(CNET) -- There are many ways to measure how Windows 7 is doing. There are reports on new PC sales, tallies of boxed copy sales, and surveys of planned enterprise adoption, to name a few.
But one of the most encouraging signs for Microsoft is the lack of phone calls it is getting from people with problems. Overall, Microsoft said the volume of calls to its support lines is half of what it expected.
"Overall we are finding our call center volume is down significantly more than we expected," said Barbara Gordon, vice president of customer support for Microsoft.
The drop in calls isn't just due to the fact that Windows 7 appears less problem-plagued than its predecessor, though. In the weeks leading up to and following the operating system's release, Microsoft also added two new ways to get help--through an online forum called Microsoft Answers and via the Microsoft Helps feed on Twitter.
"What we have found is we are seeing far more take-up of self-service ... forums and Twitter to get responses," Gordon said in an interview this week.
With the Microsoft Answers forums, which launched late last year, users submit questions and experienced community members offer answers that Microsoft workers later validate to make sure they are correct.
So far, Microsoft has validated some 60,000 solutions. The company says that 83 percent of English-language queries are answered within seven days. Those in other languages have a slightly lower rate, but even of those 78 percent are taken care of within a week.
Meanwhile, Microsoft went live with its Twitter help site in October. Users can post a tweet with "@microsofthelps" in the message and Microsoft will respond. A team of seven employees dedicated full time to the project work with the broader support organization to respond to the many tweets.
The goal is to either answer simple questions or to point people to a place where they can get a more detailed answer.
"It's hard to answer (most questions) in 140 characters," Gordon said.
But, she said, social networks like Twitter, Gordon said, allow the company to realize a problem that could be affecting thousands of people via a single short message.
"It's really like a customer megaphone," Gordon said.
Gordon hopes the new online options will not only cut down on call center expenses, but ultimately improve overall customer satisfaction with Windows. Customer satisfaction an area where the Mac has traditionally outpaced the various PC brands.
But Gordon says she hopes to see Windows gain ground. "We are really working on this," she said.
Although Apple touts its personal touch with its stores, Gordon suggests Microsoft's high-tech approach might ultimately win it more fans.
"If I can help myself without having to go to the mall and sit at a geek bar I will be happier," she said.
Nonetheless, one of the main features of Microsoft's two retail stores is an answer desk very similar to the "Genius Bar" found in Apple stores.
As for the questions people ask on Twitter, they range from the expected range of bugs and problems to inquiries about future versions of products. This week, for example, one user asked when to expect Windows 8. Although vague, the answer was at least as direct as anything a reporter would get by asking Redmond.
"It will be a few years until the next official version comes out," Microsoft replied on the Twitter feed. "Keep an eye out on microsoft.com for future updates."
In addition to building goodwill and cutting costs, the online forums also allow Microsoft to quickly see when a problem is affecting a significant number of users. Such mechanisms helped Microsoft to recognize and then solve a video driver problem that was causing some users to have their systems hang when they reached 62 percent completion on an upgrade to Windows 7.
Within a week, Microsoft had a solution on its Web site and shortly thereafter it posted an automated "Fix It," essentially a script that a user can click on to have the proper steps done automatically.
The Windows 7 upgrade fix has already been used more than 35,000 times, Microsoft said.
"We're getting people able to meet their needs themselves," Gordon said.
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