That Time Bill Gates Answered a Tech Support Call ... and Crushed It

Leaving the C-suite to spend some time in a cubicle will teach you a lot about your own company.
That Time Bill Gates Answered a Tech Support Call ... and Crushed It
Image credit: Jeff Christensen | Newsmakers | Getty Images
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"Hello, this is Microsoft Product Support, William speaking. How can I help you?"

That’s exactly what he said and it's kind of a famous story in Microsoft lore. It’s worth retelling if, like me, you haven’t heard it.

Related: Take a Tip from Bezos: Customers Always Need a Seat at the Table

In 1989 Microsoft wasn’t the monolith that it is today, but it was still a huge company with more than $800 million in sales and 4,000 employees. During that year Steve Ballmer was promoted to Senior Vice President, the company released its flagship database SQL Server, Microsoft Word 5.0 for MS-DOS and started selling Office for the Macintosh. The company had opened up a 49,000 square foot support center the year before and recently started a new comprehensive software support service called OnLine Plus that gave its agents an extensive database of product information to senior support staff.

It was also the year that Bill Gates -- famous, feared, hated and loved -- answered a tech support call.

When touring the new support facility in November of that year he asked one of the support technicians answering the phones if he, the celebrity-CEO, could take a call. He sat down, put on a headset, and got to work. Calling himself "William" (for obvious reasons), Gates talked to the unknowing customer, collected the details, searched the company's new product support database, found the solution and patiently walked the customer through the problem, wrapping up the call with "thank you for using Microsoft products."

Related: What This CEO Learned by Working in His Company's Call Center

How good a job did he do? Apparently he crushed it. According to this blog on the company's website about the incident, Gates was so good that when the customer called back later with a follow-up question he specifically asked again for that "nice man named William who straightened it all out." When informed that his tech support question was answered by none other than Bill Gates himself, the customer’s response was..."Oh my God."

Yeah, I get it. You're a busy person. You're putting together deals, going to meetings, reviewing contracts, playing golf with that big prospect, interviewing that new hire. But when was the last time you directly handled a customer service call? Could you? When did you last go in the field and work on an installation or man a machine in the plant and stamp out a new piece? Could you? When did you last make a cold call or go on a road trip to see new customers?

For me, it’s been a while. Too long.

I have a client who runs an 80-person company. When a customer service rep left for maternity leave, he decided on a whim to move his office to her cubicle for the six weeks she was out. He heard the complaints, he eavesdropped on conversations, he kibitzed with the other reps and, like Bill Gates, he even took a few calls and ran down the answers all by himself.

Related: 3 Steps That Will Empower Your Employees to Act Like CEOs

"I learned more about my own company in those six weeks than in the five years before," he told me about the experience. More importantly, his employees got a chance to spend time with him, ask him questions and get to know him better as a person. Those six weeks strengthened his relationships and changed the way he viewed his company and his people.

Even the CEO of Microsoft can take a tech support call once in a while. Like my client, shouldn't we all be doing the same?