Surface pre-order failures: Too many cooks

Surface pre-order failures: Too many cooks

Summary: Microsoft is relying on partners to pull together and deliver Surface to early adopters. But it appears that strategy hasn't worked too well on its first attempt...


Throughout the history of tech writing, device makers have sent out review devices for bloggers and journalists to write about. That was certainly the case with Surface RT, and last week we saw a slew of early reviews of the device by my colleagues at ZDNet and other publications.

Alas, I didn't get a review unit. I had to buy my own.

Another advantage for you, dear reader, is that I've also been personally caught up the Surface preorder debacle. It's October 29 today, and I remain tragically un-Surfaced.

When my colleague Zack Whittaker and I reached our to ZDNet readers about their pre-order experience, we received hundreds of bits of feedback from disappointed and frustrated customers. The common thread -- lack of clarity around when these devices would actually arrive caused by changing messages from Microsoft Store representatives.


If you've spent any time at all at the Microsoft Store site, you'll know that at the bottom is clearly says: "This site is hosted by Digital River". Digital River is a publicly traded company that in March 2001, "began providing an e-commerce hosting and payment processing services in connection with Microsoft Store", according to its Reuters' profile.

More than one-quarter of Digital River's approximate $110m revenue comes from Microsoft, it appears.

I received emails from the Microsoft Store. One to confirm the order, and one say that, "my order has been delayed email". Those emails came directly from Digital River.

(How about the email on Friday saying "here's £50/€50 please can we still be friends?" voucher? That was sent by ExactTarget, an email marketing shop. They're another partner, but we'll park them as they only play a bit part.)

Another partner is the customer service team. If you phone the Microsoft Store on the U.K.'s free-phone number and you'll go through to a company in Romania. The person I spoke to there confirmed he was not a Microsoft employee, and that they work out of a business center. It's not an unusual model. 

Finally, what about the manufacturing? This too is outsourced to a Taiwanese firm, Pegatron. Pegatron is a spin-off of Asus, who of course are making their own Windows RT tablet. Pegatron will drop ship the device to the customer direct from their factory in China using FedEx or UPS depending on the destination. (This is the same model that Apple use, by the way.) 

That's three partners in total; four if you include FedEx or UPS.

Digital River handles getting the money out of the customer's hand and transmitting the orders to Pegatron. An outsourced customer services firm handles direct communication to the customers. And on the face of it, each part seems to be working well.

Every write up on Surface that I've seen applauds the build quality. Digital River's site stayed operational when the doors opened to pre-order. The customer service reps I've spoken to over the past week have been very polite, and helpful, albeit with no real influence over the process.

If each individual part is working well, the blame must lay at Microsoft's door. They're not managing this process well enough.

What could possibly go wrong?

A massive global company -- not famed for being able to handle internal communication very well, or for having its many parts pulling in the same direction -- tries to do something they've never done before on a massive scale, with a whole bunch of partners on-board that may or may not be any good at their individual roles. It must be like herding cats over there. It's a Hanlon's razor moment: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." 

The reason why you don't have your Surface is not because of maliciousness -- it's straightforward, old-fashioned incompetence.

The question is: does any of this actually matter?

No "normal" people would have bought a Surface at the pre-order point. Only serious hardcore technologists would have done. To suggest anything else would be nonsensical. These people will forget this kerfuffle, as will I given time. 

In our crowdsourcing data analysis piece we asked whether anyone would be cancelling their Surface order because of this kerfuffle. More than two-thirds of respondents said that they would.

This is an ugly problem with Windows 8 and Windows RT. Post-purchase satisfaction with the iPad is always high. (Here's one survey example, but you'll know for yourself that people love their iPads.) It's going to be a long, difficult road to get Windows tablet customers up to those same satisfaction levels because in it's 'version 1' incarnation, Microsoft's tablets don't offer the same straightforward simplicity as the other tablets.

What happens to a disappointed Windows 8 or RT customer? There's a great deal of tension in this system, mainly because these are consumer devices that behave differently in procurement terms from business devices. Business devices tend to be more logical because getting it wrong can be career limiting, and businesses tend to -- you know -- think things though and do business plans and the like. Consumer purchases are much more emotional.

Consumers know that if they want a tablet they are "supposed" to be an iPad. (The "supposed" part of this coming from seeing what their peers use, which is a factor or Apple's marketing, and the fact it's a very good device.) They could also "get away with" buying a Kindle Fire, or even a Nexus 7. But again, they'll see that confirmation from their peers.

What their peers are not buying -- unless they're all hardcore Microlytes -- is a Windows 8 or RT tablet. Anyone going way outside of their purview of their peers to buy one of these is going to be in a seriously uncomfortable place. Explaining to your friends that your Surface order was a bust and you've gone out to buy an iPad when that is what they all told you to buy in the first place? No one wants that.

If the customer chooses to reject the device they've purchased, that tension will cause them to "snap back" to buying whatever they "should" have bought in the first place. That's a waste of investment in cost-of-acquisition, and it also puts the customer out of Microsoft's reach for a very long time.

What you want in that process is a slick smoothness. Don't muck up the easy part of taking the customer's money and conveying their new toy. Muck up later parts in the process if you really have to muck up something.

The Surface pre-ordering is a trial run for the systems used for delivering Microsoft's consumer devices into the hands of consumers. Early adopters will forget and forgive, but "real" customers will just end up upset from the get-go.

Update at 5:00 p.m. GMT: Microsoft issued ZDNet with the following statement:

We are aware of the issues related to Surface shipments, and are working hard to get them delivered to customers as quickly as possible. Customers will be notified via email as soon as their order has shipped and will be offered a €50 [or £50] gift card for their inconvenience. We sincerely apologize for the delay.

ZDNet has received reports that some customers are being charged twice for orders, and in numerous cases orders have been cancelled with no detailed explanation. Microsoft did not answer these questions, so a giant 'non-answer' there then. 

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Microsoft

Topics: Microsoft, Tablets, EU, United Kingdom, Windows

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  • Tradition

    Monopolies do not need to understand customer service. A corporate culture used to a captive clientele is blind to it. The whole concept of this is epitomized in Win8 so it is no surprise that this is reflected in a hardware endeavor. As for the average consumer forgiving, we'll see.
    • Surface + Windows RT = FAIL

      Microsoft failed with its Kin phones.

      Microsoft failed with Windows Phone 7, which has now been dumped to make way for Windows 8.

      The fools who bought Windows Phone 7 are now members of platforms that have been axed, with no further app development. The fools who buy Surface with Windows RT will suffer the same fate.

      Microsoft always fails to properly execute its products. Late deliveries. No apps. Software bugs.
      • And the fools who bought devices with Android...

        ...versions which have no further roadmap are the biggest fools of all?
      • Oh my...

        "Microsoft always fails to properly execute its products. Late deliveries. No apps. Software bugs."

        Late Deliveries - Absolutely... never should have happened.

        No Apps - Are you serious? No Apps? That's just an outright lie.

        Software Bugs - Name one piece of software that has Zero bugs.

        So in other words, MS is just like everyone else on the points you mentioned. Yet somehow I doubt you go after them. I wonder why that is.
  • That's OK, They'll Do Better With Windows 9 & Surface II

    Just wait for the next new wave of Microsoft's platforms. Windows 9 will run Windows Phone 9 apps unchanged. In fact, you will only be able to use Windows Phone 9 APIs in apps for desktop Windows. And all versions of Windows will be exclusively using ARM processors.

    Unfortunately there will be no upgrade path for existing Windows desktop/phone/tablet devices. But there will be a Windows 8.9 and Windows Phone 8.9 compatibility update so you get the same mouse-and-keyboard-compatible UI even on old legacy devices. This will also give you the new 3D icon look, replacing that old scheme of large blocks of flat colour.

    And then we'll see those smug Apple and Android users laughing out of the other side of their faces.
    • "Just wait"

      "Just wait! while we keep trying to figure it out" - Ballmer
    • Alright... I'll feed the troll....

      I see you've got your crystal ball out again.
    • How's Android 4.0

      On your 2.3 tablet? Oh wait..... Well how's Android 4.1 on your 2.2 phone? Oh....
  • Too many partners? Not even close!

    If they had more partners, it would've been a better launch.

    What I'm talking about is by using the Authorized Microsoft Distributor sales channel along with partner resellers, instead of selling only through their retail stores. Let resellers inform customers of the difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT. From what I can tell, every other Windows RT tablet is already available through distribution. Surface is the exception.
  • Wow, the haters are here in full force

    heaven forbid something has the potential to take away iPad sales, and they go nuts like they're somehow personaly invested in Apple beyond a few shares in their 401(k)

    I lovin' it! This IS funny!
    William Farrel
    • The scope of the thing

      I just can't imagine trying to ship so many packages to so many countries and have them arrive on a particular day. Personally I never hold my breath over shipping. If you want something on opening day, camp out at a store. I feel that the idea of preorder is to get your surface earmarked before they sell out.

      There was definately more intrerest than anyone bargined on. It shows how dissatified people were with the ipad and or how large the segment is that was just waiting for a sensible unit with some inputs and outputs that wasn't tied to itunes...........calfee
      • You don't need to imagine it Calfee

        Apple pulls it off with the release of every new iDevice. Millions of iPads ship on a Friday and arrive in the hands of happy customers via exhausted FedEx drivers. When my 3rd gen iPad came to my office on release day, our regular driver said he had three more to deliver in our building alone. Microsoft would kill for that success. You don't have to imagine it, just wait for the iPad Mini shipments and watch how it works. It just works.
    • me either!

      But my nose suspect there is something more than simple logistic problems.
      Maybe a last minute issue? Is not a tested product, one with a proven track of reliability.

      Yes, you're right is quite funny.

      He Wiily maybe you can ask your friend or another insider to divulge some sales figures, you know, when Apple lauches a product is between 3/5 millions, I wonder why Microsoft keep sales secret.
  • If you cannot brag about your record, attack the success of others

    As usual, you Microbots have to attack Apple as though that is going to make you forget that Microsoft has never ever delivered on time and most now accept the fact that you don't by Version 1 of any Microsoft product.
    There is no news here, have heard this story many times before. I feel for you all. Sorry
    • Wait... what???

      "As usual, you Microbots have to attack Apple.."

      I think you've entered an alternate dimension, where Apple and Linux fanboys and girls attack Microsoft... perhaps you should head back to your own dimension.
  • You forgot Avarto Digital Services

    Those people are in charge of handling the purchase of Windows 8 itself, and has been a source of headache leading to my account being debited but Microsoft having no record of my transaction.
  • Surface pre-order failures: Too many cooks

    I knew it. I knew when you and Zack asked your readers if they received their Microsoft Surface it was just fodder for a hit piece and here we are. I should have called you out in that article. From what I have read a lot of others did receive their Microsoft Surface units. Not a fail.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • Loverock already declared it a hit

      Not one to let middling lines, poor survey results, delivery issues resulting in vouchers, and silence from the company regarding opening weekend sales dissuade, Loverock Davidson stands by their Crystal Ball assertions of Surface world domination. I suggest we wait for those numbers.
    • Then..

      it depends on whether a consumer received their Surface when they were supposed to as to whether it is a fail or not.

      For those who didn't... and for the mis-communication... it was a fail.
  • Charged Twice

    I got charged twice on my surface pre-order. Just spent an hour on the phone trying to fix it but its still not resolved. I'm hoping if this has happened to a lot of customers that MS will cancel one of the orders.

    My bank tells me the two transactions have different AUTH codes so they are definitely two individual payments.