Windows 7: The Next Generation of Customer Support

REDMOND, Wash. — Oct. 28, 2009 — For routine computing issues, it’s not always convenient to call a customer support line and talk to a technology professional.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the software could fix itself, or at least point to the problem and suggest how you can fix it?

October 27, 2009

Increasingly, it can. And with the launch last week of Windows 7, Microsoft customers are finding a whole new world when it comes to getting software support at their fingertips.

Lori Brownell, general manager of Product Quality and Online Support at Microsoft, says support for Windows 7 is a real evolution from previous versions of the flagship operating system.

Traditional live support via the phone, e-mail and chat are still there, but so are a host of resources, many available through a new online forum. There is support through Twitter, a library of software “Fix its” that can solve problems with a single click, and other diagnostic and repair tools available directly through Windows 7 itself.

“Windows XP had little built-in support, and Windows Vista included some diagnostics to assess network connectivity issues,” Brownell says. “But Windows 7 truly reflects broad customer feedback that has enabled us to build a comprehensive set of resources that solve customers’ most pressing problems and even keep them ahead of potential problems. For example, Windows Update searches for updates, like driver updates, automatically.”

According to Elaina Stergiades of research group IDC, getting customer feedback into the hands of product developers is critical to improving ongoing support delivery.

“Improving product development to include customer feedback from the support experience can greatly enhance the product design process,” Stergiades says. “Incorporating that customer feedback builds supportability across the product suite, which can help improve the support experience for customers.”

Connecting Software Users With Software Makers

Brownell’s team is tasked with figuring out where customers need help, and putting that help where it can do the most good. She and her team of technical program managers — a mix of former product group members and customer support experts — have spent the past couple of years getting ready for Windows 7 by poring over customer feedback from a variety of venues including Windows Error Report logs, top questions in community forums and customer interactions.

“It’s one thing to provide customer data to the product groups,” she says. “It’s another to help them hear it through engineering terms. Now we have the people, processes and tools in place to translate customer feedback into information that our engineering team uses to improve a product.”

From day one, Brownell says, her team worked to communicate customer feedback directly to the Windows design team. As a result, Windows 7 represents the next generation of customer support, making fixes easier and more intuitive, to the point where the software can actually help customers solve problems before they even start.

According to the Forrester Research report, “Customer Service Trumps Price,” published May 15, 2009, such improvements add up to a better experience for customers: “The data is compelling: Consumers care about customer service. Companies can differentiate themselves by upgrading their service experiences throughout the customer life cycle — from acquisition through ongoing customer support (and renewal).”

Support With a Click

For Windows 7, automated support was a big focus, says Brownell. One big new change is the Windows Action Center, which lets customers access more than 20 automated troubleshooters that are built into the platform. When an issue comes up, Windows 7 is able to identify it, often before the customer even notices.

“These troubleshooters can diagnose and solve the most common problems reported by Windows users, including set-up and compatibility issues, hardware defects and the like,” says Brownell.

As an example, Brownell says that a lack of audio is the No. 1 problem customers report. Causes can vary from having speakers plugged into the wrong jack to bad audio drivers.

“If you have incorrectly installed your audio driver, the Windows Action Center can alert you, diagnose the problem and point you to the correct fix, or fix the problem itself,” she says.

Brownell says that having software developers familiar with operating systems on her team is a big advantage in helping find problems and identify those ripe for an automated solution. This concept is behind the Windows Action Center, and is also behind the Fix its that Microsoft began publishing last December.

The idea behind Fix its is to automate the steps provided in Microsoft Knowledge Base technical articles and Windows Error Reporting solutions, so users can click on a button and resolve a given issue automatically. For most people, Fix its are a welcome alternative to wading through technically oriented Knowledge Base articles.

Knowledge Base articles are still available to tech-savvy users who enjoy problem-solving, although more than 400 of the articles now include Fix its, giving customers greater choice. Fix its will also pop up in Windows Error Reports, and customers can search for Fix its online.

“We’ve even built safety measures into the Fix its to give added reassurance,” Brownell says. “If the user clicks on the wrong Fix it, it won’t modify or damage anything.”

Knowledge from the Windows Community

For cases when built-in diagnostics and automated solutions don’t provide the answers customers are looking for, Microsoft has built new support solutions based on a vast, existing resource — the knowledge and expertise of the global Windows community.

“We have developed additional support tools for Windows 7 that reflect the places people are increasingly going online to visit, such as a favorite social media site,” she says.

Using Twitter to help fix a problem on your PC may seem novel at first, but Brownell says the inclusion of social media into Windows 7 support was a big area of emphasis for her team, with its roots on the developer side.

“Sites such as MSDN and TechNet have been around for years and are very healthy community forums for developers and IT pros,” she says.

Now Microsoft is offering community support for consumers through a new forum called Microsoft Answers, which recently launched a subforum for Windows 7. It offers peer-to-peer support and also makes the content from the Windows Help & How-to center more accessible to customers with a particular issue at hand.

Answers are contributed by other customers, technical enthusiasts and Microsoft Customer Support experts. Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs), who are recognized for their technical expertise and passion for helping others, are also very active in this new forum.

“Microsoft Answers makes it much easier for consumers to find simply written information about their PCs,” Brownell says. “People can go there to find, use and share information that helps them get the most from their software.”

Brownell says site audits are also being conducted on the Microsoft Answers forum, which will help the team raise the visibility of common issues on the broader support site, which in turn is used to continually improve support resources.

“As answers are posted in these peer-to-peer spaces, we audit them,” Brownell says. “We’ve validated nearly 60,000 answers to date on Windows Vista and Windows 7. That way, customers get the Microsoft stamp of approval on an answer.”

Contacting a Support Agent

Analysts such as Matt Healey of IDC have long discussed the value of increased access to tech support for consumers and small businesses.

“Most consumers and small businesses are looking for technical support that isn’t costly and doesn’t require a great deal of tech savvy,” Healey says. “Access to intuitive and easy-to-use tech support resources backed by a reputable vendor offers great value for these customers.”

Brownell says that her team’s approach to service and support for Windows 7 is all about accessibility — enabling customers to get support how they want it, when they want it and where they want it.

When they need it, customers can still get the help they need online, by e-mail, chat and phone. They can even get help in-person at the new Microsoft retail stores.

Adding to this mix, Microsoft introduced the @MicrosoftHelps handle on Twitter recently. Customers worldwide can tweet in English directly to @MicrosoftHelps for customer service questions, resources and support.

“Our social media agents are experienced and have extensive knowledge about searching and using resources to get answers to customer questions,” says Brownell. “They will also bring customers with more complex issues into the support forums for help from customer support and Microsoft MVPs.”

Brownell suggests that customers who go online first may actually get a step ahead if they end up calling Microsoft for support help.

“If you run diagnostics and decide you want to talk to a support agent, we can upload the diagnostics directly to the agent,” she says. “We use this information to route you more directly to the right person. As you are routed to a support agent, those diagnostics are available so that the agent has more information to help.”

Call it the next generation of live support, and another tool that makes getting support in the Windows 7 era easier than ever.

“We’ve got some work to do, but I’m pleased with the plumbing we’ve built into Windows 7,” says Brownell. “We now have real resources in place to deliver more support value more directly to the customer. We’ve come a long way, and we’re only going to get better.”