand
don't support it, who will?"
Anne Stuart, the former executive editor of Redmond Channel Partner, is a business technology freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.