MECFor many customers, purchasing software is akin to shopping for a car. Simply select the model you want, based on appearance, gas mileage, horsepower or acceleration. If you have purchased cars thirty, twenty or even ten years ago, the experience was largely the same. Come into the showroom, take a test drive, argue over the price, and make a purchase.

In the last ten years, however, the car-buying experience has changed dramatically. Rising fuel prices, increased use of online comparison shopping and radical improvements in technology have all modified the “default” experience. Cars can now be fully customized online, made to run on electricity and the final price known well in advance before a customer even enters a showroom.

Similarly, customers looking for productivity software who have been used to purchasing based on price and a list of user interface changes are often unaware of the dramatic changes impacting the industry the past five years. Without envisioning what a modern office looks like, it is difficult for customers to grasp the difference between buzzwords and true productivity enhancements. After years of having heard how products can “enhance collaboration”, “improve productivity” and “ease communication” it is easy for customers to become jaded.

The solution? A test-drive. Yet much as cars and software have seen changes to the sales process, so too has our understanding for how individuals learn. Instead of one-sided demonstrations of features and lengthy PowerPoint decks filled with eye-charts, interactive learning has been shown to be far more effective.

When it comes to Microsoft’s software stack, one obvious hurdle for interactive learning is the breadth of offerings currently in play. Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, Office, Project, Visio, Windows Phone, Dynamics CRM and even Dynamics AX are all part of a modern office environment. Yet each one could be discussed for several hours on their own. The solution is a free-flowing, immersive “day in the life of” session known as the Microsoft Experience Center, or MEC.

The MEC combines aspects of all the software mentioned earlier, and is organized around a stereotypical office worker’s day at a fictional corporation. Starting from the moment the worker gets up and uses their mobile device, through going to work and interacting with co-workers, the MEC challenges participants to work together to solve a number of business problems requiring collaboration, communication and prioritization. Instead of “showing” customers how the various software packages can help in a scripted manner, participants in a MEC actually perform the work themselves, seeing the benefits in action without being sold to. Much like a test drive allows a car purchaser to step on the gas, turn and brake to check the handling of a vehicle, the MEC allows the consumer to co-author documents with a group, video chat with presence in real-time and use multiple devices (phones, tablets and laptops) to access information. Even long-time users of many Microsoft products leave MEC sessions learning critical tips and tricks to enhanced productivity. All the software shown is available either as a hosted service (from Microsoft or other partners) or an on-premises version, or even a hybrid of the two, allowing customers the maximum flexibility in how they wish to deploy.

Best of all, the Microsoft Experience Center is fun! Instead of being sold to, participants in the MEC ask questions of one another, and the facilitator is strictly prohibited from “showing” the software and shifiting into a “demo” mode. Because the interaction is purely socratic in nature, facilitators begin every MEC session by asking participants to contribute some business problems they experience in their current environment to a board, and use the interactive learning to help solve those problems over the course of the four hour session. Each participant is provided a laptop, mobile device and communications equipment to allow them to see all the software interacting together. At no point does a facilitator even fire up a projector or slide deck, so participants are immersed in the environment from the first few minutes onward. Unlike traditional technology demonstrations, the MEC is aligned around business needs, and thus technical knowledge isn’t needed to participate. The most effective Microsoft Experience Center engagements tend to involve business decision makers from multiple areas at a customer, and avoids technical decision makers if at all possible. Frequently we’ve seen Chief Financial Officers, Chief Marketing Officers, leaders of sales divisions and head of HR all in the room at the same time, learning together.

The MEC also isn’t static: every few months a new version is released to ensure that the sessions are using the latest software and including the full Microsoft stack. Facilitators must go through a rigorous training process, ensuring that every customer has an amazing experience, and only a few Microsoft partners are “MEC certified” to provide these interactions. Most MECs are conducted at official Microsoft Technology Centers around the country, ensuring a clean environment that is tailored to customer’s needs. Because the sessions, while loosely scripted, can go in any direction, customers can go into the depth that’s required without feeling constrained.

If you haven’t seen a modern office in action, it’s simply tough to envision the time-savings that are possible. For that reason, the MEC is a huge win for customers because it can help decision makers envision a system that works for them, rather than against them. Here at New Signature, we take customers through MEC sessions every single week. Interested in seeing the future? Reach out to us today and we can show your organization the benefits of a truly collaborative environment.