“Your call is important to us” has been touted as a customer experience innovation in itself: a unique and clever way to make customers feel they’re valued.

The software version of this little trick involves distracting users with a process that draws the curtains in front of them, if you will, while it conducts a bit of wizardry behind the scenes. 

“Get a fast, free Web browser” was a very successful example of this prestidigitation — one which resulted in users having installed Google Chrome before they even knew what it was.

No More Big Gambles

Microsoft has been desperately reassembling its approach to customer experience, culminating last July in the historic and unprecedented “walk-back” towards legacy and familiarity, with its release of Windows 10.

Having concluded that PC users don’t really want arbitrary changes to the way they work, Microsoft avoids pushing the envelope with yesterday's release of Office 2016.

Base on my own experience, the long awaited update to the company's productivity suite gets customer experience wrong.

Although CEO Satya Nadella called the new release innovative and described it as “a big step forward in transforming Office,” the principal differences between the installed-on-disk versions of Office 2013 and 2016 are cosmetic.

The last time Office was truly transformed was when Microsoft ditched its familiar menu bar in favor of the “Ribbon” for Office 2007. To this day, there are business users for whom the Ribbon seems unfamiliar.

But Microsoft felt its gamble had a safety net, on account of a lack of strong competition. Corel’s WordPerfect did its best to scoop up what refugees there were, but even those numbers were low.

The other side of the Microsoft campus had apparently not learned this lesson with the introduction of Windows 8. Now, that lesson is just one step short of being branded onto the corporate skin.

Word 2016 co-existing with Word 2013

One Click, Not Counting All the Rest

Maintaining continuity leaves Microsoft’s developers of eking out innovation where it can. For example: the application setup process.

Microsoft claims it has improved its “setup experience” through the addition of what it calls a “click-to-run installer.” The company’s objective here is to reduce the number of steps required between launching the SETUP.EXE stub and launching the application.

It accomplishes this by shifting several of the steps one would normally undertake, to either before or after this interval.

Just so we’re on the same page: I am now referring to the classic desktop applications that are installed in the Program Files folder. These are not the slimmed-down “Office Touch” apps designed for use on small devices, including smartphones.

These are not the Office 365 apps, which are designed to work for the most part to work like desktop Office applications. These are not the Office Online apps, with which one can compose documents for sharing via OneDrive or SharePoint.

There. That wasn’t nearly confusing enough, was it?

The classic means for Microsoft to distribute desktop applications to consumers is with an installer file called an MSI. It’s a packaged script that automates the steps involved in collecting responses from the user about which options the user prefers.

The latest alternative to the MSI is called the “click-to-run” installer. It’s much easier for Microsoft to produce because it does not require human input. There are no options.

Setup speeds up tremendously since all the installer has to do is “paint” a swath of software onto the hard drive in one swoop. If there were options to process, the installer would have to insert software blocks in segments.

Congratulations on Your Purchase of Access

The “click-to-run” method means you get software that you didn’t ask for. In the case of Office 2016 Pro, you get Access, Microsoft’s flat-file database manager from the last Ice Age.

My wife and I wrote Office tutorial books 15 years ago. She did Excel, and I did Access. And Access was outdated then.

Microsoft Access 2016

Today, Access is intended to be a front-end for databases hosted on SharePoint. Although the idea behind this scheme is to make simple, transactional tasks sharable, this still only leverages SharePoint’s power as a multi-tenant arbitration system, circa 2000.

No doubt at some point soon, someone in public relations for a consultant or third-party vendor will trumpet the huge surge in Access installations through the fall of 2015, and speculate that flat files and client/server transactions are making a comeback.

What is making a comeback is Microsoft’s habit of pushing old intellectual property past its breaking point. (It’s a wonder I didn’t find FoxPro lurking in some dark corner of the install.)

Microsoft is quite capable of innovating and experimenting with new and risky ideas, as it has clearly done with the introduction of Sway to the Office mix. Yet under the covers, the company continues to deliver old technology as a non-negotiable part of the bargain, like a dinner host who loads your plate with last month’s potato salad whether you ask for it or not.

The Co-existence Trap

While Office 2016 setup is busy installing Access, one critical task it is not performing is uninstalling your old version of Office (except for Outlook).

Some folks will find this welcome news. Let’s hope those folks are happy, because if they don’t know Setup leaves behind Office 2013 (or whatever old version they have) on their machines, they could find themselves in trouble.

Here’s the problem: Regular Office users typically pin Word, Excel, Outlook, and maybe PowerPoint icons to their taskbars. Office 2016 Setup does not remove these icons, or replace them with updated versions.

As a result, after you install Office 2016, you click one and launch office 2013.

You would think both versions would be built to co-exist in such a situation — perhaps, to enable the customer to experiment with the new version while still keeping the old version active as a safety net.

But Office 2013 also had a kind of “click-to-run” installer. When an Office 2013 application sees that the file associations for Office documents have been relocated to a different folder, Office 2013 immediately sets about to restore them to what they were before.

There is a “Cancel” button for this operation, but it is inoperative. There is a close box in the upper right corner, but that is also a ruse.

So the innocent person who happens to have launched an older Office app prior to manually uninstalling the older apps ends up inadvertently uninstalling the main document associations for Office 2016.

Maybe that’s just a minor slip-up on the part of the installer, you might be thinking. Just go into your application defaults and reset them.

In the world of Windows (a descendant of MS-DOS), a filename’s extension (the part following the period) denotes its type. A document’s type determines which application opens when you double-click on that document in File Explorer.

The System Registry includes a very long list of which applications are associated with what types. Editing the Registry is only slightly more difficult than do-it-yourself brain surgery.

With Windows 7, Microsoft began making it a point to give the user greater control over the connections between applications and their files. This stopped many users from taking their PC’s life into their hands and trying to edit the Registry manually.

But Windows can only give the user a list of options when it “knows” what the options are — when they’re in the Registry to begin with. Here is where we discover that Office 2013, in an effort to re-establish its former dominance, deleted those options.

Post Office 2013-2016 slip-up

For example, when the user is shown the options for associating documents with Word, she only sees one “Word.” Is this from 2013? Or 2016? Both co-exist on the system, but Windows does not at the moment know the difference between them.

The exception involves Outlook, and the news here is not good: Unlike every other Office app, Outlook has a one-to-one “binding” with its local data files. An old and new version of Outlook cannot co-exist on a PC.

So while you could re-install Office 2013 and start over, if you’ve run Outlook 2016, it will likely have made changes to these files that the 2013 version does not recognize.

This leaves you with no choice at this point but to reinstall Office 2016.

What Beta?

If Microsoft has truly set forth on its stated mission to upgrade its software whenever new features are available, then there are no more public preview periods in its future.

The danger here is that now, even the opportunity for Microsoft to do what it says it does — to “listen” to its customers — could disappear.

What lessons can we all learn from Microsoft’s continued missteps in the customer service department? I could produce a ream, though I’ll stick with the following that rise to the top of the list:

  • You don’t get to pick and choose which parts of your product or service are “the experience,” and which don’t count. The entire chain of transactions between you and your customer is what that customer perceives as relevant, whether it’s through a teller window or a piece of software.
  • It should not be the customer’s job to prepare for a disaster, nor to clean up after the disaster, every time you initiate an exchange with that customer. “The experience” includes everything the customer must do to mitigate, or merely to cope with, your own mistakes.
  • Customers prefer choices, and to be shown how to properly make them. Reducing choices makes for easier transactions, but usually ends up leaving the customer with the job of damage control. (Revolutions were fought over these facts.)

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Title image by Volkan Olmez.