Microsoft reacts to service pleas

Though Microsoft's customer service has improved in the past year, corporate users say it remains a big problem - so much so that some say they don't invest more in the company's products because they're afraid to.

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As part of an ongoing effort to upgrade customer service and appeal more to enterprise users, Microsoft is unleashing a three-year, five-stage program, according to Kevin Johnson, Microsoft's vice president of product support services. He said the goal is to "reinvent" the way Microsoft communicates with its customers, trains its engineers and responds to problems.

"We have the road map, and we're reinventing support," Johnson said. "If you look at us in three years, you'll be amazed."

And that's just what at least one IT engineer is hoping for.

"We're not getting the support we need from Microsoft," said Tony Steffe, senior IT engineer at $US3 billion Boise Cascade Office Products.

"We're rolling out NT servers, and we'd like to roll out more - but it's my butt on the line. ... How much support we get affects how much we can buy in."

In response, Microsoft is in the process of making several changes that will be unveiled, including the following:

Aligning service and support by type of customer instead of by product. For instance, Microsoft recently created an Alliance Group for its enterprise customers with mission-critical applications.

Redefining service delivery so enterprise customers will receive a wider array of services than a small business or an individual consumer, such as on-site support.

Changing the way engineers are trained by adding more classes, along with mentoring and on-site, weeklong internships with large customers so engineers learn how businesses run and how they use the products.

Increasing the number of worldwide support engineers from 7,500 to 9,000.

Building a database and companion routing engine to log engineers and their specific competencies, so when someone needs help, they can be routed to a specialist.

Teaming software designers with support engineers on customer calls so they will see firsthand what customers need.

Those moves follow earlier efforts to bolster service and support -- both key areas of focus under Microsoft President Steve Ballmer. For example, the company last summer pumped $200 million into service and support initiatives, creating a new customer-oriented business division. Microsoft then went on to bring in more support personnel for the call center, with many of the new people experienced in rolling out new products like Office 2000 and Windows 2000.

Steven Sommers, CIO at Hughes, Hubbard & Reed LLT, a New York-based international law firm, said he's counting on Ballmer's plan working.

"To be blind three years from now to what I have to put up with today, that would be tremendous," Sommers said. "They're better than they were six months ago. They're friendlier anyway. ... But they bring on people who only know the new stuff, so how can they help me migrate from the old stuff? If Microsoft wants to carry over into the enterprise, they've got to be able to do that."

Microsoft will have a chance to test its new mettle in a few weeks.

Johnson said the company has about 2,800 enterprise-level customers in its Early Assistance Program for Windows 2000, which is generally considered to be Microsoft's most complex and largest undertaking ever.

When Release Candidate One of the Windows 2000 code ships, which is expected by early next month at the latest, those users can begin to make support requests.

Local Microsoft officals were unable to confirm if the program would be implemented in Australia.

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