In-Depth

Quid Pro Quote

Should you be a Microsoft reference account? A few hardy souls say yes, but many IT managers steer clear of the experience for good reasons.

You could say Roy Wood subscribes to the school of thought that “all publicity is good publicity.” Several years ago, a freelance writer working on content for Microsoft’s Web site approached him about doing a case study.

As a long-time user of Microsoft’s Retail Management System (RMS), Wood appreciated how RMS had helped him get control of inventory to help his struggling Elkridge, Md., pet store. So he agreed to do the story.

After the first case study was published on Microsoft’s Web site, another writer called him. Not long after that, yet another. To date, Wood has been the subject of at least three Microsoft case studies.

”One thing led to another. I just kept going back and forth with them,” says Wood. “I’m kind of an evangelist [for RMS].” In his view, agreeing to be the subject of case studies and serve as a Microsoft reference account has more than paid off. As a result of getting his business’ name out there, a reporter from CNN called on him and Wood was featured on a segment on small business in 2000. He believes the exposure helped drive more customers into the store.

Beyond that, Wood also views being a reference account as a community service of sorts. “I honestly believe this product has great benefit to small and midsize retail business owners, so I want to talk about it,” says Wood. “It gives me a chance to say this is a great solution and here’s how it can help you.” Over the years, Wood has fielded calls from many store owners in the process of evaluating RMS. He is happy to do so. He’s made a name for himself as an expert in retail information technology.

On the Other Hand
According to a former Microsoft employee who worked on its reference accounts program, Wood’s attitude is not exactly typical. This person had to spend a lot of time lobbying customers and convincing them to do case studies. However, he found there wasn’t a lot he could dangle in front of their noses in return, especially considering the amount of effort and potential risk required on the customer’s part.

”From the customer’s perspective, Microsoft is asking you to devote time and resources to getting this done and then they’re going to tell the world about it. But if you’ve implemented something that is reducing cycle times or helping you innovate, the last thing you want to do is tell your competitors about it,” says the former Microsoft employee.

In return for a customer agreeing to tell his or her story, he could sometimes offer them discounts on a TechNet program or some other seemingly small carrot -- but not much more than that. When he worked on Microsoft’s reference account program a few years ago, the perks of participating were not formalized and were therefore rather patchy.

The former employee now believes that Microsoft has since begun to firm up and formalize some of the benefits it offers to customers who agree to be a reference account. (A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment for this article.) “Companies are smart to deal with the perk issue upfront. [Back then,] we could never get the field sales people to build that into their negotiations with customers,” he says. “Even the person who was in charge of managing Microsoft’s 50 most valuable accounts didn’t have much to offer them in exchange for doing a case study. It wasn’t a cut-and-dried kind of sell.”

Pros and Cons
Consider both sides of the equation before you decide to tell your story.

Pros

  • You get your name in the publication. All publicity is good publicity, goes one theory.
  • You get a chance to give your input directly to Microsoft.
  • Being the subject of a story can lead to unforeseen opportunities.

Cons

  • You put your neck on the line. If something goes wrong with the implementation, everyone will remember you bragging about it in print.
  • Being a reference account can take a lot of time—time you may not have.
  • If you’re doing something really innovative, you may not want the competition reading about it. -- L.P.

Not bagging some kind of bonus -- like discounts or freebies -- as quid pro quo for being willing to be quoted and potentially revealing secrets and strategies can be tough to swallow, especially when you consider the possible downsides. “Executives are always weighing, ‘What are these stories going to mean to me and the company down the road? Do I want to be listed as the guy who greenlighted the project if something goes wrong?’” says the former Microsoft insider.

It doesn’t take an overly active imagination to envision the situation going south -- and then having everyone see your name in print as the person taking credit for benefits that never materialized. Considering that possible outcome, it’s not hard to see why many companies -- especially the large public companies -- would rank doing a vendor-sponsored case study right up there with going through a high-profile product recall.

Many Fortune 500 companies have outright bans on doing any story that implies they endorse a particular vendor’s technology. At most, these companies will permit their employees to comment for independent media stories on why they evaluated a certain type of technology.

Changes for the Better
When our source worked with Microsoft’s reference account program, it was especially difficult to recruit new customer references because the program wasn’t centralized in any way. That meant at any given time, different people from all over the company were likely to be pursuing the same customers for different stories. “You had people running all over the place trying to get the same case studies. There could be 18 different people contacting them. It was a pain for the customers,” he says.

In the last four to five years, he adds, Microsoft has centralized its reference accounts program onto a single database so a customer is much less likely to be bombarded by different departments. “They’re working harder to manage communications to the customer,” he says.

That’s good news for anyone considering becoming a reference account. The wear and tear and drag on your time are much less of an issue than in years past. Microsoft will generally give its customers the right to review and change a story prior to publication. And the perks are probably better.

All in all, it’s a more palatable picture than it used to be. This is especially true if you work at a small company, or better yet your own company. “Anything that gets my name into anything written, it doesn’t matter what it’s about,” says Wood. “As long as my name and my business name get into the article, that’s all that matters.”

About the Author

Lauren Gibbons Paul is a freelance business and technology journalist.

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