I received several responses to my request for stories about Poor Microsoft Responses. I grouped these into themes of things that you should pay attention to if you don't want to offend your customers. This is by no means a complete list of best practices, but had these been followed consistently there would have been fewer examples sent my way.
1. Respond! The worst impressions were formed in situations where a question elicited no responses or a response that implied a follow-up but delivered none. If a customer asks you a question... give them an answer. If you say you are going to follow-up with a customer... Do It! Follow up even if you have nothing better than to say you are still working on a solution. Don't wait for the customer to ping you several times. Some customers pointed me to certain MS individual and team blogs where the bloggers don't seem to ever answer questions asked directly to them about the content of the post... even if the blogger asked for commentary!
2. Support Early Adopters: I heard from an office customer who had to wait over 4 weeks and send several mails for installation help trying to upgrade from beta to a final release. I heard from a Visual Studio customer who told me that our support for customers installing CTP builds could be improved. Your first customers are going to have questions that only you have the answers to. Transfer as much of your expertise ahead of time to this group and do whatever you can to make them successful so that they tell the second wave of adopters about how great the experience was.
3. Respond Appropriately: I was forwarded examples from our own the Product Feedback Center where customers would take the time to report a problem or suggestion with several pages of details about the issue. Our poor responce... "Won't Fix" or "By Design". Thankfully I don't believe that this is the norm and I've found several examples of appropriate responses. Just keep in mind how insulting it is to answer a customer who is pouring his/her heart into an issue with a paltry, two worded, semi-automated response.
4. Don't Patronize: I almost wrote this as "Don't treat customers with kid gloves". A few people pointed to the IE blog as an example of poor responses. There has been a mentality, or fear, at Microsoft that goes something like "Don't promise customers anything!" This is generally followed with the explanation "because we can't guarantee anything about software that hasn't shipped and we don't want to be held accountable to missing features." I cringe when I hear someone say something like this. I hate the fishy answers that result from people that take this too far and you should too.
Sure, after working in the testing world for a while I've learned that nothing is an absolute certainty when it comes to shipping software, but it starts to sound insulting and arrogant when you follow this broken philosophy to the point of dodging issues and being non-committal to anything. I can't guarantee that a bug you report today will or will not actually show up as fixed until you have the final version in your hand, but we could do a better job of telling you the current status and how we feel about the issues. How about at least saying "We're going to try our best to support XYZ. " or "That feature is a non-trivial amount of work, it IS something we'd like to do, but we probably will not get to it". Be honest. Be transparent about your progress. Be accountable to commitments you make to customers! Customers are smarter and have more understanding than they probably get credit for.
5. Don't Adopt a "Boolean View" of the World: Rephrased this might sound like "Be non-judgmental". Mike provided a great example of the impression that can be formed when you don't at least acknowledge a customers view of the world or development methodology...
the response was a puzzled/sarcastic "yeah, like anyone's going to be doing a real project in Notepad". As if Visual Studio and Notepad were the only two games in town. I suppose this is a point about interop, but at the time it was more of a "what planet are these guys from?" reaction.
We talked about this specifically in the training I organized Friday. Its all to easy to come off a arrogant and judgmental if you question a users methodology in a harsh tone ala "You don't really debug that way, do you" (an example from the training.) Its far too easy, especially in non-face to face communication to interpret a response as someone trying to make you look stupid.
Despite not asking for examples of positive customer interactions people sent me several anyway. I talk to people all the time that are not "scared of users" and generally do the right things for their communities. Some people told me we've come a long way as a company and others said that we've been doing a great job for years.
<MiniRant> I felt a little insulted upon hearing that my company was "totally scared of users" from someone who I know has personally been invited into my office and the offices of my fellow co-workers to talk about our products and strategies. But I guess its just good fuel to continue burning the fires of change until everyone who works here has regular conversations with customers. </MiniRant>