What’s A Customer and How Should We Connect?

Doug Barney recently wrote in the magazine Redmond that “[Microsoft] should formally and publicly engage customer in the design process - sort of an open source front-end to a commercial project.” He also wrote, “does Microsoft listen to customers? Absolutely, more than almost any vendor I’ve ever seen.” Doug’s remarks are totally on the mark and I couldn’t agree with them more. Internally there is constant chatter about customers, what do they think, what do they want, and sometimes even who are they. Customer, customer, customer.


I will never argue the customer isn’t important, but when it comes to designing the software (not the licensing or marketing, but the actual product) we don’t really want the customer, we want the user. There is a subtle but important difference. The customer for SQL Server isn’t necessarily the DBA. It’s more likely the IT manager or the CIO. It may also be the corporate purchasing department. But the user is the DBA or the DB developer. Don't razz me too much about the other SQL users, I know there are more users than just DBA and developers.


I was having this conversation just last night with a friend of mine who is fairly high up here at MS. The problem is there are many different relationships MS has with customers; these include, but certainly not limited to, the end user, the purchasing agent, the support person, the decision maker, the influencer, etc. All of these roles are impacted in some way by the software we deliver. The licensing terms, the support terms, the product functionality are all components of what we call “the product”.


In Doug’s article, I believe he does really mean “The Customer”. The point is this is just more than what the code does. There are several recent examples of MS listening to customers when it didn’t have much of anything to do with the code. Visual Studio altered their initial licensing for VS2005 after customers (all roles included) back lashed. The Office team has finally “heard” the light with respect to file formats. Thank you Customers!


These are great examples and I’m sure there are many more. Listening to customers is in our DNA – it’s a key part of what makes Microsoft great.


The challenge I’m faced with is, how do I connect with the 1,000’s of SQL Server customers – here I really mean users. I read various forums (both MSDN forums and non-MS forums) but is this really the collective voice of the user? How do I get feedback on new feature ideas? Don’t get me wrong, we talk to users regularly. Sharing ideas and listening to feedback. But it’s such a small set they act as a proxy for the greater population. My question really is how do we reach a critical mass? The hotmail team can launch a beta and allow 1% of their user base to hit it. This equates (and please don’t quote me on this because I’m pulling it from memory) to roughly 3,000,000 users worldwide. That’s a huge number – an incredible sample size which is probably representative of their overall user base. MSN also has the ability to make changes very quickly so the risk is minimal. I don’t really know how to do this in SQL land. Also, the cost of a mistake is very high – since we ship the product on media.


I will continue to read blogs and news groups. I will attend customer presentations on they use SQL Server. These are all very good things. But what I'm really looking for is the break through idea on how to give ever customer an equal shot at being heard. I just don't believe we have that today - at least I haven't seen it.

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