Microsoft is starting to move beyond product-centricity and learn more about its customers. This article in inc.com describes the company's foray into the minds of small business owners:
Many companies talk about getting close to the customer, but Microsoft pushed this idea to the extreme when it hired Nelle Steele to show up at 5 in the morning at the Milwaukee home of Tim Tucker. The owner of Air Engineering Inc., a supplier of industrial air compressor parts, is Microsoft's model customer. Steele's mission was to observe Tucker at close range, arriving as soon as he stepped out of the shower, then shadowing him until his workday ended at 10:30 p.m. Steele, a cultural anthropology Ph.D. student on leave from the University of Wisconsin, is one of five anthropologist-ethnographers (and the only one focused on entrepreneurs) that Microsoft hired full-time to conduct a field study. Called "Dawn to Dusk," the study documents the work habits and thought processes of a species the software behemoth had never before tried to understand: owners and employees of small businesses.
In tailing her quarry, Steele discovered, to her surprise, that small companies kept vital information in disconnected places -- what she called "data silos" -- from scribbled notes on scraps of paper to files on a PC that could be accessed by only one employee. This made it harrowing to try to answer basic questions like, "How did we do in the Northeast last quarter?" "I saw the pain that data silos caused day to day," says Steele.
Her work is part of Microsoft's $2 billion research and development effort aimed at convincing these tribes of technological primitives to join the modern world. While most of that is earmarked to improve products, a lot of it is going to spreading the word. That's in addition to two recent acquisitions -- Great Plains and Navision business management software at another $2.4 billion -- to enhance its offerings for small business. Even for Microsoft, with $50 billion in cash in the bank, that's a major investment. Microsoft has started trying to care about these customers.