Put yourself in the shoes of a Microsoft product manger for just a moment. You've got a bit of a challenge: you work for a very large and a very powerful company that has lost its cool. In every category where once you ruled supreme, you now have pesky competitors showing up who product are seen as being much more sexy than yours are. In order to get back in touch with your customers, what would you do? Maybe opening a store would be the answer...
Microsoft's Next Big Idea (Please Return All Carts To The Store)
It would appear as though Apple's run away success with their ultra-cool Apple stores has not been lost on the Microsoft folks up in Redmond. Taking a page out of the Apple playbook, they have decided to go ahead and open their very first retail store in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Microsoft makes a lot of products and so they've got a lot of stuff to fill a store with. Operating systems, Office applications, mobile phone operating systems, computer hardware, MP3 players, etc. - that's going to be one full store.
Microsoft has stated that their reason for opening the store is that they want to get back in touch with their customers. David Porter, Microsoft's VP of retail stores (really just one store right now) said "Our customers have told us they want more choice, more value, and better service, and that's what we'll deliver through our Microsoft stores."
Why Microsoft Is Making A Huge Mistake
Sadly, I think that Microsoft's product managers are making a huge mistake. I'm willing to bet you that this ill-fated attempt to compete with Apple long after Apple has figured out how to do this retail thing and do it well is going to go down in flames.
First off, before you start a project like this you need to have a very clear reason for doing it - getting closer to your customer is not a problem that they are having, it's a problem that you are having. So exactly what problem is this store solving?
Think about this for a moment, why would you make the effort to go to drop by a Microsoft store? I don't actually ever think that I'd need a "Microsoft" product, instead I think that I need a cool new gadget. I know where to go find those - Best Buy. I know that at Best Buy I can compare different vendor's products and decide which one I want. Why would I only want to see Microsoft products?
Along the same lines, I would want to go to an Apple store. The reason is that I know that Apple has cool stuff. I'd want to see the latest iPod, Nano, iPhone, iTouch, etc. I can't name a single cool Microsoft product that I'd want to drop by and see. Microsoft Office 2010? Nah...
Oh, and one more thing. Micosoft has hired a former Walmart store executive, David Porter to lead the rollout.
Walmart? I don't know about you, but Walmart is just about as far from cool as you can possibly get. Look, there are never going to be a lot of these Microsoft stores so why would you hire somebody who specialized in high volume, low price operations?
How Microsoft Could Do A Store Right
So it's easy to throw stones at Microsoft's product manger's ideas. But that's not what we're all about here at The Accidental Product Manager. How about if we take a few moments and see if we can provide them with some useful product management suggestions?
The first thing that they need to do is to identify what customer problem the retail store is going to solve. Since Microsoft products are pretty much ubiquitous, actually selling more products seems like it would be a waste of time. I'd suggest that they instead focus on showing customers how easy to use and how powerful Microsoft products are. This means that the Microsoft store really exists to allow people to come in, touch a product and ask detailed questions about the products to very well trained staff. Now that would be valuable the next time you get stuck trying to create an Excel macro.
The next thing that they need to do is to come up with a real image for the stores. Having that guy from Walmart running the stores scares me - I think that it's all wrong. Instead, Microsoft needs to create a "vibe" for their store. Maybe the right setup would be to create a store that is like a house: bedroom, living room, office, etc. They'd place the appropriate products in the correct "rooms". Then each "room" could have its own feel - a business atmosphere for the office, relaxing for the family room, etc. Sure would be better than feeling like you are visiting a Walmart...
What All Of This Means For You
Competition can make product managers do the strangest things. All too often we see our competition make a move and if it seems to be working for them, then we start to dream about doing the same thing ourselves.
Microsoft's product mangers have apparently become envious of Apple's success with their retail stores and so they are planning on trying to copy them. However, with no clear business reason for doing this they appear to be headed off to nowhere.
A much better strategy for product managers would be to observe what your competition is doing and then learn from it. Never do the exact same thing because then it looks like you are just following their lead. Instead, take the best elements of their idea and use them to build an even better idea.
Dr. Jim Anderson
Dr. Jim Anderson has been a product manger at small start-ups as well as at some of the world's largest IT shops. Dr. Anderson realizes that for a product to be successful, it takes an entire company working together. He'll share his insights and guidance on how to make your products a fantastic success.
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