I get a lot of requests to interview people. Frankly, that has always seemed odd to me because, if I recall, I've posted about five interviews total since I started blogging in 2007. So usually I beg off.
However, when Microsoft offered to connect me with Grad Conn, their CMO for the U.S. region, I was intrigued. After all, how many times do I get to chat with a guy who's responsible for marketing products that generate $35 billion a year in sales.
Conn also has 300-odd professional marketers in his group, which reminds me of a joke we used to tell back when I worked in a comparatively tiny marketing group of but 150 souls. The joke:
Q: How many sales and marketing employees does it take to close a enterprise-level software deal?
A: Ten. One salesperson selling at the customer site and 9 marketers getting drunk at a trade show.
Anyway... Conn's LinkedIn profile was mercifully free of biz-blab and when I got him on the phone, he was interesting, articulate and engaging--very different from the know-it-alls I usually expect from Redmond. Nice guy. Smart, too.
Even though our conversation was mostly techie-talk (as such occasions tend to be), here are the highlights worth sharing:
1. Microsoft sometimes uses software from startups.
While selling software to Microsoft might seem like selling air conditioners to Eskimos, Microsoft's sales and marketing groups use combination of Microsoft's own CRM software, marketing software from established vendors (like Marketo), and even software from startups.
During our discussion, he cited his company's current use of software from Folloze, an Israel-based startup, to support content delivery for Microsoft's field marketing force. "As soon as we made it available to our sales force, it went viral," Conn says.
However, lest you get all agog at the idea of selling software to Microsoft, Conn admits he doesn't spend a lot of time looking for new apps to integrate into Microsoft's internal systems. "I consider maybe a new product every year," he says.
2. SMBs may soon be "self-servicing" their Microsoft software.
Conn noted that company's support strategy for consumers was for them to "self-service" the software they purchase Microsoft. While one could argue whether that strategy has been successful, he sees "self service" as a potential model for SMB support.
Today, many SMBs use System Integrators (SIs)--most of the Microsoft partners--to install and support their installations. He believe that, over time, improvements in Microsoft's products will allows SMBs to support themselves.
As for Microsoft Partners, Conn believes that they'll be doing less systems integration work and instead will naturally gravitate towards becoming industry-focused Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) to continue to "add more value to the chain."
3. Microsoft is wicked sensitive about the recent ransomware attack.
Since the New York Times recently raised the issue of Microsoft's culpability in the recent worldwide ransomware attack, it's not surprising that Conn didn't seem very happy when I asked whether there'd been any ransomware blow-back from Microsoft's partners.
Conn said that he'd been monitoring email streams on the subject over the weekend and it appears thatfew of Microsoft's partners had been affected, probably since they were mostly keeping their software up to date:
"Our basic guidance is that you should use Windows Update to keep your version of Windows current. We've had to work with so many issues like this over the years that we've developed security into our products."
I then pointed out that the ransomware had attacked older versions of Windows and that Microsoft had issued patches to those old versions--even for customers who didn't pay extra for that service.
When I asked if Microsoft would continue to do so under similar circumstances in the future, he demurred with: "I can't speak with authority on that subject and I can't be quoted."
4. Customer service is the next frontier for disruptive innovation.
Conn sees customer service as a mature software category that's ready for disruptive changes. The problem, according to Grad, is that companies tend to treat customer service as a separate function from sales and marketing when they really should be in the same group. He illustrated this point with an anecdote:
I recently visited a company that had two building. The first building housed a customer service group that was goaled to get customers off the phone as quickly as possible. The second building, across the street, housed a group of marketers who were spending $100 million a year to get customers to spend more time with them on the phone. That seems pretty crazy to me.
I pointed out that many companies seem to think that the goal of customer service often seems to be so annoying that people they give up and decide to "self-service" instead. If he caught the hint of irony in my voice, he didn't let on. "I've been there," he said.
5. The Zune was an underrated product.
I asked Grad whether he'd seen the Zune player that's featured in a very popular superhero movie that just came out (but which I won't name because, well, spoilers). He hadn't seen the movie, but rose to the defense of Microsoft's much-maligned media player:
The Zune is an under-appreciated part of the Microsoft development stack. The Zune was where Microsoft invented the interface that drives Windows 10 and much of what we've developed since 2012. The thing about innovation is that you don't always know what's going to work but it's ok to fail if you learn something that you can use later.
I should note that when I saw the movie in question with my pals last weekend, more than one person expressed nostalgia for the Zune. So maybe Conn is onto something here. Another Zune in our future? We can but dream.