Powers Unfiltered

An entrepreneur’s journey into grid computing and partnering with Microsoft, by John Powers

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May 15th, 2007 · No Comments

I post a lot about our experiences as a partner and customer of Microsoft, and anybody who cares to go back and count knows that most of my posts are positive.  For whatever reason, my complaints / rants tend to get more attention, so I want to re-iterate – our experience with Microsoft is on balance largely positive, and we remain an enthusiastic Microsoft partner.

With that out of the way – LiveMeeting has to go.  It’s great software, and good, reliable service – with no understanding of business whatsoever.  The treatment our company  has received from the Microsoft Office LiveMeeting organization (still referred to within Microsoft by its old name, Placeware), has ranged from comical to appalling.  Today, we reached appalling.

In 2005, we started experimenting with LiveMeeting as a way of demonstrating our software to prospective clients.  There were pluses and minuses, but on the whole it proved to be an effective tool.  For a while, we mooched off a friend’s account at Microsoft, but by spring of 2006 we settled into a pattern of bi-weekly Webcasts, and got our own account.  My partner Dan Ciruli set up that account; the only form of payment they offered for this type of account at the time was to put the monthly charge on his credit card, so he filled out the necessary forms and received confirmation from Microsoft.  So far, so good.

Then, Microsoft never billed him.  Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a lot of time reviewing my credit card statement for transactions that aren’t there.  And apparently, neither does Dan.  So he did not notice that Microsoft was NOT billing us for this service.  And neither, apparently, did Microsoft.

Then somebody from Microsoft popped up in February 2007 and said to Dan HEY YOU HAVEN’T PAID US and Dan said “so take the money already!”  He completed a second credit card form, and was told (again) that everything was fine.  Then the exact same person from Microsoft popped up in March 2007 and said the exact same thing, as though he’d never had the previous exchange, and Dan forwarded all the exact same information, and got the same response – oh, sorry, everything is fine now.  It became a running joke in the office, wondering how they made any money.

And then in April, somebody new at Microsoft woke up and said HEY YOU GUYS OWE US A WHOLE TON OF MONEY.  Always a great day when that happens.  So Dan and I researched it and sure enough, we had been getting free LiveMeeting service for almost a year.  So I called the friendly and helpful person at Microsoft (all names withheld on this one) and asked if we could just pay by check (a) for the outstanding balance, and (b) monthly thereafter.  She agreed, and said she’d send (a) an invoice for the outstanding balance, and (b) a monthly invoice thereafter.  And everything was fine again.

Then, Microsoft never billed us.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a lot of time searching the mail for bills that aren’t there.  You put a valid invoice in my hand, I pay it promptly.  You don’t, oh well.  I pay a lot of invoices for other parts of Microsoft – most departments / divisions / business units / subsidiaries / whatever at Microsoft are pretty competent at getting a valid invoice to my desk, and I pay ‘em right quick.  But the LiveMeeting group apparently has not mastered this Business 101 concept. 

And of course, there’s only one way these things can end – we found our LiveMeeting account deactivated seven minutes before our scheduled Webcast this morning.  With attendees invited everywhere from here to India.  No warning emails, no onscreen notice that the account will be suspended in the future, no reason given on the Web page that says we’re dead, no “pay to reactivate” option, just — dead.  I don’t get real upset in the office very often, but I hit the roof. 

I called the toll-free number helpfully posted on the deactivation notice “for immediate service,” which presents a robotic phone tree with four options none of which are “TURN ME BACK ON NOW.”  I punch 4 to “talk with an attendant.”  I am transferred to Microsoft tech support, and am told I need to “talk to Placeware.”  I’m steaming now.  Four minutes and counting.  I call back and punch 2, “sales,” because in my experience humans usually answer when you talk to sales.  I get a human who is sympathetic, but says I need to call tech support; I get a new number to try.  Three minutes to go.  I call the new number, and find out the name of my account representative, and am transferred to him, but it turns out to be someone who sits near him, and eventually I reach my account representative.  Nope, I am assured that there is no way no how no human on earth who can turn my account back on in two minutes; my partner sends a note canceling the Webcast to all participants.  We look like idiots, and I am seriously pissed.

I stay on the line with my account manager, who asks many questions about who I had been working with previously on our account and billing issues (we find a couple of names, one gone and one still there).  I vent some more at him, and he’s sorry, and we’re done. 

The urge to open a WebEx account is now quite strong, but we suddenly realize we’ve got ANOTHER LiveMeeting with an important prospective customer later today.  Time for a deep breath.

I call the person who had previously promised to send me an invoice by mail, but never did.  I explain the whole situation again – she was “just talking with” my account manager.  I ask “did he mention that I ripped him a new one?”  She laughs nervously.  Between further apologies and digging into records, we eventually just put the whole bill on MY credit card, and she promises (really) to send me monthly invoices from here on.  Within an hour, the account is turned back on, and we’re good to go.

So – if customer service is “falling on the grenade,” these folks get a B+.  (To get an A, I had to be back up and running for the FIRST meeting we had scheduled.)  For processes and procedures – F.

Now we’ll see if I ever get a monthly bill – and yes, this is one I’ll be watching for.  And the Webex experiement begins in parallel next week.

Tags: Customer Service · Growth · Partnering with Microsoft · Usability

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