Thursday, 13 June 2013

Microsoft Store - Buyer Beware!

This blog post was updated on 23rd June 2013. Please see the end of the article for the update with the eventual resolution by Microsoft

I honestly didn't think Microsoft's handling of the UK launch of the Surface Pro could have got any worse. I should have known better of course!

The Surface Pro is essentially an over-priced, albeit niche product with terrible battery life and poor weight and handling characteristics that FINALLY officially launched in the UK on 23rd May 2013 - several months after its much hyped debut in the USA, and almost a year after it had been first announced and demonstrated as Microsoft's answer to the all-domineering iPad tablet.

On 23rd May, the morning of release, the Microsoft UK Store officially launched the Surface Pro in the UK and took pre-orders. I placed an order online.

My bad!

This blog post documents how at EVERY SINGLE customer 'touch point' Microsoft have demonstrated staggering incompetence.

1. Microsoft Store Web Site - Frequently Broken

I've lost count of the number of times I visit the Microsoft Store, fill out a ton of details, click to purchase something and encounter the screen shown below which then sits there for hours. You eventually give up and try and process an order again, re-entering every detail of your order, only to get the same screen over and over again for hours at a time until somebody somewhere wakes up to the problem and fixes the web site. How do these people stay in business?

Microsoft Store - they're always processing your request with broken images and it takes forever

2. Microsoft Store - Order Status? 'Processing' aka 'Completely Unknown'

I was one of the first people to order a Surface Pro for work. I ordered on the morning of Thursday, 23rd May - the supposed day of launch. My order showed as 'processing'. It stayed at 'processing' for a week. I phoned the Microsoft Store to ask when it was likely to be despatched. They said they had no idea and couldn't give me ANY kind of date as 'demand was higher than expected', which is odd since all the media reports are full of stories of poor sales of the product.

I cancelled the order by talking to real people in a real call centre.


It still showed as 'processing' three weeks later!

3. Customer Priority Ordering - What Priority?

A week after the Surface Pro launched I had no delivery date or even suggestion of when my order might be despatched. And yet a friend (Hello Brian!) who ordered THE DAY AFTER ME received his 128GB Surface Pro the following Wednesday.

In other words, it doesn't matter when you place your order there is no priority, rhyme or reason around the delivery system. No 'common sense' approach that says 'first come, first served'. It's a complete lottery.

4. We can't supply the product but we've started and charged for your extended warranty...

I ordered the extended warranty for the Surface Pro because everything I've read about this device says it runs hot and will be a pig to get repaired because the design is so bad parts are impossible for Microsoft engineers to get at. If you purchase the Surface Pro from the Microsoft Store you can buy an extended warranty for £65. Not cheap - especially when the only other place offering to sell the product (John Lewis) bundles it in free. I ordered it. I was charged for it immediately. The Microsoft Store rep I spoke to actually admitted that the extended warranty had started and been charged for EVEN THOUGH THEY HAD NO IDEA WHEN THEY COULD SUPPLY THE PRODUCT THE WARRANTY WAS TO COVER!

5. We cancelled your order.... but we haven't

Fortunately there is one alternative source for the Microsoft Surface Pro if you really need one (ie you work at a Microsoft 'shop' that has mandated their use because of the device's inherent security benefits over the iPad): John Lewis. Friendly staff, and a two year warranty for free instead of £65, and they had stock a week after launch. I cancelled my order by phoning the Microsoft Store, sitting in a 'hold' queue and speaking to a real person who was friendly and helpful. My order was cancelled I was told. My credit card would not be charged. Phew!

Next day however, the store is still showing my order as 'processing'. Whatever happens I don't want to be charged twice or have a second item shipped. So before heading out to John Lewis I phone the Microsoft Store again. Hold queue again, but eventually I get to speak to another friendly, helpful lady. She tells me that the Microsoft Store 'back office' systems are slow to update. Uho! How slow? She can't say, but tells me I am not to worry because she will ESCALATE my cancellation to make sure my credit card is not charged. Blimey! What would have happened if I hadn't called and just assumed the cancellation had happened as I'd been told the previous day? I think we all know the answer to that! She can't tell me when the store status will change from 'processing' to 'cancelled' but she gives me a long cancellation reference number and apologises for the fact the Microsoft Store web site has no concept of what an order status really is.

I go to John Lewis and purchase my Surface Pro

6. Two weeks after we cancelled your order we took your money

Two weeks after I've confirmed my order as cancelled by speaking to a real human being and getting a cancellation reference, I get an automated email telling me that my items couldn't be cancelled and have been sent and charged for!

I also get another email telling me not to worry because I can refuse to accept the goods (me: "but the courier will just leave them with a neighbour - how will that help when I'm not at home?") or I have 30 days to return them at my own cost... to Holland! Then 2 weeks after that I might get my money back. But probably not the interest charges that will have been applied because I don't have the money to pay the charges because I already spent them at John Lewis.

UPDATE: A couple of hours after posting this blog entry (and nearly 24 hours after receiving the original return instructions) I received emails telling me I could print off pre-paid labels for UPS to return the cancelled goods, relieving me of the cost of shipping everything back. It seems odd that this should happen (a) so long after the original 'How to return the items' email (b) two hours after I'd been lucky enough to be at home when UPS attempted delivery of the items and therefore able to refuse to take them, making the labels completely redundant. A knee-jerk reaction to this blog post maybe? Hard to tell!

In summary, "our back end systems take more than two weeks to process an 'escalated' cancellation and as a result you will have to pay significant costs to cover our negligence and incompetence". Thanks Microsoft. You really are truly unbelievable!

6. Customer Service - just follow this link

Each email from the Microsoft store has a 'Customer Service' hyperlink. It takes you to a completely grey empty page:

Microsoft Store Customer Support Page - yup, they've got nothing!

I wish I could say I was surprised. This is Microsoft. I'm NOT surprised. It's just business as usual. I know what you're thinking "Heh, give them a break. It's not like they write software for a living or anything". Oh wait!....

7. We'll say we shipped one thing, but offer to reimburse you for another (cheaper) thing!

The email detailing what has been sent two weeks after cancellation correctly identifies my order as being for a 128GB Surface Pro. The email I have to use to return the unwanted goods to Holland, and on which presumably refund costs will be based, says what is being returned is a 64GB Surface Pro. How on earth can this happen? Is the Microsoft 'Back office' system that generates these things a monkey with a pencil? It sure looks that way.

8. Customer Service - I can't give you a name or address to complain to

One thing the online web site DOES have is interactive chat which appears to be designed to help them sell you stuff. Desperate to avoid high phone charges sitting on hold and unanswered emails I tried to use it to find someone I could complain to. Nope. They can't give me the name of a manager or an address to write a letter of complaint to. They can email me 'in 10 minutes' and I can reply to that email address with my complaint but that's all. What's the point of emailing the minion I've already chatted to about the complaint? Completely pointless!

I've been round this 'send us your complaint' loop before. Some years ago I purchased an expensive online introductory training course for WPF that was truly terrible. I tweeted about it, warning potential purchasers to avoid at all costs. Three Microsoft employees contacted me asking for details on what was wrong so that they could rectify things. I spent significant time putting together a detailed report documenting everything that was wrong with the course. I was thanked for my comments and told someone would get back to me. 3 months later nothing had happened. I asked why. Nobody could say, other than to say the report had been forwarded to somebody in the States, and a shrug-of-the-shoulders suggestion that the course had probably been put together by 'a partner' who hadn't bothered to read, let alone respond to, the detailed report I'd sent. This is of course the classic Microsoft reaction to terrible customer service like this: sympathise, say 'I'm sorry I'll look into that' ... and then do absolutely nothing!

Microsoft truly is in danger of becoming the 'Kodak of the 2010's. It seems to be rotten to the core: full of smiley snake-oil covered young 'passionate' sales and marketing people with Teflon shoulders who will smile and say "How can I help?" before emptying your wallet with promises of what's to come or what's 'strategically important' (ie about to be killed off) before they quickly move on to something else or if they have any sort of self-respect somewhere else (seems to be mostly Telerik if they're a software engineer!) when you start asking "Wait a minute. What happened here? I think I just got shafted.... again!".

If you're considering purchasing ANYTHING from Microsoft or the Microsoft Store, I suggest you bear all the above headline points in mind. Every single Microsoft rep I've spoken to when I've had a problem has said they're 'sorry'. Every single one has, when pushed, privately admitted they can't actually do anything because ... well find your excuse: it's this partner or that partner, or somebody in Redmond that's the cause of the problem. Nobody takes account. Nobody takes responsibility. Nobody addresses the problems. And in the meantime you've lost a whole ton of money and time for no good reason.

Like the title of this blog post says: Buyer beware!

Update 23rd June 2013

Journalist Tim Anderson linked to this blog post in an article he wrote Microsoft and Mediocrity in Programming which seemed to stir Microsoft into action.

Last Wednesday I received a call from a Microsoft employee in Toronto (!) apologising for my experience and giving me contact details as he tried to get to the bottom of the situation. Refunds for accessory items were made in the middle of last week and although I haven't officially been notified yet, it appears my credit card was credited with the main cost of the Surface Pro itself yesterday, 22nd June - the day after my credit card statement which means I'll get stung for the charge but have a credit on my account for future purchases (sigh!) Microsoft also, by way of apology, refunded the cost of the 'Limited edition' Wedge Mouse for Surface which I separately had ordered and kept - which is generous given it retailed for £69.99 (For other Pro owners I should point out this is identical to the 'non-limited, non-Surface' edition Wedge Mouse that retails for about £40 on Amazon, except for the fact it has black ends instead of silver ends - just in case you were wondering, like me, what the heck the difference in this 'Surface limited edition' accessory was!).

Given my experience, albeit with a happy ending eventually, would I use Microsoft Store again? Not if I have ANY choice in the matter. See the 'Comments' section below for others who have struggled to get refunds or cancellations out of Microsoft for orders placed through their store!

Unfortunately if you want Surface Pro accessories you have little to no choice. John Lewis, the only other reliable supplier I've been able to find, don't stock most of the accessories (yet?)

Having had the Surface Pro for two weeks now I regret my rather imulsive purchase - it's a shame I don't follow my own advice as the signs were all there BEFORE I bought the Pro!

I can see this is a niche product for niche users, but the poor battery life and overall clumsy form factor and weight when added to the "Windows 8 and touch on hi-res screens just doesn't work" problems mean it will be of little interest to most. The 'hack' of including a stylus pen that occupies the same slot as the power lead (doh!) is an interesting attempt to solve part of the problem, but it's a hack, and not a very good one! Add in the exhorbitant costs: of the unit, the £110 keyboard, the £70 mouse, the £65 spare power supply etc and the appalling battery life and it's hard to justify buying the Surface Pro when you can get so much more for a lot less money in an ultraportable Windows 8 PC.

No doubt next week at Build we'll get the same shills who were over-promoting this Frankenstein's monster hardware last year doing the same for its "improved", smaller 'Surface Mini' (really?!!) version that many have predicted will be announced. Take all the hype with a pinch of salt until you can actually try units that are available to buy in the UK (a year from now if the usual pattern is followed)!


  1. What a great write up of a terrible buying experience!

    Do let us know how you actually get on with the Surface Pro as I am keen to hear from people who have actually spent their OWN money on this first iteration of Microsoft's vision of Windows 8 tablet computing.

    1. Hi Andy, I'm holding off posting a review because I've already got a ton of Microsoft shills calling me a "hater" because I don't tow the party line on Microsoft products. It's one reason why I haven't posted an update on the Nokia Lumia 920: I'm six months into ownership (stuck with a 2 year contract) on my Nokia Lumia 920 and yet the iPhone 4 is still my main phone. Why? Because although there is a lot to like about the Lumia it's like a clunky beta product by comparison. At random I find it's lost my carrier signal and requires a complete reboot to get it back. Intermittently about once every 3-4 weeks it will go from fully charged to dead in less than an hour; most of the time it survives fine for 3-4 days on a single charge. Surface Pro feels like it will be similar. It's big and clunky - too clunky - to hold as a tablet, but it does have the whole Windows 7 (in Windows 8) functionality. Lack of a SIM card is a real downer for me as I work away from home and my iPad SIM card is my lifeline. The unit gets very hot and the design of the pen/power lead (where both need to use the same magnetic holder) is just plain dumb. But it's the battery life (on top of the extortionate price, especially if you need to accessorize) that make it very poor value for money. It's a device that needs to be plugged into the mains most of the time where the iPad happily lasts all day. It's a luxury item for those working as Microsoft devs who have more money than sense! That'll be me then ;-) Hopefully next week at Build will see announcement of a "fixed" version, albeit in a smaller form. And a form we Brits will no doubt have to wait another year for at a £1 = $1 exchange rate price. On the plus side: the unit is very portable. I like the TypePad cover. I like the 1080p HD screen - comparable to retina on a Mac. I like being able to run apps that just aren't available on WindowsRT even if they are on an iPad.

  2. i totally feel you! if the tech industry was game of thrones, microsoft would be geoffrey.
    as a developer yourself you might have had a look in the registry, or the well structured operating system - nothing more to say, right?
    i hope the surface pro was worth it

  3. I'm having something similar with a 14-day money back return. After being sent 2 emails telling me my UPS labels would be sent within 24 hours, I'm still waiting 48 hours later. When I called and asked how long it takes, the answer was 'it depends'. I think getting my refund is going to be a major problem. Every single statement Microsoft Store has made to me about times - order, delivery, return - has proven to be completely groundless.

    Microsoft store is going to sink the Surface Pro.


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