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NEW SYSTEMS AMPLIFYING FEEDBACK FROM CUSTOMERS.

Byline: Bill Gates

There used to be a sofa in Microsoft's telephone customer support center called ``the Mail Merge couch'' - named for a feature in our word-processing program that lets users customize form letters.

The early version of Mail Merge was so complicated that whenever a customer called for help, our representative would lie down on the couch to take the call, knowing the conversation was likely to last a long time.

Clearly something was wrong.

We fixed the problem in the next generation of Word (and eliminated the couch), but the story illustrates how important customer feedback is.

Most businesses understand that using customer feedback to guide the development and improvement of products and services is critical to success. But some companies are better than others at collecting and using feedback - and knowing when it alone is not enough to make strategic decisions.

The first rule for managers who want to help their companies to be customer-driven is to implement systems that effectively solicit customer feedback, and then put it to work.

Boeing uses extensive customer involvement when developing each of its new jetliner models. United Airlines influenced the design of both the 767 and the 777, and British Airways and the now-defunct Eastern Airlines participated in development of the 757. As a result, the airlines were able to tailor the planes to their specific needs and preferences.

When a company has thousands or millions of customers, though, it can't involve many of them individually in the product design process, and must look to systems that provide reliable information from a representation of customers.

Some companies offer a customer-feedback phone number. But whenever I see a candy-bar wrapper or toothpaste box that has a phone number on it, I always wonder who bothers to call.

Surveys are another system for gathering feedback, but a lot of people - including me - aren't willing to spend much time answering them.

The Internet may change that. Companies will e-mail surveys to customers and offer incentives to fill them out, maybe a little digital money or coupons to buy products at a discount. It will be immensely efficient for the company because the survey results will be in electronic form, making results easier to compile and analyze.

Some companies already use the Internet in this way. Encyclopedia Britannica recently e-mailed people who had accepted a free seven-day trial of the company's on-line reference, offering another free week to those willing to fill out an on-line survey about their reactions to the product and its price.

Focus group and customer councils, where a small number of customers come together to discuss their reactions to current and new products or services, also are a good way to collect customer feedback, although they, too, have their limitations. No system of market research is foolproof.

Even companies that do a good job of listening to customers can make mistakes. When the Coca-Cola Co. unveiled new Coke in 1985, it was doing what it thought its customers wanted: sweetening the taste of the world's leading soft drink.

The company believed customer feedback told them to deliver a different drink, but what people really wanted was what they were used to drinking. Coca-Cola was able to recover nicely by resurrecting the old Coke under the name Coke Classic.

Several years ago, Microsoft released a product called ``Bob'' that let people interact with an on-screen character as a way to make the computer easier to use. The social interface didn't catch on - or at least it hasn't yet.

We won't be releasing another version of Bob, but we still believe in its underlying value, and expect it to come back to life in another form.

I'm a strong believer that heeding customer feedback is critical to success in any business, especially a dynamic, fast-moving industry such as ours.

MEMO: Bill Gates, chairman and co-founder of Microsoft Corp., writes a syndicated column twice a month for the New York Times News Service. Questions may be sent to Gates by electronic mail. The address is askbillmicrosoft.com. Or write to him care of The New York Times Syndicate, 122 E. 42nd St., 14th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10168.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Daily News
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:BUSINESS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 19, 1996
Words:696
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