Microsoft’s Guru Bars Could be a Success

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I've been a vocal critic, some might even say jackass critic, of Microsoft's planned and upcoming retail stores, but some reader reaction to our coverage of the news that Big Redmond was poaching Apple's retail management and staff gave me pause for thought. That thought - and I assure you no one was as surprised as me - was that the company's ridiculous "Guru Bars" might not be as big a disaster as many in the Mac community expect it to be.

Indeed, they might even be a good thing for Microsoft in their efforts to blunt Apple's successful efforts to brand the Mac as less troublesome than a Windows box.

Make no mistake that the odds are stacked against Big Redmond - and I frankly still expect the Guru Bar to be a joke - but let's start with establishing the context of my thoughts.

In yesterday's piece, several readers made jokes about the expected volume of Windows customers in need. Member vpndev said, "They need to hire an extra helping of 'Guru Bar' specialists, not managers. And also organize crowd control for those waiting to get to the Guru Bar with XP/Vista/Win7 problems. That line will stretch down the mall and back again."

Some guests chimed in along the same lines, and the thing is that I agree. Windows customers with complaints and trouble will be many and sundry, and the whole thing could be a PR and perception disaster for Microsoft. I've worked at a company that provided support for Windows users - admittedly some years and many versions of Windows ago - and I can just imagine the ugliness that might ensue.

Somewhat ironically, therein lies the opportunity for Microsoft.

One of Apple's strongest recruitment tools for the Mac platform has been the Windows platform itself. From the crappy hardware to driver issues to the disparate support quandaries of having separate hardware and OS vendors, the Windows experience is just awful for a lot of people (though not everyone, so spare me your pro-Windows e-mails).

Apple has been able to capitalize on that over the years, which is part of the reason the company has seen half of its Apple Store Mac sales going to first-time Mac owners since the company first began opening its retail locations. Apple has also pressed this point in many of its "I'm a Mac" ads, which have resonated with so many people because of that poor Windows experience.

No matter how successful Microsoft's Guru Bars are, they won't eliminate this problem for the company. Windows will still be licensed to any and all comers, which means the hardware and software will still be separate. Until and if Microsoft were to try and enforce stringent hardware licensing (like Apple's cloning effort in the 90s, where cloners had to buy Apple-made logicboards), the variety and options that are the strength of the Windows platform will continue to be its weakness, too.

But, if Microsoft could develop the Guru Bar in such a way that it becomes a pleasant and painfree way for Windows users to resolve their many problems, it could radically shift perceptions for some of its user base, reducing the power of Apple's marketing tool.

I've witnessed the power that Apple's Genius Bar has in acting as a reassuring backdrop for many Mac/iPod/iPhone owners many a time. "Ah, it's no biggee, I'll stop by the Apple Store and ask." I've heard many variations on that theme over the years - it happens when you're a writer in the Mac Web - and in my experience Apple's Genius Bar pays all sorts of reassurance dividends to Apple.

Most Windows users have no such safety net, and if they do, they likely aren't happy about the quality of whatever net they do have. The Windows repair business just isn't a happy place in my experience.

Again, though, if Microsoft can do the Guru Bar right - if the company can provide answers to people in a friendly and timely manner - if it can manage the flow of people so that it doesn't appear as if everyone and their brother has a broken PC - if it can juggle how to advise customers with hardware trouble when dealing with multiple hardware suppliers - if the company's Gurus can be as awesome as most of the Geniuses I've dealt with - if if if...

Well, if Microsoft can pull off a miracle with its Gurus Bars, the company might be able to give at least some of its user base - especially consumers - more of a feeling of security about owning a PC. That would be of enormous value to Microsoft in terms of boosting its brand value and at least slowing Apple's inroards into its consumer business.

All that said, I hardly expect Microsoft to actually pull off that miracle. If they do repairs, it will be a cluster@#&%. If they don't do repairs, many users will just get frustrated, and it will become yet another word-of-mouth recruiting tool for Apple ("But my brother-in-law said he got his Mac fixed at the Apple Store...").

Hell, if they just do virus removal, the lines will indeed back out the door.

No, I don't see how they can pull it off, but Microsoft has enough money to throw at the problem all day long, and given enough time they often work out how to do something well enough that enough people are satisfied with it. Accordingly, I won't count them out until the proof is baked into the pudding and the milk has been spilt under the bridge (or something like that).

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13 Comments Leave Your Own

Tiger

“Microsoft has enough money to throw at the problem all day long”

Yeah. I’d take that as both an axiom and a testament of their failure.

Vista, as much as it cost and as long as the company had people developing it, is a failure.

And given the nature of Microsoft as the software supplier and not the hardware vendor, will be hard pressed to support all the configurations of PCs that have issues with their products. In this case, the diversity is a major drawback. Apple’s “whole widget” approach has been a major contributor to why the Genius Bar works.

Lee Dronick

Your are probably correct Bryan, if the ifs don’t get ‘em.

Tiger mentioned Vista, and how much time and money went into it. I thought that it would be an OSX killer, but it turned on its owner bit them in the butt. Now they are putting their eggs into the WIndows 7 basket, they better not drop that.

wab95

It is easy to be passionate about a great product (or raft of products). Apple products basically sell themselves. It will be interesting to see if these employees can inject a measure of enthusiasm for MS products in the stores. I can even envision former Apple staff instilling a bit of ‘wow’ factor into the Guru bars. But at the end of the day, the consumer will be left at home with an MS product - and therein lies the problem. That is not going to be fixed by a retail store. The question is, if these stores fail, will they pin it on the Apple people…?

Bregalad

The Guru Bar definitely has the potential to help a lot of people deal with the issues that ordinary people experience with Windows. if they become widespread enough it might even help people feel secure choosing Windows, knowing help is always available.

Despite the fact that “everyone” knows a self-proclaimed Windows guru, the platform continues to be more troublesome than Mac. That doesn’t bode well for the gurus who will be asked to solve the truly baffling problems that others couldn’t. Unlike their IT counterparts who strictly control the hardware and software their users have, gurus will be bombarded by a wide variety of configurations few of them will have seen before.

I also think the availability of gurus will reduce the number of people doing the simple thing and calling the kid next door. Instead they’ll get in the SUV and dump simple problems on the overworked gurus who might appreciate easy questions, but will nonetheless be even more overloaded by their sheer volume.

Of course Microsoft doesn’t care too much about that. They have no fear of money losing ventures (look at virtually everything they do outside professional services, Exchange and Office). They can hire more gurus if needed. What I’m sure they’re hoping for is a reversal in the flow of defections. If they can pull that off then it will be deemed a success no matter how much it cost to implement.

Lee Dronick

The Guru Bar definitely has the potential to help a lot of people deal with the issues that ordinary people experience with Windows. if they become widespread enough it might even help people feel secure choosing Windows, knowing help is always available.

I was thinking that at the Guru Bar it may end being something like this. “I see that you are still using XP. You know if you get a new PC with Windows 7 then you won’t be experiencing these problems.”

Bryan Chaffin

Bregalad said: The Guru Bar definitely has the potential to help a lot of people deal with the issues that ordinary people experience with Windows. if they become widespread enough it might even help people feel secure choosing Windows, knowing help is always available.
I was thinking that at the Guru Bar it may end being something like this. ?I see that you are still using XP. You know if you get a new PC with Windows 7 then you won?t be experiencing these problems.?

Yeah, I could see that happening. Easily.

Carlos Novo

I support mainly Windows machines at work and let me assure you the problems are plentiful.  The problem for Microsoft won’t be the number of customers looking for help, but the number that get turned away.  Most people buy PCs with OEM copies of Windows already installed. Microsoft will not support OEM copies.  That’s why it’s so cheap (compared to full retail) to buy it online.  When they start telling people to take it up with the manufacturer they are really going to feel the backlash!

Lee Dronick

Most people buy PCs with OEM copies of Windows already installed. Microsoft will not support OEM copies.

Now that I did not know.

nealg

Unlike their IT counterparts who strictly control the hardware and software their users have, gurus will be bombarded by a wide variety of configurations few of them will have seen before.

I think this will be the biggest challenge for the gurus in the MSFT store.

For the Apple geniuses, things work because Apple is responsible for the hardware and the software and they will have a better chance of being able to fix the problem because of that.

I have to wonder how many times things will be blamed on the hardware and how MSFT will deal with that. Will they tell the consumer that they need to call HP, Dell, Acer etc or will they do it for them? I think this will be the biggest challenge for MSFT to get right and not get the consumer mad at them. If they turn people away and the consumer gets caught between MSFT and the hardware manufacturer, then the guru bars may cause more problems for MSFT than they fix.

Neal

Moeskido

I agree with nealg. What sorts of problems can average Windows users bring in to a Guru Bar that they can (a) articulate and (b) resolve effectively without physically hauling in the troubled hardware they’re trying to fix?

How many different varieties of systems will Gurus have the capability to examine and diagnose? Are they assuming most problems can be solved by downloading new drivers for an unseen peripheral?

It seems to me that this area of the Microsoft store will be overrun by a lot of very frustrated consumers who’ll either consume a lot of Guru store time each, or get turned away because their problem might be outside of the store’s scope to help with.

Or am I missing the point of the Guru Bar entirely?

Lee Dronick

Or am I missing the point of the Guru Bar entirely?

Maybe it will really be a “bar.” A place where Windows users can gather and commiserate with each while downing some suds. There will be a mirror on the back wall decorated with neon signs advertising Word, Flight Simulator, and other MicroSoft products. Cardboard coasters on the bar with the Excel logo on one side and an advert for a bail bondsman on the other. Cracked ceramic tiles on the floor of the restrooms. Opens at 6:00 AM.

Moeskido

Well, that’s a service I can certainly make use of.

I’ll meet you there right after I pick up a copy of Snow Leopard next door. I’ll be the one with the Apple shopping bag.

Intruder

The funny thing is these days I believe Apple would actually have more cash to throw at things than MS.

And I agree that the Achilles heel of the MS Guru bar will be configurations. Their greatest perceived strength is also their greatest weakness.

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