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.

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Of course, some of those sentiments are unfounded, unfair or outdated, and channel partners whose companies depend upon Microsoft's success do their best to counter them.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, 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.

It's All in the Packaging

It's 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.'"

Books About Branding
Following are some recommended marketing and brand-management guides:

Brand Portfolio Strategy: Creating Relevance, Differentiation, Energy, Leverage and Clarity, by David A. Aaker (Free Press, 2004)

Brand Sense: Build Powerful Brands Through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight and Sound, by Martin Lindstrom (Free Press, 2005)

Designing Brand Identity: A Complete Guide to Creating, Building and Maintaining Strong Brands, by Alina Wheeler (Wiley, 2003)

Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, 3rd edition, by Al Ries & Jack Trout (McGraw-Hill, 2000)

Strategic Brand Management: Building, Measuring and Managing Brand Equity, 2nd edition, by Kevin Lane Keller (Prentice Hall, 2002)

The 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 approach."

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.'"

Your 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 anyway.
  • 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?"

About the Author

Anne Stuart, the former executive editor of Redmond Channel Partner, is a business technology freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.