Sleazier Still

It's sleazier than we thought. In last week's Computerworld, Don Tennant spent his editorial going ballistic about an attempt by Microsoft to intimidate its customers. Tennant recounted how a Microsoft manager named Janet Lawless sent a series of increasingly threatening letters to Dale Frantz, CIO at Auto Warehousing Co., about how Frantz's company appeared to be using unlicensed software and how Microsoft wanted the issue resolved (see Rotten Effort ).

Frantz figured this was about his Microsoft software licenses, so he kept offering evidence that he was in compliance. Tennant concluded that Lawless was trying to intimidate Frantz to land a software deal.

They were both wrong. It's sleazier than they imagined.

See, Janet Lawless doesn't work for a part of Microsoft that enforces licenses. Frantz thought she did. You'd think so too if you got a letter saying "a preliminary review ... indicates that your company may not be licensed properly," then a follow-up saying "since this is a compliance issue, I am obligated to notify an officer of Auto Warehousing of the situation and the significant risk your organization may be subject to by not resolving this situation in a timely manner."

Lawless kept insisting that Microsoft should send a consultant to Auto Warehousing to inventory its software.

But Lawless doesn't enforce licenses. The clue is her title: She's an engagement manager. That's right -- Lawless's job is to drum up business for Microsoft's consulting operation. In this case, that's Microsoft's software asset management consulting business.

This wasn't about confirming license compliance or about a software deal. It was about securing Microsoft a paid consulting gig.

So let's review: Lawless didn't just try to intimidate a customer. She misrepresented her purpose. And when it was clear that the customer had been misled, she didn't clarify that she was trying to sell a consulting engagement. Instead, she continued to mislead the customer.

Now that's sleazy.

Is it supposed to be? Microsoft says no. According to Robert Deshaies, a Microsoft vice president for the software asset management program, the goal truly is to help customers get the most out of their Microsoft software licenses. And he insists that four out of five customers are happy with the results.

But here's what happens if you're a big Microsoft customer: Your customer history and purchase cycles are reviewed on a monthly basis by an engagement manager like Lawless. (That's right -- your Microsoft purchasing history is handed off to the consulting side for making sales pitches.)

Then the engagement manager makes the initial pitch -- that's the "preliminary review indicates your company may not be licensed properly" letter Frantz got. Deshaies says most customers take up the opportunity at that point.

And if, like Frantz, the customer says no? Then the pressure is ratcheted up with a higher-level effort to make the sale, Deshaies says.

If there's still no sale, if the engagement manager still believes there's a problem with the customer's licenses, the final decision is whether or not to pursue it, Deshaies says -- presumably by kicking the issue over to the software sales side.

Incidentally, engagement managers like Lawless are working from a "designed process." Frantz wasn't facing some loose cannon. Lawless was following the script.

"This isn't about license compliance," Deshaies says. Yes, it is. It shouldn't be, but it is. Right now, Microsoft's software asset management consulting services are pitched from the start as being about license compliance. And if the customer keeps saying no, the last stop is a threat to sic the license police on the customer.

That's how Microsoft is selling consulting these days.

Deshaies says he doesn't want customers to be misled. He says Microsoft will be looking at the proc-ess to make sure the right message gets across. That's good to hear.

Because that message needs work. Today, it's at best muddled -- and at worst deceptive, irresponsible and genuinely sleazy.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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