Can I talk to that William fellow? He was so helpful


Today we're going to take a little trip in the wayback machine with the help of my colleague Seth Manheim, who was there when this happened.

Set the date to November 22, 1989, twenty years ago and one day. Bill Gates is being taken on a guided tour of the product support department's new office building, and during his visit, he asks one of the people manning the phones, "Mind if I take this call?"

Bill puts on a headset, sits down, and answers the phone. "Hello, this is Microsoft Product Support, William speaking. How can I help you?"

Bill talks with the customer, collects the details of the problem, searches in the product support Knowledge Base, sifts through the search results, finds the solution, and patiently walks the customer through fixing the problem.

The customer is thrilled that William was able to fix the problem so quickly, and with such a pleasant attitude. Bill wraps up the call. "And thank you for using Microsoft products."

At no point did Bill identify himself as anything other than William. The customer had no idea that the product support engineer who took the call was none other than Bill Gates.

But the story doesn't end there.

Even though this story took place while most of the support staff were on their lunch break, news travels quickly, and soon everybody in the department knows about The time Bill took a product support call.

Some time later, the same customer calls back with a follow-up question.

Hi, I called you folks with a problem with XYZ, and I talked with a nice man named William who straightened it all out. But I have another question. Can I speak with William?

"Okay, let me see if William is available." The product support engineer brings up the customer's service record and looks at the name of the support engineer who handled the earlier call: billg.

"Yeah, um, I'm sorry, but William is not available right now. His friends call him Bill, by the way. The person who helped you last time? That was Bill Gates."

Oh my God.

While I'm tinkering with the wayback machine, I may as well point you to a story from a few years ago with a similar (but less dramatic) punch line.

Comments (24)
  1. Meng says:

    Sounds as if the William fellow was well trained for support (I mean, no worse than an experienced support staff). Was that real?

  2. porter says:

    One trait of a good leader is someone who would never ask somebody to do something they are not prepared to do themselves.

  3. DWalker59 says:

    @John:  What was the purpose of your post?  

  4. James Schend says:

    @DWalker: He’s just come from Slashdot as hasn’t wiped the rabid foam from his lips yet, is my guess.

    @Meng: Assuming the customer isn’t difficult (and it sounds like this one wasn’t), product support isn’t really hard. You just be polite, respectful, and honest with the customer. I’ve done plenty of support calls for products and issues I have absolutely zero knowledge of, and I always seem to do ok. Plus in 1989, BillG probably had pretty intimate knowledge of all of Microsoft’s products– they were huge, but not mega-huge, then.

  5. Daniel says:

    Great story, makes my eyes wet. I wonder how many other managers/executives/top-level-high-income people (who most likely have not gone all the long way that billg went) would be able (and dare to demonstrate) to do the work of their employees. And apparently he did it for fun.

  6. tsrblke says:

    @Daniel,

    I don’t think it was just for fun, I think it was as porter said that a good leader never asks anyone to do anything they wouldn’t do themselves.  The somewhat indirect corallary to that is "do everything your subordinates do at least once"

  7. tsrblke says:

    @Daniel,

    I don’t think it was just for fun, I think it was as porter said that a good leader never asks anyone to do anything they wouldn’t do themselves.  The somewhat indirect corallary to that is "do everything your subordinates do at least once"

  8. keith says:

    This is consistent with Joel Spolsky’s anecdote about the Excel date issue in his first meeting with Bill Gates.  It’s impressive and telling that Bill Gates had the confidence in the knowledge base business process that he could sit down and be prepared to handle any blind question from the customer.  

  9. iain says:

    @James Schend

    …by the same token, is it credible that billg’s name had such an effect on the customer? I thought back then he was "co-founder of Microsoft", not "The Richest Guy On The Planet (founded Microsoft)".

    I guess maybe the customer worked in IT him/herself.

  10. Anders says:

    Reminds me of when he was a guest on Frasier:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpRiDl48ERA

  11. Pat says:

    Except I like to think that Michael Howard is a lot better at securing a PC than Lance is at fixing flats.

    “I don’t normally change flats. I call the car and they fix it. That’s the way it works in road cycling,” Armstrong said.

    http://sports.yahoo.com/sc/news?slug=ap-leadville100

  12. Henke37 says:

    Nobody have asked about what XYZ was yet? The shock value is high on this one.

  13. John says:

    In an alternate dimension:

    Steve puts on a headset, sits down, and answers the phone. "Hello, this is Microsoft Product Support, Steven speaking. How can I F*CKING KILL YOU?"  *sound of a chair crashing through a window*

  14. t-mikeha says:

    This story is mostly true, although it’s not quite how I remember it.  In 1989 I was a product support services intern working at Microsoft’s Lincoln Plaza campus.  I worked for the ‘System Languages’ team, or SysLang as we called ourselves.  We supported Micorosft C 5.x, QuickC, and their Pascal product and thier associated tools.  One day (I don’t remember if it was November or not) Bill came through on a tour of PSS.  I mentioned to another intern, Nadine, that it would be cool if Bill took a call from a customer.  When he came by our area with the group of other management types she bounded up to him with a huge smile on her face and asked if he’d like to see how things worked for himself, and take a call from a customer.  The people he was with tried to dissuade him of this idea, saying something about schedules and the like, but Bill liked the idea and wanted to do it.  At the time, i was a real clean freak, and my cube was very clean and devoid of clutter, so I suggested he sit down at my desk.  I explained to him how the Aspect phone system worked and how to look up things in our STARS knowledge base using an OS/2 terminal program connected to a DEC minicomputer.  He got settled in, and eventually took a call, greeting the customer like:

    "Hello, Product Support Services, this is William, how can I help you?"

    Just about everyone who wasn’t currently on a call with a customer was gathered around my cube listening.  I seem to remember the customer having a problem with the linker.  Bill queried the knowledge base, which was normally painfully slow, but this time it was snappy and responsive.  The first result looked like it might have addressed the customer’s problem, and Bill went with it.  I of course only heard one side of the conversation, but it sounded like the customer wasn’t satisfied with the answer. Bill was firm yet polite, reassuring the customer that we had seen this problem before and that his solution was correct, and the customer eventually agreed to try the solution mentioned in the STARS article.  An hour or so later, my friend Tad got that customer again, and he mentioned that William had helped him with his problem earlier but his solution didn’t work.  Tad let the customer know that he had in fact talked to Bill Gates, and helped him with his problem.  I don’t remember how/if it got solved though.

    That was quite a big day for me.  For years I had saved the yellow pad that had Bill’s notes from the call.

  15. "For years I had saved the yellow pad that had Bill’s notes from the call."

    And then what, you decided at some point to throw it away? Are you kidding?

  16. steveg says:

    True* story: the caller’s name was Bob. William enjoyed his time in support so much he decided to name a product after his favourite customer.

    Can you imagine if it were Steve Ballmer: HELLO! THANK YOU FOR CALLING MICROSOFT! HOW CAN I HELP YOU?

    * #define True 0

  17. Britney Spears says:

    @Pat: My thoughts exactly. Lance sure is a great cyclist, but I would not trust his mechanic skills.

  18. Peter says:

    @danstermeister: He ran out of toilet paper.

  19. @iain, Re: is it credible that billg’s name had such an effect on the customer?

    As I recall Gates was a big name back then among anyone involved with PCs, including ordinary users (who weren’t quite as "ordinary" as users are today). I recall in the late 1980s the computer consumer magazine PCWorld had a centerfold picture of Gates. Fortunately, he was fully clothed.

  20. BLiTZ says:

    Those were the days…

  21. SethM says:

    That’s true, t-mikeha. Note that Raymond "edited" my version a bit, that’s not exactly how I originally wrote it for BillG’s retirement blog. But hey, close enough!

  22. Wang-Lo says:

    Why did the PSE find it necessary to inform the customer that his previous call had been handled by billg?  Now no matter what you tell him, it will never have the authority it should, because it comes from a mere minion.

    He should have said, "William no longer works in product support.  He was overqualified for the position…"

    -Wang-Lo.

  23. Richard Berg says:

    Thanks for the added perspective, Mike.  I think it’s safe to assume that anyone calling for support on the QuickC linker would recognize BillG’s name.

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