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I’ve had the good fortune to spend a lot of time around many different types of companies, in a bunch of different industries.  And I’ve learned something about corporate values.

Some companies like to make money by creating products and services that really excite their customers. They genuinely put the customers’ needs first, and try to meet or exceed customer expectations. Their leaders know that if they make products that delight customers, they will end up making plenty of money. Apple talks about wanting to delight customers, and it really shows in their products.

Other companies like to make money. They are less concerned with how they earn that money. Their primary focus is making money, and they really aren’t as concerned about whether their products and services delight their customers. If they see an opportunity to make a little more money by doing something that their customers won’t like–well, they don’t see a problem with that; they go for the money. Their primary focus is making money; their customers’ needs are secondary. In fact, their customers’ needs are really only considered when meeting those needs coincides with making money.

Microsoft is the second type of company.

Don’t get me wrong–I know a lot of wonderful people who work at Microsoft. I like many of them personally, and I’m convinced that as individuals, they want to delight their customers.

But ultimately the company’s products betray their core values. Just as Apple’s products show the extent to which Apple wants to delight customers, Microsoft’s products demonstrate the company’s tremendous disdain for their own customers.

I’ve been CEO of several software companies–companies which developed for Microsoft platforms as well as Apple. I have tremendous respect for both companies, in their own ways. So this is not about bashing one company, or trying to show the value of another.

A Recent Illustration

This issue was brought home to me recently with two events that happened within a day of each other.

The Microsoft Experience

I own several copies of Microsoft Windows 7, and copies of every version going back to Windows 95. This is ironic, since I don’t own any Windows machines. However, I do sometimes run Windows inside a “virtual machine” on one of my Apple Macintoshes. All of my copies have been registered with Microsoft, so in theory, they know I own these copies. They also know these are legitimate copies, and that the license agreement allows me to legally install my copies of Windows on these virtual machines.

Recently, I needed to set up a new virtual machine for my son’s homework. I powered up VMWare, grabbed a copy of Windows 7, and started installing. Windows asked me for the product ID, which is Microsoft’s very long alphanumeric code included with each copy of Windows that they use to prevent piracy.

I entered the key and installed Windows. Everything seemed to work, and I spent several hours setting up the virtual machine so my son could do his homework.

Imagine my surprise when Windows stopped working, and informed me I had a pirated copy of Windows! My copy, it claimed, was not “genuine,” which is Microsoft-speak for it is stolen. (They stated it kindly by saying I may have “inadvertently” purchased a pirated copy.)

It then had me call a special phone number, enter a 54-digit number in 9 groups of 6, then read back a 54-digit number which I was to enter back into Windows. Apparently I missed a number, because it then declared I had entered it wrong, and everything stopped working, and Windows told me I had a forged copy.

Of course, I knew that wasn’t the case, since I had purchased the program directly from Microsoft. Nonetheless, Windows stopped working and insisted it was pirated. It then took me to a helpful Microsoft website, where it insisted that I either immediately purchase a new license key, or it would stop working.

At that point I realized I had installed Windows from an upgrade disk, rather than the original disk. As I said, I own several copies, and hadn’t noticed the very light “Upgrade” printed on the disk so lightly that I had to move into strong light and hold the disk to just the right angle to even see it.

Not to worry, I thought. After all, I have the copy of Windows this is an upgrade from. I should just be able to let Windows know that license key, and it will sort it out, right?

Wrong. It turns out that Microsoft will let you install from an upgrade disk, but then it will not let you enter the key for the underlying product you own.

Since I already owned several copies of Windows, purchased specifically for this purpose, and which were not being used, I was not inclined to purchase yet another copy from Microsoft. But now I faced a dilemma. I realized that, even though I was legally in the right, and Microsoft had my money (several times over!) I would now have to spend yet more money with Microsoft, just to save the hours I would need to spend to work around their barriers.

Because here’s the deal: Microsoft intentionally places those barriers in front of their customers. Sure, they claim it is to prevent copy protection. But if they wanted to, they could easily verify that I already own several copies and simply activate the software. The fact is, they’ve not chosen to do that. They’ve chosen instead to put barriers in the way of paying customers, knowing that some of them will just pay up again, unnecessarily, to get past their protection systems–systems those paying customers shouldn’t have to get around.

In the end, I determined that my best course of action was to start from scratch. I deleted the virtual machine entirely and started over–this time with the correct upgrade path. And of course, using the same disks and product IDs. But by being very, very careful about getting every number correct, Windows activated, and I had a working copy.

I lost a good chunk of my weekend just trying to install Microsoft Windows. This is not what I want to be doing with my weekend. It is not adding to my productivity, or relaxing, or enjoying time with my family. It is not a vacation. But does Microsoft care? Not one bit.

But if you want to run Windows, you have to play Microsoft’s games. And Microsoft has tremendous disdain for their customers.

The Apple Experience

My wife and I walked into the local Apple Store and started looking at iPad cases. I was carrying my current iPad, which has a leather case. I’ve had it for a year, and the leather had taken on the worn, somewhat distressed look of old leather. I really like that look, although to others it may look “dirty.” Unfortunately, the case had also started to loosen up a bit, so it was providing a bit less protection for the iPad.

An Apple sales guy walked up and saw us looking at the cases. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“No thanks, we’re just looking,” we replied.

He then commented on the worn look of the leather and said, “You know, those cases carry a 1-year warrantee. I can swap it out for a new one if you like.”

“That would be great!” Although I like the worn leather look, I also knew that I needed a new case.

He then asked me for my email address, typed it into his hand-held iPod Touch, and looked up every purchase I’d made at Apple in the past year. He scrolled through to find the correct purchase, hit a couple of buttons, picked up the new case, opened the box, and handed it to me.

Done in 60 seconds.

Now here’s the remarkable thing: I hadn’t even asked for it! He just walked up, noticed the case was looking old, and volunteered that I might like a newer one, which was less worn.

The Contrast

Here’s the thing: Apple’s guy knew every purchase I had made, and every machine I had registered, on the spot, and within seconds.

So why couldn’t Microsoft, after several phone calls to them, and many visits to their web site? I purchased from them. I’ve registered products with them. But as far as they are concerned, I’m a total stranger. They did nothing whatsoever to make the process any easier.

And another thing: Apple was exchanging actual hardware, just because they thought it might make me more pleased (which it did!). That leather case cost Apple something.

The bits Microsoft was “activating” cost Microsoft nothing. Rather than create a process that wins over customers, perhaps at the expense of a few “bits”, Microsoft would rather waste an enormous amount of my time.

Why? Because they don’t care.

And that’s my point.

Some companies want their customers to be delighted. Others just want to squeeze every dime out of their customers that they can figure out how to squeeze.

Which company would you rather do business with?

I know my answer.