August 2, 2012

I read with personal interest Microsoft’s decision to change the name of their email service from Hotmail to Outlook. In 2005 I was hired by Microsoft to do customer service training for the software designers responsible for Hotmail, one of the first free web-based email services (1996). The head of Hotmail was concerned that his team of young 30-year-old designers didn’t understand that by creating the programs that people use to sign up and use Hotmail, they are shaping Hotmail’s customer service experience. My basic pitch, which is in my book, was that the key to building a customer focused culture is to know your customer’s expectations and exceed them, all the time.

Well, those hotshot designers didn’t want to listen to this old-fashioned advice. Throughout the training I was surprised with the arrogance they showed for Hotmail customers. When I reflected on statistics (Microsoft tracked everything) that showed that the vast majority of people coming to their site left without signing up, they simply shrugged and told me that I just didn’t understand the business. “We can’t handle the volume of people that want Hotmail now, so why should we care about people leaving the site without signing up?” When I pointed out that the majority of Hotmail users found the look of their site complicated and not very user-friendly, programmers told me, “These people are just dumb; they just need to learn our system. It works for us.” I tried to point out that people that don’t like a service, don’t just disappear. They create a market for competing services.  My audience wasn’t listening.

Now, six years later, with Google’s Gmail and email services from Apple and Yahoo controlling the marketplace, I guess they are listening. The new Outlook gives one easy connection to email, Facebook, Twitter, and non-Microsoft services. The new Outlook.com is a simpler design than Hotmail and lets users automatically isolate junk email that falls between urgent mail and spam.  These are things their customers wanted in 2005 and Microsoft knew it!

The marketing lesson here? How responsive are you to your customer’s wants and needs? I hope it doesn’t take you six years to embrace a customer focused culture and attitude.

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