Windows Phones and the Carrier Effect

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Neowin chatted with a few carriers and sought recommendations for a new smartphone, to see how Windows Phone would fare. Unfortunately, the struggling mobile platform didn’t do all that well, with sales reps to a person pushing Windows Phone aside in favor of iOS and Android.

Their findings:

As you can see from the conversations, it does not matter what features Windows Phones have as the sales rep is turning away customers from Microsoft’s platform even when they have intentions of wanting a device that runs Windows Phone. For Microsoft, this is their biggest problem. It’s not the apps, the hardware or anything else, it is the sales reps who are doing the most harm to the platform. This is a problem that they need to find a solution for as soon as possible because it does not matter how good their marketing is, they are still losing sales at the point-of-sale. If this isn’t fixed soon, Windows Phone market share will continue to shrink.

My take on this, similar to back in my webOS days, is to agree that carriers have a profound impact on the success of a platform. And, sales rep recommendations are definitely a symptom, although not necessarily the cause, of a significant underlying problem.

I have decades of technology sales experience, and let me say that sales incentives played a significant role in the products that I positioned most prominently to customers. I never sold a customer something they didn’t need just because there was a spiff (a chunk of cash or other incentive paid directly for each unit sold of a given product) or higher commissions on a particular product. However, if two products were essentially the same (e.g., back in the day, HP desktops vs. IBM desktops with the same specs) and I saw no compelling reason for the customer to buy something different, you can bet that I sold the higher-paying product. Indeed, that was the point–my employer and the vendors we worked with wanted me to sell those products, hence the compensation qualifiers.

In addition, I sold products with a successful track record, particularly those that didn’t suffer from high returns and that resulted in happy (and repeat) customers. I remember one specific IBM notebook (the ThinkPad Butterfly, a great machine for its day) that unfortunately had a very high rate of dead-on-arrivals. In one large order, over 25% were DOA, and I engaged in some serious tap dancing to avoid the entire shipment being returned. You can bet that I didn’t lean toward the Butterfly from that day forward.

What I didn’t do as a sales rep was to push my own personal preferences beyond a certain point. I wasn’t an Apple fan, and when a customer came to me with a request for a quote on Macintosh desktops, I would flesh out their reasons for buying a Mac instead of a PC. Quite often, their reasons for wanting an Apple were very specific (back then, Apple was the machine for graphics professionals, for example), and while I sometimes gently prodded the typical customer towards PCs, I certainly didn’t turn down the sale if they were truly committed to the Apple platform.

In reading the Neowin article, in particular the actual chat transcripts, I don’t see anything terribly egregious nor unexpected in how the sales reps were pushing iOS and Android. I’m fairly certain that their attitudes were a combination of the Windows Phones that they had available to sell, the commissions and incentives that they’re paid, their personal preferences, and a desire to avoid returns and unhappy customers. Each one of these comes down to how the carriers position their inventory–the training they provide, the incentives that they and the manufacturers offer, the generalized experience of the carrier in terms of returns and customer satisfaction, and perhaps other purely business considerations.

All of this strongly supports Neowin’s argument, that a significant part of Windows Phone’s success (or, failure) can be attributed to how aggressively the carriers push one smartphone platform over another. Indeed, I’m convinced that webOS failed at least in part because carrier support was never better than abysmal, and Windows Phone seems like it’s in precisely the same position. It’s an issue that Microsoft simply must resolve, by providing compelling products that customers demand and hold onto, and with strong sales incentives to make it worth the sales rep’s effort.

I don’t know what Microsoft is doing within the carrier channel to make Windows Phone successful. For all I know, they could already be providing competitive pricing, sales incentive programs, and excellent sales rep training. I’m not privy to that information, but I can’t imagine that their channel managers simply aren’t doing their jobs.

What I can see, however, is that the current Windows Phone offerings are quite limited. Verizon has the Nokia Lumia Icon, the Lumia 928, the HTC 8X, and the Samsung Ativ SE. AT&T has the Lumia 1520, the Lumia 925 (refurb), and the Lumia 1020. T-Mobile has the Lumia 521 (refurb) and the Lumia 635. And Sprint has the HTC 8XT and the Samsung Ativ S Neo.

In short, other than the Lumia Icon and perhaps the Lumia 1520, there simply isn’t a new, exciting, top-tier Windows Phone available on the major carriers. There’s very little to get a sales rep excited (and trust me, they do get excited about new things; nobody wants to sell the same old stale products), and the lack of movement in introducing new and compelling smartphones simply must contribute to the impression that the platform is going nowhere. In short, I can understand a sales rep mentioning the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the LG G3–they’re relatively new, well-marketed, and exciting products compared to what’s available from Microsoft and its partners.

Finally, note that this is Neowin’s experience when specifically mentioning Windows Phone when “shopping” for a new smartphone. Imagine the millions of people shopping for smartphones who know nothing about Windows Phone–the chances of them getting exposed to the platform are next to nothing.

Perhaps Microsoft recognizes that until Windows Phone 9, or Threshold, or whatever they’re calling it, is released, there’s simply not much to sell. Perhaps it’s taking them longer than they’d hoped, or certainly than the rest of us expected, to ramp up new products since purchasing Nokia. Perhaps their recent movement to reduce the licensing fees of Windows Phone to essentially zero is indeed causing manufacturers to jump (back) on the Windows Phone platform and thus we’ll be seeing an onslaught of new Windows Phone devices over the next several months. In fact, all of these could be true in some combination.

Regardless, the carriers, and the sales reps, are in it to make a living. To make Windows Phone successful, Microsoft absolutely needs to work harder to make the platform a money-maker for the folks on the front lines.

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  1. […] appears that Windows Phone is suffering from the same sort of disdain that plagued webOS, with carrier reps either ignoring Windows Phone or explicitly pushing buyers to iOS or […]

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