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Hey, Microsoft: Don't Shoot the Message

Microsoft's message is at times layered thick with marketspeak, so it's up to all of us to let Microsoft know whether or not we hear their message clearly.

You've heard the expression, "Don't shoot the messenger." It means that if you don't like the news, focus on the real problem that it raises rather than on the unlucky person who had to deliver it.

At times, I feel like sending Microsoft a variation on that maxim: "Don't shoot the message."

That's because the company is sometimes confused about whether the problem is the message itself or the subject of the message. Whether it's an OS that doesn't live up to its hype, a program that doesn't meet its targets or a product that tanks in the marketplace, I frequently hear Microsoft spokespeople say that "people aren't getting the message on that."

Microsoft's Structuring
So where does the problem lie? It could mean that the "people" -- that is, customers and users -- are ungrateful or ignorant wretches who don't recognize how hard Microsoft worked to produce a great product or who are biased against the company. It could mean that the media and analysts, both as fussy and arbitrary as doormen at hot New York nightclubs, aren't accurately or fairly representing what Microsoft is doing.

It could mean that the message wasn't well-crafted and -- privately, at least -- Microsoft people will occasionally admit that. But as for any suggestion that the product itself is faulty, incomplete or lame: I've never heard that, at least not from people who are directly involved with whatever product is under discussion.

Faulting the messaging rather than the product results in part from how Microsoft structures its product teams. Typically, each team has its own marketing people, who design the overall message for the product, creating collateral such as FAQs, white papers, brochures and "battlecards" that help the Microsoft salesforce muster their best arguments against the competition. They also create most of the content for the product's Web site.

The people who manage marketing for a product are typically called "product managers." The people who manage engineering of the software itself, on the other hand, are known as "program managers."

Product managers are more visible. Most product-related quotes that you see in the media are from product managers. That's because engineering types often aren't as experienced at dealing with media and analysts and might -- horrors! -- simply speak their minds. You'll also see product managers at the Worldwide Partner Conference, financial analyst meetings, local seminars and other places where Microsoft wants to put its best foot forward and influence partners and customers.

Program managers are more likely to emerge at more technical Microsoft venues, such as the annual Tech-Ed or WinHEC conferences or the periodic Professional Developers Conferences. Because engineers rule at Microsoft (although their influence is waning), no product manager will ever get caught complaining that his product sucks. The product manager's job is to craft the most persuasive message, regardless of the product's actual merits.

While most program managers are highly knowledgeable about the products that their teams are coding, product managers vary in their levels of technical expertise. Some solidly grasp their products' capabilities, the constraints and opportunities that shaped them, the scenarios in which they're strongest, their clearest competitive features and the market research that influenced their design. Others are quickly stymied by even mildly technical questions and retreat to the safety of their marketing brochures.

Keep in Mind
The difference between product managers and program managers is useful for partners to keep in mind. Product managers are actually more likely to be knowledgeable than program managers about many issues, such as licensing, promotions and sales incentives.

And if you think a product sucks? Go ahead and tell a product manager, who may tell you that he will "share your concerns with the product team," and occasionally may actually do so. But if you want to watch someone squirm when you say it, a conversation with a program manager could generate more immediate satisfaction.

You'll know that, this time, your message got through.

About the Author

Paul DeGroot is principle consultant with Pica Communications, which provides consulting services for customers with complex Microsoft licensing issues.

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