Microsoft Deploying In-Store Customer-Service Reps

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NEW YORK — As part of its new $300 million marketing campaign and image makeover, Microsoft Corp. plans to deploy its own customer-service representatives at retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City to help people with their PC purchases.

The world's largest software company plans to have 155 "Microsoft Gurus" in U.S. stores by the end of the year, and expand based on the project's success, Microsoft's general manager of corporate communications, Tom Pilla, said Friday.

These gurus will be answering questions about PCs and Microsoft products, as well as giving demos of how the company's products work together — help designed to get them thinking Microsoft.

"Think of that as borrowing a page from Nordstrom with that retail customer experience," Pilla said, referring to the upscale department store chain known for customer service.

The move is more likely to strike up comparisons with the rival that has portrayed Microsoft as unhip and out of touch — Apple Inc., which runs "Genius Bars" in its stores to answer questions about Macs and iPods. The Genius Bar also offers technical support on already-purchased products, which the Microsoft reps will not do.

The Microsoft Gurus will not be paid on commission, Pilla said, and instead will be measured by customer satisfaction and their "ability to translate the technology to a language consumers feel comfortable with."

Microsoft had tested about 25 of the service employees in the U.S. and Europe since October 2007.

Richard Williams, a senior software analyst at Cross Research, is curious to see how Microsoft's use of this sort of retail-level marketing plays out, though he cautioned that such services can get expensive.

With consumer spending tight in a weak economy, he said, "it may be necessary to provide exceptional services to draw additional market share," he said.

Its Gurus join a barrage of efforts behind Microsoft's latest and largest-ever marketing campaign, including commercials that began airing Thursday night featuring Chairman Bill Gates and new pitchman Jerry Seinfeld.

Pilla said the campaign is meant to show consumers the interconnectedness of Microsoft's Windows products — which include an operating system for computers, a mobile operating system for smart phones and Windows Live online services — and how they can be used with various devices.

"There's an ease-of-use I don't think we've done a great job of communicating when (customers are) using Windows and when they have Windows in their lives," he said.