'Small Business +' = 'Free Training and Support from Microsoft'
Published: January 25, 2006
by Alex Woodie
Free. Now there's a word not often associated with Microsoft, which didn't become the world's largest software company by giving stuff away. But with yesterday's announcement of its new Small Business + offering, little companies can now tap into the software giant's considerable expertise for purposes of receiving technical support and software training over the Internet, and not pay a dime--for a month and a half, anyway.
Small Business + delivers a customized Web experience for employees of small businesses to get training and technical support from Microsoft's small business center at www.microsoft.com/smallbusiness. When users sign-in to the site, they're presented with an array of resources for training and technical support, which Microsoft tailors to each particular user depending on the information they shared during the registration process (such as your role in business and IT decisions, which Microsoft products you use, and how big is your company). All that users need is a valid Passport account, which is free, to sign up for the new service.
The program currently offers 17 E-Learning tracks that guide users through various subject matter, including software topics, such as "Reporting and Administering with Microsoft Small Business Accounting," and business topics, such as "Marketing: Getting Publicity in the Media," which Microsoft certainly has expertise in.
Users complete the lessons at their own pace, and Microsoft keeps track of their progress using easy-to-read slider bars. Users will complete some lessons quickly, such as "Changing the Appearance of Documents Using Microsoft Office Word 2003," which has only seven steps and should take no more than 50 minutes. Other lessons are more involved, including "Technology Management: Security, Privacy, and Getting the Right Technical Support," which has 75 steps and takes more than four hours to finish.
Technical support is also provided through users' Small Business + Web sites. For simple questions, such as "What's the difference between Windows Small Business Server 2003 standard and Premium?", Microsoft has "Quick Advice" experts standing by to "chat" with users using instant messaging-like technology that loads in the Web page.
For more involved questions, such as "I need to configure my Exchange server with a new firewall. How can I do this?" Microsoft offers the Small Business + Helpdesk. This "expert" offering comes in three flavors, neatly delineated in Bronze, Silver, and Gold annual subscriptions.
The entry-level Bronze Package, which normally costs $149 per year, lets customers tap into the expert advice of the Microsoft Helpdesk six times over the course of the year, as long as they use the online chat feature. The Silver Package, which normally costs $299 per year, gives users unlimited access to chat-based expert advice over the course of the annual subscription, while the Gold Package, which is $499 per year, gives users unlimited chat-based expert advice, plus three telephone calls. Talking to a live human is at a premium these days.
As part of the introduction of Small Business +, Microsoft says it is giving users a break on the Silver Package. The company says the Silver Package is "completely free for the first 45 days of your Small Business membership," but there may be charges for accessing the service beyond those first 45 days, depending on the services.
(This is kind of like saying something is "free" as long as you pay for part of it, which isn't really free, when you think about it. But hey, Microsoft got us to write about it, didn't they? See: "Marketing: Getting Publicity in the Media.")
Doug Leland, general manager for small business for the Microsoft's worldwide small and midsize solutions and partner group program, says he expects Small business + to quickly become a valuable resource Microsoft's small-business customers. "We are committed to helping small businesses build connections to quickly and easily identify resources and technology partners that can support them," he says.
The program is currently available in the United States at www.microsoft.com/smallbusiness, and in the future it will also be available in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.