Columnist Celebrates Eight Years Getting Crabby With Customers

REDMOND, Wash. — March 30, 2010 — Eight years ago, Annik Stahl started getting crabby.

The writer took her computer experiences, sprinkled them with humor and sass, and channeled them all into the persona of a grumpy, middle-aged, Microsoft Office-savvy lady with an upswept hairdo and a lipstick-stained coffee mug. Now, more than a million people a month log on to see what the “Crabby Office Lady” has to say.

More than a million people a month log on to Office Online to see what the “Crabby Office Lady” has to say.

Crabby’s cranky tone and conversational style raised a few eyebrows at first, but readers seem to love that Microsoft is willing to be real with them, Stahl says.

“I find comedy in everything,” she says. “Even in databases and forms, I can pluck the humor out of any of it, and people respond to that.”

Crabby’s columns are among the most popular and highest-rated content on Office Online, which provides how-to articles, clip art, templates and more for people who use Microsoft Office.

“We’re dealing with human beings out there,” Stahl says. “Some of them may call themselves IT professionals, but they’re all human beings with emotions and good and bad hair days and all of that.”

It’s great to have help topics, case studies, training, and demos, Stahl says, but they’re not for everyone. “Sometimes people just want to slow down and read something and get perspective,” she says. “I like to provide context for that rich content—the ‘why’ to go along with the ‘how.'”

Stahl created the column and its Crabby author near the end of 2001 when the Office Online team was looking for ways to make the site more engaging and magazine-like. Stahl, wanting to write a column, came up with the Crabby Office Lady character. She worked with Microsoft employee and artist Jim St. George to create a drawing of Crabby and wrote her first column.

Her manager was supportive, but in the beginning the team took heat for Crabby Office Lady from people who didn’t think it was an appropriate way to talk to customers.

“But I got a ton of positive, happy messages from readers, so they said ‘Alright, write another one.’ Then the same thing happened again—I got a lot of feedback,” Stahl says.

She started out writing one Crabby column per month and gradually wrote more and more. After two years, the column had enough momentum that Stahl convinced her managers to let her make it her full-time job.

Annik Stahl says that in 2002 she was in essence blessed with two new people in her life—a crabby, middle-aged column character and her adopted Vietnamese daughter Bian.

“Six years later, here I am,” says Stahl, who just celebrated her 10th anniversary of working at Microsoft. She now telecommutes from Denver, where she grew up and lives close to family.

With the popularity of her column, Stahl is in many ways camped out on the front lines of the company’s public perception. Several years ago she started making videos to accompany her column. She has also added podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, and a blog with daily tips to her Crabby suite.

After her fiftieth column, Stahl revealed her true identity in the “about the author” section at the end of each column. Soon she started getting calls at home from people with questions about Office. It happened more than once.

“People saw my full name on the video and would look me up and call me at home,” Stahl says. “It happened about 10 times. Everybody had really earnest questions, and for the most part I answered them. …I have an unlisted number now.”

That’s a true story, though some of Crabby’s anecdotes in the column are partly or entirely fiction, meant only to illustrate or explain an Office-related point. Stahl hasn’t really been married and divorced three times, she didn’t actually school a beauty salon owner on PivotTables, nor does she look anything like the Crabby Office Lady logo.

“It works for Office users—they really get it that way,” Stahl says of the anecdotes. “It’s like being a sitcom actor. That character kind of lives inside you. You can’t write something like that without having a part of you in there.”

Other true stories: She really does have a child (seven-year-old Bian); she takes piano lessons, reads, and goes to the park; and she “tries to head off old age” by doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. Also true: she really can’t type well (she’s a keyboard “hunter and pecker”). And she really does love her job and being able to write about technical topics with personality. Her column’s motto: “Solid advice . . . with an attitude.”

It can be a struggle for Crabby to keep her column fresh and her ideas new after eight years of writing. It helps that there are perennial favorites such as Crabby’s New Year’s resolutions, a Valentine’s Day-themed column, a back to school column, and a column on surviving the holidays.

Stahl has written more than 200 columns on topics such as e-mail manners, how to collaborate with difficult people, how to take advantage of Office resources such as templates and clip art, and tips and tricks that span much of what Office has to offer.

Some of her most popular columns are “Crabby’s Tips,” which cover everything from “when to use which Office program,” to “what is a macro and why should you care?”

Stahl gets upwards of 800 comments a month from readers, and she reads and responds to them all, provided they leave an e-mail address. Stahl says she still gets the occasional e-mail from an offended reader who says Crabby is ageist or sexist (she responds that she’s the writer and she’s also a sassy, nearly middle-aged woman, and urges them to lighten up). Her columns are translated into Italian, Spanish, French, and German.

Stahl (and Crabby) also wrote a book on many of the same topics, “The Microsoft Crabby Office Lady Tells It like It Is: Secrets to Surviving Office Life.”

Despite the column’s success, Stahl says she can’t see herself being Crabby forever—though she does love working at Microsoft.

“When I created Crabby and started writing in her voice, I was a youngish woman doing an impression of a middle-aged woman. Now I am a middle-aged woman—well, almost—channeling another kind of middle-aged woman,” Stahl says. “I’ve changed a lot. Crabby’s changed a lot.”

In December, a longtime reader wrote to Stahl and told her she wasn’t Crabby Office Lady anymore. “You’re the Nurturing Office Lady,” the reader told her. “I want Crabby back.”

The observation wasn’t far off, and it made Stahl laugh.

“It’s been a great run so far,” she says.

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