The Apple versus Microsoft product debate has been a constant, four decade campaign. There are proponents on both sides. While recently Apple has emerged the trendier of the two, does having trendier products translate into superior customer support?
In the last few months I have met with both the Apple and Microsoft teams in charge of web-based support. While both teams are talented, their approaches to web-based customer support are much different.
The Apple Online Customer Support Team
My discussions with Apple can be summed up by what one Apple Executive said during our initial pre-meeting call, “We’re Apple so we are doing it (web based support) better than anyone else.”
As such, Apple was not too forthcoming with information. For example, when asked an innocuous question about their future campus (this is public information), one employee said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” The others quickly tried to change the subject to something safer like mundane statements about the traffic and weather.
It appeared to me that the team was suffering from a type of information Stockholm Syndrome. Where information is held hostage, however benign, and its victims are emotionally and irrationally bound to its corporate policy.
The team is literally shocked into believing that their strict privacy and security protocols around products extend into customer support. I’m not sure how this can possibly be good for Apple’s customers.
The Microsoft Online Customer Support Team
In sharp contrast, my discussions with Barbara Gordon, Corporate Vice President, Customer Service and Support for Microsoft were completely open and transparent. When asked about their approach to customer support, “We want to give our customers the ability to get resolutions to their issues with the least amount of work possible.”
Barbara went on to add, “We are always thinking about how we hold ourselves accountable for increasing customer (support) expectations.” She went on to explain how they measure first call resolution statistics and other key metrics in real time to ensure Microsoft is meeting their customers’ key challenges
Given how open Barbara and other team members are with answering questions and listening to feedback, it appeared to me that Microsoft is constantly checking the pulse of their support communities to ensure they are providing best-in-class customer support. Seems like the better approach.
So given that backdrop, how do the two companies compare?
Comparison#1 Microsoft’s Community Driven, Social Support
The key to Microsoft’s social support is their MVP Program, its social recognition program for active support users, and its Questions and Answers site. But throughout most of Microsoft support sites, there is an active social component that enables non-Microsoft employees to provide support for Microsoft customers.
The example above shows how non-employees can help Microsoft answer support questions and are rewarded with support badges.
Microsoft has over 4100 MVP’s that are certified to provide support to its customers. According to Toby Richards, Microsoft’s General Manager of Communities and Online Support, these MVP’s are thirty times more active than the average user. In fact, Microsoft considers them a “tremendous asset that provide support in multiple languages across 98 countries.”
Comparison#1 Apple’s Community Driven, Social Support
Apple’s community and social features are limited to their Support Community forums. While they’ve improved significantly, they are still limited in functionality as one can not add videos or pictures to clarify answers.
Apple is using a point system to reward users for contributing to its forums. The similar people widget on the right column is a convenient feature in order to connect with similar users.
Apple does not have an MVP program, but does provide a searchable and filterable leader board to find community support experts. While a huge step forward, it is still difficult to discern a contributor’s true expertise.
Comparison #1 Advantage: We’ll give this round to Microsoft because of the MVP program and the fact that they have socialized most of their support sites to encourage users contributions.
Comparison#2 Microsoft’s Support Feedback
The key to any great support site is the ability to monitor the site for customer behavior. For example, how do you know if the site is satisfying customers? How do you know if the support solutions are accurate?
Microsoft has done an admirable job of asking for feedback or comments on almost every support article.
I’m told they are also monitoring the site using analytics and sentiment to evaluate behavior on articles, forums, and other support sites. What’s missing is a mechanism for displaying other support articles that are similar or that other users have rated highly. This makes the likelihood of finding a support solution that much easier and faster.
Comparison#2 Apple’s Support Feedback
In contrast, Apple’s approach is to provide other methods of solving a problem. While an advanced feature, they are missing an opportunity to accept contextual user feedback for increased intelligence to support their customers.
In fact, while I was searching for a solution for an iTunes issue I was experiencing, the proposed solution turned out to be wrong. Yet I had no mechanism for providing Apple feedback or correcting the information.
Comparison #2 Advantage: Microsoft has the better solution for feedback, but needs to examine Apple’s strategy for related content.
Comparison#3 Microsoft’s Technical Documentation, Videos, Tutorials, etc.
Most of the technical documentation on the Microsoft support sites are article based. These articles take the form of tutorials, videos, or information related to a specific support topic.
Below is an example of an article. Notice the Contextual advertising on the right-hand side. This is a smart revenue generation component that alerts the reader to other products or services available from the company.
Also, note the “See Also” widget on the right-hand column. This contextual help widget links to other instructive content on the support site. This benefits the reader by displaying other areas where the reader can obtain a solution to their problem. This widget should be auto-generated by analyzing the behavior and feedback from previous readers.
Comparison#3 Apple’s Technical Documentation, Videos, Tutorials, etc.
Most Technical Communication professionals understand that PDF based documentation manuals are a 90’s artifact; yet Apple appears to have saturated the site with them.
Fortunately, Apple does have some articles related to the products they sell. When there is an article, the layout is slightly superior to Microsoft due to the related articles, related videos and related discussion widgets. The language bar is also a nice to have on the left hand side.
Comparison #3 Advantage: While both Microsoft and Apple have done an excellent job in building support articles, Apple is still leveraging PDF documentation for a lot of its support. Inferior in many ways, PDF is difficult to search, difficult to index on search engines, and most people find it difficult and time-consuming to read through an online manual to find the solution to their problem. They want interactive support content.
Moreover, again, Apple does not have a mechanism for feedback except a 5 star article rating system which is the equivalent of watching the Dancing with the Stars judges post performance scores without the commentary. What are you going to learn?
While Microsoft has some room for improvement, they clearly have taken a superior approach to focusing on articles over PDF manuals and allowing article feedback in order to understand how to support their customers better. Advantage Microsoft.
Comparison #4 Microsoft Support Search
Search is the primary tool customers use to find the solution to their problem. So a robust search solution is a must when providing best-in-class online support.
Microsoft does an excellent job of guessing (or “Best Bet” below) the solution based on the search query. The side bar Answers and Fix-It widgets are also a reminder of where one can find more information on the subject. The auto-search function (similar to Google’s) in the search bar makes finding popular search terms much easier.
Comparison #4 Apple’s Support Search
No evidence of PDF results. Just a fantastic search layout that enables the reader to quickly narrow down to the solution they are seeking. In the right column, contextual product information for the search term is an excellent method for giving the reader more ways of discovering solutions.
Comparison #4 Advantage: Both miss the opportunity to apply a social layer to search by identifying MVPs or experts on the search subject. But both do an excellent job of providing search results and filters. I’m going to call it a draw. Advantage Apple & Microsoft.
If you ever wondered what a best-in-class search solution looks like, examine Apple’s or Microsoft’s.
Comparison #5 Microsoft’s Look and Feel
Most of the Microsoft support sites are well laid out and easy to navigate. The main issue they face is the need for a uniform look and feel. Also, the designs are a little dated (with the exception of Answers) and can use some updating.
Comparison #5 Apple’s Look and Feel
Most of the support site has the Apple look and feel. And that is a good thing. The site looks easy to use – and it is. Apple is the Queen of design, and it shows in her work. The layouts are well designed. The images are well designed. If you ever wondered what design royalty looked like, it is Apple’s support site.
Comparison #5 Advantage: For me, Apple is the clear winner here. The simplistic design and ease of use outweigh some of the content limitations.
Summing it all up
After tallying the results, Microsoft is the clear winner with a 3-1-1 (win, tie, loss) outcome. Which for our purposes is a 3X category victory for Microsoft.
Summary on Apple
While Apple has a better design and user experience, it does not measure up to its rival’s content and social infrastructure. Their belief appears to be that they want to tell you how you need to be supported. Which aligns with my experience with the team.
Apple is also behind on its Social construct. As far as I can tell, they do not have a single employee solving customer issues on Twitter. Moreover, their lack of customer feedback mechanisms are a glaring weakness. They just can not seem to get social right (via Business Insider/CNN).
Still, they have one of the best support sites on the web. Apple lets their products do the talking but don’t model your social strategy after them.
Summary on Microsoft
Microsoft admits they need to learn from their customers, and they have built a support site to match. While not perfect, they do an excellent job overall in providing support across their numerous and diverse product lines.
Microsoft has numerous support professionals monitoring Twitter and other social outlets. Their approach to social is superior to Apple’s and their MVP program is best in class.
Microsoft needs to improve their design and make their support sites more homogeneous. They also need to keep pushing the social boundaries and continue to add more social features. But in the end, they probably still have the best online support site on the web. Most technical communicators agree.