What’s right for the customer – the Microsoft Office approach to blending tech with insight

Nathan Wilson is the product marketing lead for Office (consumer) at Microsoft – one of the largest subscription services in Australia and New Zealand. He is responsible for driving subscriber growth and revenue and was recently recognised by Microsoft global CFO Amy Hood as a global thought leader. His overall approach is refreshingly balanced and straightforward, always with the customer at the centre. Nathan brings true insight to our relationship with tech, especially in the subscription economy, and how to use it for the better. 

This article originally appeared in The Madtech Brief, our second print edition of 2019.

Madtech 200Wilson is far from the tech stereotype; his demeanour is incredibly bright and positive, and everything he says is well-paced. He says he always knew he wanted to work in marketing after graduation. “I didn’t really know what or how, but it grew my interest. My degree at university was business and economics, so quite different, but I just had an attraction or intrigue about it.” His career started in the utility sector, then he moved into finance where he spent seven years at Virgin Money in senior marketing roles in both Australia and the UK. Originally from the latter, Wilson was meant to stay in Australia for just a year, but it’s now been nearly 16.

What has helped him find his stride within such big industries and organisations is his laser focus on two key areas: the importance of data and understanding the customer. He was lucky to learn both early on in his career. “As I’ve gone through my marketing career I’ve realised that these foundations have really helped me be the marketer I am today.” With each of his career moves, Wilson has continually built on this foundation, challenging himself to keep adding to his repertoire.

Wilson had a personal synergy with the Virgin Money brand. “Virgin’s a great brand and is very much aligned to who I am as a person.” But he discovered that the flipside to working for such a strong brand is being able to sustain success. “The challenge with Virgin was that you make such great big brand moments and launches using Richard [Branson], but everyone’s [thinks] ‘OK, what do we do now?’ Because things aren’t going as well as when we first launched.” So one of the first things Wilson did when he started – about a year after the Virgin credit card was launched – was to unpack everything and put it back together again to understand what was working and what was not. “How can we drive more effectiveness from our marketing and how can we demonstrate the accountability that we have?” 

Wilson’s approach has always been straightforward and bold. “I like making an impact,” he says. “If you’re not accountable, you don’t know what’s working. But if you know what’s working you can do more of it.” At the time, it was very new for someone within a company to think about marketing effectiveness in this way.

“I suppose with media agencies, companies were told ‘this is what performance is’ and that would be accepted. But I never accepted that.” His career formed 15 to 20 years ago based on traditional media, but now it’s a very different story. “Media is so fragmented these days across different segments and people consume different channels differently… it’s just getting more complex, but I think that’s a really interesting puzzle in terms of how we create effective communication and make it relevant for different channels.” 

He describes his DNA as a marketer as made up of three buckets. The first one is having the customer at the heart of all decisions and even represented at the senior leadership team. ‘Money stuff, not funny stuff’ was the internal saying at Virgin Money – a kind of rallying cry across the entire business that helped to keep the customer in mind. “If something didn’t feel right for the customer, we’d call it out. We really made sure the customer was built into the Virgin DNA,” he recalls. Wilson’s invaluable experience at a crucial time for the brand is testament to the difference it makes when things come from the top in an organisation. “[Branson] would be out in Sydney roaming the offices and was very much all about the customer… And he would challenge our partners like Westpac: ‘Why would you do that? That’s not right for the customer’.” 

Wilson acknowledges that having this mindset truly built into the Virgin way of thinking made things a lot easier. While it was Virgin that gave him the all-important customer lens, it wasn’t until after he left that he realised how powerful it was. Other organisations needed more help and inspiration to keep the customer front and centre. At Microsoft, he says, they’re on a journey. 

Wilson talks about not really knowing the Office customer, so Microsoft leveraged Quantium to get strong data. Once it did, it could see how to adapt and change if it wasn’t communicating something the right way. He says that being truly customer-first “makes a real difference because you become more relatable”. 

“And when you’re more relatable,” he adds, “customers get it, and you can actually see different points when you change your strategy and put the customer at the heart of it.” 

His view on this is laser-focused and comes with a heavy dose of truth. “If we’re not delivering great products with the customer at heart, if we’re not delivering communications that are in easy-to-understand language for customers, then we’re just talking to ourselves and not making a bigger impact.” 

The second bucket is creating really great CX and using technology to enhance it. How would Wilson explain his role at Microsoft as if he were talking to an uncle at a family gathering? “I would say that I make people in Australia more productive,” he laughs. “It’s all around making stuff easier. As people, we don’t learn new things when we do what we’ve always done.” Wilson brings up a very valid point, that with the nature of Microsoft Office, many of us likely stopped learning once we knew the basics. His challenge is to inspire use and push forward a brand that’s grounded in heritage. 

“How do we tell customers that there are new ways to do things? A lot of the functionality now in Office is grounded in AI and you wouldn’t know because it’s just easy and simple to do,” he says. 

He also explains how diversity is built into the product; for example, if you type the word ‘policeman’, it will ask if you mean ‘police officer’. For a brand like Microsoft, now is a time of great opportunity with digital subscription services more popular than ever and a market that is willing to pay for services it values like Spotify Premium or Amazon Prime, and he says that people who have Netflix are more likely to understand what Office 365 is.

Rounding out the third pillar is enhancing CX, which Wilson says is probably one of the biggest transitions for Microsoft and how it connects with its customers. Whether that be through social media or inbound calls, “We need to make sure that it’s truly a seamless experience because, for me, when customers have a bad experience with brands, it’s a big moment.”

There’s a quote he likes: ‘people may forget what you said and what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel’. “That just resonates with me because if you have a bad experience you’ll probably tell all your friends, but if you have a good one, you may not tell anybody.” 

Through all of this, Wilson is supported by management that trusts him and a team that he works hard to inspire. “It’s almost like a Game of Thrones of marketing; you can’t do anything on your own. You need to inspire the team, drive the vision and get people behind it. And then slowly but surely, you drive this force of change.” He speaks about the importance of passion within the company and having a positive workplace culture.

When he was interviewing for his initial role at Microsoft, Wilson was looking for passion. “I think I had about eight interviews at Microsoft and everybody I spoke to had passion for what they did and that just motivates me to get up and change things too.” But regardless of the challenges and working at a high pace, it’s clear that he always keeps perspective. “I want to make sure in the work environment we’re having fun. Because, yes, there’s hard and challenging conversations, but at the end of the day we work together as a collective and I see my work colleagues more than I see my husband, so it’s really important to make sure we can have a smile as well.” He’s a big believer in ‘work is a thing you do, not a place you go’.

Beyond his daily tasks, Wilson is thinking much more broadly and even coming full circle when it comes to the idea of a digital detox and being the better version of oneself by managing one’s relationships with screens and devices. “What a great space for a tech company to own,” he elaborates. “To make sure that when we’re talking about productivity, it’s not just about doing more stuff. It’s about doing the stuff you already do in a short space of time and then giving you time back to spend with the people you love and doing the things you love.”

A local project that Wilson recently led was to partner with equipment manufacturers like HP and Acer to source devices for underprivileged children at the Girls’ and Boys’ Brigade in Surry Hills, Sydney. He had learned that kids were going to school without laptops and tablets pretending they had forgotten theirs and left them at home, when in reality their families couldn’t afford them. “As a technology company, we can actually change that with the partners we work for. I didn’t realise how much of an impact it would have because it’s creating learning opportunities for the students, but it’s also making sure the parents can sleep better at night with one less thing to worry about.” 

It’s clear that Wilson is inspired to keep challenging himself to do new things and achieving more. He cites a quote from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella from when Microsoft was developing HoloLens, “When you change the way you see the world, you change the way you see.” 

“That just talks to me about the possibilities we open up when we use tech to find new ways to do things and to really empower people,” says Wilson. He’s been lucky enough to have worked at two organisations that have great leadership. The impact this has had on him has only fuelled his passion for the customer and insight when it comes to technology. “It’s important from a tech perspective that we’re creating great experiences that the customer wants to be a part of and understand, and it’s intuitive… and I think when you do that, you can create great things.”

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Michelle Keomany
BY Michelle Keomany ON 1 July 2019
Global social media manager at Pernod Ricard and Marketing Mag freelance features writer.