Aim Higher

Seeing an iPhone for the first time, Bill Gates is reported to have said, “Oh my God, Microsoft didn’t aim high enough.”*

Anyone who has used a Zune, or who, like me, has owned computers running Windows Vista or Windows Millennium Edition, knows that this is a common problem for Microsoft. I suspect it comes from having an effective monopoly. Monopolists don’t need to satisfy their customers, and so managers within a monopoly focus on other priorities, like trying to force you to use their other products (i.e., IE), whether you want to or not.

This thinking seems to infect Microsoft’s managers even in markets in which they face strong competition, as the consumer-unfriendly Xbox One policies they unveiled before their recent, embarrassing climb-down indicate.

Of course, this problem is by no means unique to Microsoft. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts is a great example of a company that could provide better customer service, but simply doesn’t want to.

According to this fascinating Boston Globe article (, BC/BS of MA implements special customer service protocols during the one week each year when an outside firm is surveying customer satisfaction levels. For that week, and that week only, the Boston-based health insurer prepares a special script for customer service representatives to follow. Plus, for that week only:

“Tasks that normally can take 10 to 30 days to complete — such as correcting mistakes on an insurance bill, or sending members a chart detailing their deductions under flexible spending plans — this week would be addressed the same day the requests were made.”

And what happens once that week is over and there is no independent company measuring customer satisfaction? It’s back to the old way of doing things.

Health insurance carriers are not really competing for business from each individual policy owner. (You can’t leave BC/BS of MA tomorrow morning if that’s the carrier your employer is offering you.) As a result, managers apparently don’t need to focus on continually improving customer service. I imagine they are incented to focus on other things. But I wonder, with so much room for improvement, what might BC/BS managers be able to accomplish if they focused relentlessly on being better?

My advice? Aim higher. Align your incentives correctly. Hire people who don’t settle for mediocrity and are driven to do better.

Create an iPod. Not a Zune.

What about you and your company?

*This is better than the response from Steve Ballmer, who didn’t get it at all:

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