Best Buy plus Windows Guru equals Apple Store experience?

Editor’s Note: This story is excerpted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.

As part of Windows Vista’s $300 million marketing rehab, Microsoft will hire an initial wave of 155 “Windows Gurus” to walk around Best Buy and Circuit City stores, answer customer questions and defend Vista’s reputation against skeptics, reports say.

Microsoft is reported to be looking to hire Gurus in 26 cities in California, as well as cities in 11 other states.

Gurus will work full-time, including weekends, need to be able to run how-to trainings and workshops, and answer customers’ questions, according to the job description, which also notes that they’ll need to “innovate, educate, inspire.” In return, they will earn $20 an hour or more, plus benefits. (Interested applicants can go to Microsoft’s retail site.)

Experts universally applauded the initiative, which has been under development for a year.

“After years of monopolistic behavior, Microsoft is finally recognizing the need for the softer things, dealing with customers in a higher-touch way,” said Lisa Bradner, an analyst with Forrester Research. “All of our research shows that customers want their hands held. They’re tired of being dumped to Web site where they have to look through some FAQs.”

Gurus will also be able to help ensure that the demonstration PCs running Windows are running properly and the in-store Vista displays are spiffed up, said Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

And they will fill in the product knowledge gap that often exists with sales staff at Best Buy and Circuit City stores.

“The good thing is that Microsoft will be able to get Windows explained appropriately on the sales floor. The bad thing is that it doesn’t say much about the ability of the existing people on the sales floor,” said George Whalin, an independent retail analyst. “Best Buy does a better job than Circuit City. But neither place does a great job.”

Do better wages equal better Gurus?

$20 or more an hour is “almost assuredly more” than what the typical non-commissioned salesperson at Best Buy or Circuit City makes, says Whalin.

It’s also a better wage on average than Apple Geniuses, who provide tech support at Apple Stores. They make an average of $18.32 an hour, according to Glassdoor.com, with wages ranging from $14 to $25 an hour.

One reader at CNET, ‘Elam,’ who claimed to have interviewed for a Guru position, said that a starting position in Minnesota would pay between $21 and $25 an hour.

Experts point out that Windows Gurus are not new, and that many other high-tech vendors, such as HP, Epson, Canon and even Apple and Microsoft, have had such “pre-sales reps” in electronics stores for the past several years—with positive, but not necessarily spectacular, results.

“Most OEMs [original equipment manufactuers] have used these types of individuals but they have been used on a spot- or promotional-basis. The presence has not had a lasting effect as they are typically in store for a few days and then gone,” Baker said.

One way Windows Gurus will differ from Apple Geniuses is that they are not intended to be sources of free technical support for existing Vista users.

“The Guru role is to help sell Windows-based PCs. It is not to be an alternative tech support channel for Microsoft as this has no financial return beyond improved customer satisfaction,” Baker said.

Such a plan would conflict with the paid tech support services such as Best Buy’ Geek Squad and Circuit City’s Firedog. But consumer’s are still likely to be disappointed by the distinction, Whalin said.

Bradner believes Best Buy will be liberal with its interpretation, knowing that a Windows Guru who can answer Vista tech questions “is a positive even if it doesn’t lead to an immediate sale.”

“[Best Buy] realizes that you need to build a better relationship with your best customers. They are investing in bringing people back to the store,” she said. The bigger risk, she says, is that Windows Gurus “become lightning rods for customers’ frustrations with Vista.”

Been there, done that

This isn’t the first time Microsoft has had pre-sales reps in stores. Through an agency, Microsoft hired 200 people for the 2004 holiday season to unsuccessfully help pitch its MSN Direct Smart Watches, which Microsoft officially stopped selling earlier this year.

Gurus will be contractors employed by Mosaic Sales Solutions Inc., a Dallas company that has provided similar services for many other vendors.

Whalin thinks that Mosaic is “very good,” but he says Microsoft should make Gurus official employees. “You want them to bleed Microsoft,” he said.

If the initial experiments with Gurus are successful, Microsoft may expand the program. But experts say that Gurus alone won’t change the game with Apple. Rather, if it really wants to duplicate Apple’s success, Microsoft might re-consider the apparently once-considered option of opening its own Microsoft Stores.

When first opened in 2001, experts were skeptical of the Apple Stores. Apple was early in its comeback. The post dot-com U.S. retail economy was weak. And other efforts, such as Gateway’s eventually-shuttered Gateway Country stores, were not encouraging.

“I give them two years before they’re turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake,” one retail consultant told BusinessWeek at the time.

Apple now has 230 stores worldwide, including its most recent: one opened in Beijing just before the Olympic Games.

Last year, Apple’s stores generated $1.35 billion in sales, estimated Bernstein Research. That translated into a retail-leading $4,500 in sales per square foot, according to Bernstein—five times more than Best Buy and two-thirds more than the only close competitor, the luxury jewelry chain Tiffany & Company.

Experts say beyond the sales—which after all, contribute less than 6 percent to Apple’s bottom line—Apple Stores help create a user community, provide low-cost classes for Mac software, and in general boost customer satisfaction and Apple’s brand image.

“The Genius Bar is genius, literally,” said Whalin, who owns two PowerBooks and regularly patronizes his local Genius Bar.

“You can’t out-Apple Apple,” Bradner said. “Apple has created an exemplary model for customer service and support. Because of its partners and how their interests converge and diverge, Microsoft won’t be able to replicate the full experience.”

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