A couple weeks back, I had the pleasure to speak with Barbara Gordon, the CVP for Customer Service and Support at Microsoft. Barbara is deeply concerned about the ongoing reports from customers about the quality of recent Windows Update releases and is duty-bound to ensure that the quality improves.

Microsoft is in the midst of a huge state of change. Not only are they altering the company, moving away from a software-centric focus to a "devices and services" model, but they have also started accelerating development and release cycles under a "Cloud First" banner. Many have worried that there's just too much going on causing too much confusion at the company, which is resulting in poor quality for updates released to the public as part of the monthly patch cycle. This worry is not unfounded, considering the most recent releases have the patching community up in arms and ready to battle. Some are asking for heads to roll. Some have suggested that botched releases will cause admins to stop paying attention to patches – which is never good. Susan Bradley, moderator for the patch management email discussion list, has written and sent an email to Steve Ballmer. You can read Susan's email here: Dear Mr. Ballmer - my email today

I've watched other tech news outlets finally jump on board and say that things need to change, citing the last 3 months as evidence. But, I've been watching this for much longer. The QA problems go back over a year now and was initially activated by a bad System Center update. The months that followed that release saw at least one update per cycle that had to be pulled and fixed. This is clear evidence that something is deeply wrong within Microsoft. Microsoft has long been known for good service and quality patches – that was something you could count on. But, even that has changed. I hear regular community reports that even service is suffering.

During my interview with Barbara, she wanted to assure me that she has things well in hand. Given that was a few weeks back, and this week we're faced with new patching issues, I have to question the processes and procedures Barbara explained to me. At the time, they seemed logical and sound, but either my thought process was totally off, or Microsoft simply isn't using them. Or, even more likely, the processes are as confused and muddled as Microsoft the company is right now.

All in all, it seems that Microsoft has positioned themselves to be better prepared for eventuality of problems, than building a solution to the rash of quality problems with Updates. Microsoft seems to believe that problems with patches are just what's expected, and they are spending more time beefing up the post-support process than the release process. As you'll read below Microsoft relates even the patching process to customer "experiences." Ensuring a "fantastic" customer experience lumps engineering, product groups, and even sales into the whole product release sequence.  To me, this is probably the biggest issue. Fixing and securing products should never include sales.  The QA process needs to stand on its own and be completely separate from other parts of the business.

 

Here's some expanded notes from my conversation with Barbara. I'll just post them up as reported and let you comment on your thoughts.

 

Background on Customer Support Services (CSS)

Barbara has been leading CSS for about 4 years. She heads up over 9,000 employees in 191 countries who work in close to 43 languages. CSS is required to run 24x7 and has literally billions of interactions with customers every year with the goal to ensure customers around the world have a fantastic experience with Microsoft products. It was interesting (and a bit disturbing) that Barbara used the word "experience" quite a bit during our conversation like it’s a special insider buzzword at Microsoft. Of course, it does make sense somewhat, except lately customers have been having bad "experiences" with Microsoft products and Update releases.

 

The Processes

One of the things that was stated, and really is just something that many have thought for a long while anyway, is that on-premise release cycles are secondary now. Even with the accelerated release schedules, there are many more releases for other products (Skype was mentioned) going on almost daily. Microsoft seems to be in the business of frequent product updates and its evident they're very proud of that.

Microsoft has constructed two specific processes to ensure a high level of support for their products, and is really more about preparing for problems, than identifying problems before releases.

  • Last Mile Excellence– All releases, including patches, major upgrades and full releases and taken through a defined, last step process called Last Mile Excellence. This process attempts to ensure all aspects of a release including: training the engineering team to adequately support it, understand how it's being shipped out to field, and educating sales staff so they know how to position technology in the marketplace. They attempt to look at every single aspect of what the customer "experience" will be.

 

  • Red Zone– The Red Zone is the process of identifying when calls come in, what the issues are, where the calls are coming from, and yes, what is the customer "experience." CSS takes the information and delivers it to the specific product teams. Barbara said that the product teams "take the info with open arms" and get to work to solve the customers' problems.

 

Other Factors

Microsoft understands that it's not a Microsoft-only world out there. But, using Microsoft products with other vendor's products creates levels of complexity. Microsoft is an active member of the TSIA that allows them to connect to their competitors and understand potential issues between different vendor products, with the ultimate goal of benefiting customers.

Another issue that can cause update problems is that Microsoft develops applications to work in a certain way. When the customer receives the applications they use them to solve their problems, which a lot of times means that using them contrary to Microsoft's vision.

 

Moving to the Cloud Makes it Easier

And, yes there was a Cloud discussion. You can't talk to any team in Microsoft without the Cloud being promoted somewhere.

Moving to the Cloud makes patching easier, and protects the customer from frustrations of patching. When apps and services exist in the Cloud, Microsoft provides all the updating services and patching on-premise becomes a thing of the past.

 

P.S.  Since my chat with Barbara it would seem (thanks to pci2k) that she has moved on. CRN reports that she now works for EMC as their new COO, leaving the CSS group in the hands of Kirsten Kliphouse, vice president of Microsoft's U.S. East Region Enterprise & Partner Group. So, maybe things are in the process of getting sorted out. Maybe, this month is a result of not having anyone at the wheel. We'll see.

 

Barbara's BIO

 

Bio: Barbara Gordon, CVP Customer Service & Support

Barbara Gordon is Corporate Vice President (CVP) of Customer Service and Support (CSS), part of Microsoft Services organization.

 

With more than 9,000 employees worldwide in over 60 countries, CSS plays a critical role by engaging with Microsoft’s customers, partners, developers and advertisers including consumers and businesses of all sizes. CSS aspires to earn our customer and partner’s lifetime loyalty by understanding their needs, solving and preventing their problems, and helping them get the most out of Microsoft technologies.  Barbara believes strongly that CSS also has the responsibility to leverage the voice of the customer and partner to improve products, services, and experiences within Microsoft. 

 

Barbara’s passion and focus on execution excellence and long term customer relationships has helped drive revenue, market share, and customer satisfaction during her roles at Microsoft.  Barbara moved to the CSS corporate vice president role in July 2009 from the Microsoft Europe, Middle East, Africa (EMEA) region, where she was VP of Enterprise & Partner Group Sales. Barbara joined Microsoft in November 2003 as VP of Global Accounts. Prior to Microsoft, she held various executive positions including leading worldwide sales teams for ten years at companies such as AT&T, Digital Equipment, and Sun Microsystems, where she worked for 15 years.

 

In addition to her focus on customer connection and earning lifetime loyalty, Barbara has been recognized for her commitment to developing people and the importance of building great teams. With People as a top-level goal, CSS strives to have the best culture, talent, and leadership across Microsoft by increasing employee empowerment, engagement, and expertise. Barbara has played a role in the success of many of her employees, recognizing their potential and supporting them by providing guidance and encouraging them to take on challenges. She is active in championing diversity and accessibility within CSS and across Microsoft.

 

Gordon earned a bachelor of science in business administration with a minor in history from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.