Surface pre-order failures: Too many cooks

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...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor

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

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