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The Journey to Dynamics CRM: A Partner Perspective, Part 1

Changes in IT spending, cloud technology and the growing importance of digital customer engagement are all factors prompting system integrators (SIs) to add customer relationship management (CRM) to their service portfolios. For many partners, the obvious choice is Microsoft Dynamics CRM, with its easy availability through Office 365.

What does it take to build a CRM practice? One partner shares its journey, three years in, as Dynamics CRM takes its place in the company's next generation of services.

The tagline on RBA's Web site, "A digital and technology consultancy," reflects the journey that the Microsoft national solution provider started in 2011. "We were a classic SI partner doing migrations to Office 365 and capitalizing on the hockey-stick growth of SharePoint," explained Jay Lendl, RBA's director of CRM solutions. "As we were planning out our next steps to grow the business, Gartner released a report predicting that CMOs would be spending more on technology than CIOs over the next few years."

While RBA had noted a transition in IT purchase decisions, its observations were focused on discretionary spending. "It wasn't so much that IT wouldn't spend money, it was that most of their budget was fixed in things like hosting and online services," Lendl said. "We didn't envision that the CMO's spend on IT would increase every year, but they did have more discretion over their funds than the CIO. A large percent of the CMO's spend involves choices -- like deciding to focus on retaining customers with a loyalty program or acquiring new customers with a digital push."

Based on its own observations of changes in technology purchases and market predictions, RBA acquired a digital marketing agency. The agency's expertise was in helping companies engage with their constituents, whether they be patients, customers, vendors or dealers. The acquisition also built on RBA's experience in helping enterprise clients with loyalty programs.

The acquisition led to a year of learning about how the technology that RBA had focused on, like SharePoint and mobile solutions, would apply to customer-facing digital interactions. "Our perceptions changed. The agency became more like us and we became more like them," Lendl said. "It was an important first step in the journey. We really needed to adjust our lens. The process was as much about what we were selling as it was about how we were selling it and who we were selling to."

Customer Data as the Pivot Point
The common denominator was customer data. "Microsoft Dynamics CRM was the natural extension since it is built on the Microsoft technology, including SQL, .NET and Office 365," Lendl said. "The technical stuff was easy for us, but we realized that we needed more functional expertise. We acquired a small CRM practice which added the folks who understood the functional capabilities and business problems we needed to address."

With the addition of Dynamics CRM and customer-focused expertise to its solution set, RBA is now able to talk to the business decision-makers about customer engagement. "From a technology standpoint as well as strategic design, we can have much more meaningful business conversations," Lendl said. "While everyone these days seems to be saying they are doing that, we have put the pieces in place to support it. It has been a very interesting journey."

For partners who are considering adding a CRM practice to continue services for customers once they have switched to Office 365, Lendl offered some advice: "Unlike Office 365, Microsoft Dynamics CRM is not something that you just light up. Provisioning and migrating data is just a small part of a Microsoft Dynamics project. Clients are looking for guidance. They expect you to help them define their sales process, not just configure it."

As current Dynamics CRM partners have found, a significant part of a CRM practice is in providing that guidance to improve business processes, which should align with the strategic direction of most technology service providers today. As technology recedes into the background and buyers focus on business outcomes, partners need to be equipped to deliver process improvement.

"The great news about Microsoft Dynamics CRM is that you get to leverage all of your technical folks. It's phenomenal that way," Lendl said. "But you need to have a few experts that truly are focused on CRM and understand what it means to the customer and how to promote adoption. Start on smaller opportunities to build expertise."

Part 2: Staffing the CRM Practice
Through its journey, RBA found that it takes a different set of skills in both sales and delivery to support the Dynamics CRM practice. In Part 2, we'll look at some of the staffing lessons that RBA learned.

How are you transitioning your business to tap into changing markets? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on April 16, 2015 at 9:49 AM0 comments

IAMCP Kicks It Up a Notch

In January, the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP) inducted a new board of directors that is putting plans in place to take the organization to a new level.

With 80 regional chapters around the world and a rapidly growing number of Women in Technology (WIT) communities, the IAMCP already has an established presence in the channel. The current board has committed to providing relevant education and enablement initiatives that support all Microsoft partners, with special emphasis on representing and adding value to the unmanaged partner community. 

As the newly elected president of the IAMCP, Gail Mercer-MacKay led a recent planning session in which the IAMCP set out a five-year plan to take the organization to a new level of influence representing the broad spectrum of Microsoft's channel partners. Following a theme of "IAMCP is Open for Business," Mercer-MacKay and the rest of the board have made structural and operational changes to increase the transparency and impact of the organization.

"IAMCP International is open for 'partner-to-partner' and 'partner-to-Microsoft' business. We are excited by the growth we have seen in the past year. New chapters have formed and new communities (like IAMCP WIT) are broadening member reach and impact," Mercer-MacKay said. "Members tell us their IAMCP membership has helped them grow their business, with returns that range from 2 percent to 30 percent or more. I would urge any Microsoft partner who is not a member to find out more about us. Attend a meeting or register for a webinar and find out how we can help you."

Initiatives for the Coming Year
Demonstrating value to both members and sponsors is the driving force for the renewed energy of IAMCP's board. Some of the initiatives the board is undertaking for the coming year include:

  • Quarterly webinars to provide exclusive content and insights to members.
  • Increased involvement and presence at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC).
  • Broader communication with membership.
  • Promotion of the IAMCP Partnering Maturity Model (.DOC here), a concept outlined in the whitepaper written by past IAMCP president Per Werngren, that provides guidance for partners on developing their business models.   

In response to a survey of members, one of the year's early initiatives will be a social media education program. "Even though many of our members are socially savvy, they don't feel that they are fully leveraging social media to help their business," Mercer-MacKay said. "We're going to provide training on the specific steps they should be taking."

Growth of WIT
One of the high notes for the IAMCP over the past couple of years has been the growth of the WIT communities, which are a subset of the regional chapters. Currently, there are 20 WIT communities, with a goal that every chapter will have an active WIT community by year's end. Three quarterly WIT-sponsored webinars have been well-received, with over 150 registrants each. With an increasingly prominent presence at WPC, the WIT panels and luncheon are very popular, providing women in the channel encouragement and support.

Chapters Making an Impact
To help guide the direction of the organization, the IAMCP board is looking to build on the success of standout chapters like Southern California (SoCal) and Spain.

With a 20 percent growth in membership, SoCal chapter President David Gersten attributes much of the draw to the "Partnering for Success" program. SoCal's 102 members, representing over 65 companies, take partnering past simple lead sharing to include introductions, mentoring, joint marketing, joint product development and more.

"Partnering is the No. 1 reason why people join IAMCP in SoCal," Gersten said. "It 100 percent aligns with the connect/learn/grow concept and direction of the Microsoft channel."

[Click on image for larger view.] The annual social event of the IAMCP Spain chapter in May 2014 in Marbella, Spain.

Spain's IAMCP chapter has experienced an impressive 44 percent membership growth over the past 14 months. "What members value the most is doing business with each other, not just networking," said Jose Maria Moreno, president of the Spain chapter. "And many benefit from a better relationship with Microsoft considering that many of them are unmanaged."

According to Moreno, IAMCP members are growing their Microsoft business 2.5 times faster than non-members as a result of working together and building a tighter relationship with Microsoft. As the chapter has grown in membership, they've seen a corresponding interest and level of involvement from Microsoft.

With a refreshed set of goals, the IAMCP hopes to achieve a greater presence and influence in the channel. Through a focus on member training and enablement, the goal is to revitalize their relevance to partners. The move is well-timed. Microsoft continues to look for effective ways to reach the broader, unmanaged partner community and IAMCP is in a good position to provide that connection.

What benefits do you get from your IAMCP membership? Leave a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.  


Posted by Barb Levisay on March 11, 2015 at 11:24 AM0 comments

7 Resources To Make Internet of Things and Machine Learning Easy for Partners

Businesses are coming to the realization that they have to put data to work to stay ahead of the game. Whether that means improving product performance, expanding services with preventive maintenance or predicting what products consumers are likely to purchase, the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning (ML) turn data into action. Microsoft and others are making a convincing case that partners of all sizes and competencies are in the right place and the right time to build on the market potential.

There are a growing number of resources that bring the concepts of IoT and ML down a notch, into the practical, real-world business situations that most partners help clients manage. The center of the resource universe is Microsoft's Azure Machine Learning site that provides easy-to-use tools that allow non-developers to build powerful predictive analytics models.  Documentation is approachable and the free trial makes it testable without a big investment.

Not Just for the Enterprise Space
Microsoft's IoT and ML customer stories tend to showcase the large-scale application for enterprise firms like ThyssenKrup and Pier 1 Imports, which can be a bit intimidating for partners who serve smaller customers. But IoT and ML solutions can help every size business. There are plenty of scenarios where partners can provide services to midsize businesses, like:

  • Helping an HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) company use data from equipment sensors to provide proactive maintenance.
  • Showing a manufacturer how to avoid downtime by putting the production-line machinery data that it has been collecting to work.
  • Using predictive analytics to help retailers fine-tune promotions and e-mail marketing. (See Belinda Allen's tutorial below.)

These types of solutions also lend themselves to packaged service offerings aimed at solving a specific industry challenge -- another way to specialize and differentiate your own services.

Resources To Start the Journey
For every partner, the success of adding a service line is, in large part, dependent on the interest and enthusiasm of your team. When employees are excited about the possibilities of technology, you don't have to ask them to follow the learning path -- they'll pursue it on their own. With that in mind, the list below is a place to start the journey in evaluating the opportunity of IoT and ML.

  • ConnectTheDots.io is a new open source project by MS Open Tech that will help you get started connecting tiny devices to the cloud and analyzing data through Azure services.

  • Microsoft's Internet of Things Blog is building a good knowledge base of IoT-related topics. Hopefully, more partner stories will make their way to the blog as IoT solutions go mainstream.

  • Microsoft Internet of Things YouTube channel is another source for inspiration.

  • Microsoft MVP Belinda Allen's tutorial on Predictive Analytics is an excellent video, providing advice for undertaking predictive analytics projects, plus a technical demo of Azure Machine Learning.

This list of introductory resources is not meant to suggest that building an IoT and ML practice is easy. Achieving Microsoft's Intelligent Systems competency, which demonstrates your proficiency, requires a commitment to training, proving execution capability with customer references and significant fees. But it's all achievable if you decide that IoT has the potential to add value to your customers and build your business.

The bottom line is that IoT and ML aren't just a play for the big consulting firms. Find the person in your company who is interested in solving challenges and point them to these resources. Build the excitement and interest in the organization and establish your game plan. There's no reason that you shouldn't be able to ride the IoT and ML wave.

How are you taking advantage of the IoT and ML service opportunity? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on February 25, 2015 at 1:45 PM0 comments

The Dynamics CRM Partner Opportunity Gets More Fuel

Recent analyst coverage and Microsoft announcements are prompting partner conversations about the value of adding Dynamics CRM to their portfolio of services.

As small and midsize businesses clamber to catch up in the customer-engagement game, they need help from their technology partners. Cloud productivity, mobile and CRM are natural, complementary solutions and can be a powerful combination that offers high value to your customers.

This week, Paul Greenberg, the globally recognized CRM analyst, added Dynamics CRM to his highly anticipated "CRM Watchlist 2015 Elite." In explaining why Dynamics CRM has earned the top designation, Greenberg cited Microsoft's plan to build out an ecosystem "around not just CRM but customer engagement." In addition, he believes that Microsoft's commitment to the partner channel sets it apart from all other CRM vendors.

Microsoft also recently delivered on its promise from last year's Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) to include Dynamics CRM Online in the Open Licensing program. According to a partner-directed announcement from Neil Holloway, corporate vice president of sales and partners for the Microsoft Business Solutions Division, this gives "small and mid-sized businesses access to the full suite of Microsoft Online Services in a way that fits their current engagement with their partner or service provider."

In addition, Holloway announced that the Cloud Customer Relationship Management competency is set to launch at the end of February. "Similar to the Azure and Office 365 cloud competencies, it is predicated on cloud performance. Partners will enjoy a rich set of benefits designed to help them grow their businesses. Program requirements will include technical certifications, customer references, and sales," Holloway's announcement stated.

Resources To Make the Transition
This is clearly a big bet for Microsoft and, despite its alliance with Salesforce.com, it wants to convince partners to join the crusade. Current and new Office 365 customers who use Dynamics CRM are more deeply embedded, offering some protection from Google's coming offensive. 

To help those partners making the leap, Microsoft is rolling out the red carpet with training, marketing campaigns and partner promotion. The Small and Midsize Business Microsoft Dynamics CRM site includes a video explaining partners to visitors and links to the Pinpoint directory. That's a small but very important ingredient for small business owners who may not be familiar with the partner concept.    

There is also a recently updated Dynamics CRM Online marketing campaign on the Ready-to-Go marketing site. Included in the resources is a partner learning path guide in addition to sales and marketing support materials. Expect to see more campaign materials in coming months.  

For those partners who want to test the waters, working with an established Dynamics CRM partner is a pragmatic way to start. Define how you will work together up front, and what's in it for each business. For example, your team learns from the Dynamics CRM partner's expertise and you engage the partner for all custom development.

Last year, we listed additional recommendations and resources for making a transition to Dynamics CRM that you can check out here.

With the positive press and Microsoft's commitment to Dynamics CRM, this is an opportune time to expand your in-the-cloud strategy. As a service-focused business, you have an innate understanding of customer relationships. Build on your own experience and your knowledge of the cloud to help your customers catch the CRM wave.

How are you going to incorporate Dynamics CRM into your service line? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on February 11, 2015 at 1:02 PM0 comments

Is DevOps the Microsoft Dynamics Differentiator?

DevOps, the emerging field that aims to build collaboration between development and operational teams in a world of ever-changing software requirements, is making its way into Microsoft Dynamics partner methodologies.

In response to the DevOps movement, platforms like Microsoft Azure and DevOps-specific software are providing the tools that support accelerated methodologies for technology implementers. Could these practices and tools provide the differentiator to boost Dynamics ERP adoption in the enterprise space?

The term DevOps is used to describe methodologies that support continuous improvement during software development, integration, testing and live rollout. Coined in response to the traditional adversity between development and operations teams, DevOps helps organizations implement and update business management systems at the pace of change today.      

While Microsoft has been on the DevOps bandwagon for a while, Azure clearly gives the company more motivation to promote the approach. Microsoft recently sponsored a research paper, "Why DevOps Matters: Practical Insights on Managing Complex & Continuous Change," that looks at the challenges companies are facing in getting real traction with the collaborative implementation approach.

Peter Joeckel, president and founder of TurnOnDynamics, sees a growing need and interest in a DevOps approach to implementations, especially in Dynamics AX engagements.

"DevOps has grown up in the SAP and Oracle enterprise worlds," Joeckel said. "As Dynamics AX moves up into that space, partners can start to take advantage of the concepts as a differentiator."      

Experienced with Dynamics AX manufacturing implementations, Joeckel sees the challenges organizations deal with first-hand.

"There is a tremendous amount of pressure on the operations folks today to respond to change quickly. Those can be driven by social media or online requirements. Most of those changes require programmers," Joeckel said. "Any kind of processes, skills and toolsets that keep the development cycle going more efficiently is an advantage to these businesses."

As an example of how DevOps tools are changing the way ERP implementations are done, Joeckel cites the complexity of testing ERP-related customizations in the networked environment that can encompass the entire organization.

"Think about the typical network. It's big and messy. That is the reality," Joeckel explained. "If you develop and test in a pristine environment like VMware or Azure, you'll often find that you have missed something and everything blows up." 

As an alternative, Joeckel has been using the Kubisys on-demand test environment tool specifically designed for DevOps testing and staging. "With Kubisys, you make an exact replica of the production environment for all of your development, testing and training," Joeckel said. "It's incredibly difficult to do that in the real world. Being able to do it with the push of a button is nothing short of amazing."

According to Joeckel, Kubisys is being used for some of the largest Dynamics AX implementations. "As the number of large Dynamics AX projects increases," Joeckel said, "there is a need to bring these processes and tools onboard."

Joeckel sees the growing number and availability of DevOps tools as a real differentiator for Dynamics partners. With every Dynamics partner claiming to have more experience than the rest, potential customers ignore that trite message and focus on price.

"ERP implementation has become a commodity," Joeckel said. "But with DevOps tools, an ISV, hosting partner or VAR can add actual value by implementing faster, better, cheaper and taking a huge amount of risk out of the process. That is a real differentiator."

Joeckel sees this approach, and the Kubisys tool, as beneficial across the Dynamics space. "While the tool is currently being used in the larger projects, it offers the potential to improve life in any project with a lot of development work, including CRM projects," he said. "It's an exciting time in the Dynamics world. There is great opportunity."

As Dynamics ERP and CRM partners take on larger and more complicated engagements, the processes and tools that they use to manage implementations becomes more important. Competing with the big consulting firms requires knowledge and mastery of the current best practices. For those partners who want to set themselves apart, incorporating implementation practices and tools that support the concepts of DevOps is a good place to start.

How are you using the concepts of DevOps to improve implementations? Add a comment below, or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on January 29, 2015 at 9:02 AM0 comments

Microsoft Partner Reinvents Business with Power BI

Partners are choosing many paths to reinvention, responding to the changing world of tech. A common theme is using the latest Microsoft tools as a platform for services that deliver business value to customers.

For one partner, Power BI for Office 365 is leading the transformation and changing conversations from technology to business outcomes.

"We got started by leveraging Power BI internally as we set up an office in a new location," said Sean Ferrel, president and CEO of Managed Solution. "We pulled data to profile our potential customers in that new territory and used Power BI to analyze the market. Using Microsoft Dynamics CRM and InsideView, we created a lead list of potential customers."

Based on the profiles, Managed Solution hired consultative sales managers with experience working in the target sectors. Sales efforts are supported by marketing campaigns managed through Dynamics CRM. 

Building on its experience, Managed Solution now delivers sales and marketing analysis services to customers. Common projects involve helping retailers identify potential storefront locations. With a knowledge of sources for demographic and business data, Managed Solution consultants pull the data into Power BI for their customers.

"We also explain that Dynamics CRM is a tool that will allow them to automate the processes that put the data to work supporting sales and marketing efforts," Ferrel said.

In another recent Power BI project, Managed Solution helped a solar energy startup justify estimates for potential financial backers. Using Power BI, the company surfaced residential rooftop square footage, solar panel capacity and potential power production to identify target markets and provide well-founded revenue estimates.

The Trifecta for Extending Services
"I think that the infrastructure conversation is going to die out quickly as we make our transition to the cloud," Ferrel said. "We really don't talk IT anymore. We talk business outcomes...what are you trying to achieve? Customers want to drive more revenue, they want a better relationship with their customers and they want to have better mediums for communications."

To support those business outcomes, the 60-person Managed Solution team includes engineers with SharePoint, Power BI and Dynamics CRM expertise. SharePoint is the "single pane of glass" to deliver content and support collaboration. Dynamics CRM provides the sales and marketing automation platform. Power BI translates the data into information through dashboards and charts that users can put to work.

"We have engineers that understand those three workloads and how they work together," Ferrel added. "But, again, we are getting away from product-based discussions and talk about business-based outcomes using those tools."

Ferrel sees a challenge in making sure that everyone in the organization understands it's not about one product anymore; it's understanding the ecosystem of tools that create these outcomes. To support the new approach, the Managed Solution sales team is trained on a matrix of business priorities that includes scalability, revenue, collaboration, communication and culture.

"We have to reinvent our businesses, taking those platforms that have been built to create business process outcomes," Ferrel said. "We need to think about managing the application layer, building dashboards with Power BI, customer workflows in SharePoint and performance reports in Microsoft Dynamics CRM. We will provide the business analysts who customize the applications for clients, paid for as a service in the cloud."

For more examples of Power BI projects that Managed Solution has delivered, check out 5 Great Power BI for Office 365 Case Studies.

Those partners who stay ahead of the conversations and are ready to talk to customers about business problems instead of just the technology are poised to excel in an increasingly positive market. There are many paths to choose from; it's just a matter of finding the platform and set of services that capitalize on your strengths.

How is your firm starting business outcome conversations? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on January 15, 2015 at 7:34 AM0 comments

So Much More than Coding: Women in the Wider World of Tech Jobs

As you read the stories of the women in the e-book "12 Amazing Tech Jobs and the Women Who Rock Them: Imagine What You Can Do," one commonality stands out. Most of the women didn't think of themselves as "techy," let alone imagine that they would one day fill a key role in a technology company.

There are young women across the world and in your community thinking about their careers. You can make a difference in their future and help your business at the same time. 

As we all know in the channel, there is much more involved in the delivery of tech services than coding. From salespeople to solution architects to project managers, a technology services provider builds on the skills of a combination of people. But most people still only think of coding when they think of tech jobs.

The challenge is that our industry generally works behind the scenes, fueling the businesses that get the headlines. Unless you have direct ties to the technology services sector, partners and channels are foreign concepts. Most educators who influence the career choices of young people don't know what we do. Which is how "12 Amazing Tech Jobs and the Women Who Rock Them" can help you make a difference.

Inspire Young Women (and Men) To Imagine Themselves in Tech
The e-book, along with e-mails, an infographic and blog posts, are available for download from the Microsoft Ready-to-Go site. By simply sending an e-mail to your community college, you may change the course of someone's life. You might also find your next great employee.  

In the e-book's Resource Kit, the partner promotion recommendations document offers suggestions to position your company as a leader in encouraging young women to consider tech careers. Some of the ideas include:

  • Post the e-book and infographic to your Web site (Web banners are included in the kit).
  • Use the blog post as a foundation, adding your own perspective.
  • Send the press release to local papers and your Chamber of Commerce.
  • Send the e-mail to your local community college and regional university.

The e-book is designed to appeal to young people, with short narratives from the women describing their roles, how they got to their current positions and what they love about the jobs. Spread throughout the book is an overview of the Microsoft partner ecosystem. Non-technical terms explain the different types of Microsoft partners and how the channel works. Glossaries on each page are aimed at helping young readers understand common business terms. 

Join the Women in Tech Conversation
In most communities, Women in Tech (WIT) groups are gaining momentum. Even if there aren't women on your team yet, "12 Amazing Tech Jobs and the Women Who Rock Them" is an opportunity for you to contribute to the conversation. Find your local group's organizer and send them the e-book. Offer to speak at the next meeting. Many of the WIT groups include young women hoping to break into technology -- another source for your next great employee.

The stories in "12 Amazing Tech Jobs and the Women Who Rock Them" are fun to read and inspiring. Putting the e-book into the hands of a young person who doesn't think she is techy could change the direction of her life. Download the e-book today and share. You can make a difference. What a great way to start the new year.

How are you encouraging women to consider the field of technology? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on December 17, 2014 at 12:21 PM0 comments

Azure ML Leading Microsoft Partners, Customers into the Future

With the Microsoft Azure Machine Learning (Azure ML) preview now available, Microsoft partners are beginning to explore how predictive analytics can help their clients.

Supporting tactics used by retailers like Amazon.com and Target, the predictive analytics made possible through Azure ML allows partners to change the game for businesses of every size. An emerging opportunity, Azure ML can enable partners to help even the smallest clients mine data to uncover patterns and build competitive edge.

The definition of predictive analytics, according to Belinda Allen, a Microsoft MVP and business intelligence (BI) evangelist, is the use of a BI technology to produce a score for each customer, prospect or product that will help you decide what will happen with more accuracy than guessing.

Allen uses the example of Amazon.com to illustrate the practical implications of predictive analytics. As every Amazon.com shopper has experienced, suggestions for items related to the products that you have previously viewed or purchased are offered when you visit the site. Those suggestions are based on historical data and the predictive-analytic algorithms that Amazon.com has built over time.

"One of the reasons that predictive analytics are so important is that people are buying things so differently than they used to. They want products targeted directly to them," Allen explained. "Predictive analytics allows us to learn from our data, learn specifically about our customers, and how to treat each customer individually -- which gives you competitive advantage."

Most of the clients that Allen, who is also principal of Smith & Allen Consulting Inc., talks to about predictive analytics are in retail or sell physical products. In those situations, the clients are moving from making decisions based on purely historical reports to a more predictive approach. Retailers are leading the way, understanding that it costs far less to sell to a current customer than to acquire a new one.

At reImagine 2014, the Dynamics conference held recently in Fargo, N.D., Allen introduced the concepts of predictive analytics to customers and partners. Allen explained how predictive analytics can solve business problems and, even more importantly, how it develops over time.

"I wanted to show them that these are not projects with a start and finish. It's an ongoing process that builds," Allen explained. "The more data that you have, the more you can do with it."

Allen cites three fundamental requirements to support a predictive analytics project:

  • A clear definition of the kind of information that you want to predict
  • An understanding of how you will use the predictive scores that you gather from the data
  • Good, clean data

During her presentations on predictive analytics, Allen walks through a simple example on the Azure ML site using sample data available through Azure data services. A recording of one of her presentations is posted here (while the entire presentation is valuable, the Azure ML demo starts at 30:20).

As Azure ML gains visibility, Allen sees growing enthusiasm in the partner community. "They are super excited about what predictive analytics can bring," she said. "For example, there is a new feature in Microsoft Dynamics GP sales order processing that supports pop-up suggestions to encourage add-on sales. It would be ideal for an API from Azure Machine Learning -- an ever-evolving data set -- to populate that field."

The Azure ML preview provides an easy way for partners to get a head start on the emerging opportunity in helping every-size company put their data to work. Whether you work with small companies or enterprises, you will add value and cement your relationships with clients by helping them tap data to predict behaviors and compete more effectively.

How are you helping clients tap the potential of their data? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on December 04, 2014 at 9:34 AM0 comments

Drive Innovation for 'Internet of Things' Through Field Service

Now that the Internet of Things (IoT) is enabling companies to follow their products and customers no matter where they go, the door to new revenue streams is wide open. So wide, in fact, that companies need help sorting it all out. One partner has found the field service can be a logical way for companies to turn all that data into revenue. And a way for technology providers to capitalize on IoT.

Kris Brannock, EVP of Vertical Solutions, has written several intriguing posts about the connection between field service and IoT for the company blog. "Could the Glue of the Internet of Things be Field Service?" suggests that IoT presents "long tail" opportunities to all companies -- whether they are historically considered a field service company or not. Long tail opportunity refers to the creative use of data gathered in the field to add new service offerings to a company's repertoire. 

Cincinnati-based Vertical Solutions has been developing software for industries with heavy field service requirements, including HVAC and manufacturing, for more than 25 years. The ISV's cloud-based solutions include VServiceManagement and VContactCenter, both built on Microsoft technology.

In a conversation with Brannock, she explained how field service conversations are expanding out of the traditional industries and out of the traditional field service boundaries. Companies are looking for creative, innovative ways that they can deliver services in response to data collected through sensors -- from manufacturers providing preventive maintenance to hospitals servicing medical equipment.   

"Our customers are seeing how cheap and easy it is to have sensors in their products. The next question is 'What do we do with that data?'" notes Brannock. "We see the potential of IoT getting bigger and bigger."

Which is where the opportunity for Microsoft partners comes into play. "Strategic advising from partners can help customers identify their long-tail service opportunities," says Brannock. "In the past, field service was typically reactive but now is moving into the preventive space. Companies are looking for innovative services that can be created from the data they are collecting from machines."

Partners working in any vertical can help their customers identify opportunities to expand revenue streams through IoT with data collected in the field. As Brannock suggests, "Partners can look at their own core business and see how IoT fits in those markets. You want to stay ahead of your clients."

Another of Brannock's posts, "Microsoft's $2.5B Minecraft Acquisition Spotlights a Hidden Gem: Field Service Technology," is also an interesting read. In it, she suggests that the legion of gamers who play Microsoft's recent acquisition, Minecraft, could be the next generation of IoT developers. Young minds able to see the world from a different perspective will recognize new ways to apply all the data collected from connected devices.

In the post Brannock writes, "However, this next generation is entwined in sharing and combining. Solo intellectual property is often foreign. Everything is a building block. Sensors attached to various devices are no different. These are things that can be networked to create endless opportunities  --  a virtual playground for our next generation of inventors."

From whatever perspective you take, IoT opens doors for partners to have conversations that help customers evolve their businesses. Which is where technology service providers have to be to survive in their own changing service landscape. When you work strategically with customers to bring data to life, translating data into opportunity is how you really add value.

How are you helping your customers innovate with the IoT? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on November 12, 2014 at 5:29 PM0 comments

Azure Modeler for Dynamics ERP Helps Partners Explain Cloud Options

It's no surprise to anyone in the channel that the cloud has added a new layer of complexity to configuration and licensing discussions. Clearly explaining cloud, on-prem and hybrid deployment cost options to a customer is tough enough, let alone offering them multiple scenarios to compare.

Fortunately for Microsoft Dynamics ERP partners, there is a modeling tool that clears the fog.

The Real World of Multiple Workloads
For Dynamics ERP partners, the cloud has been slower to impact the way they deliver solutions. Now that Dynamics ERP solutions are ready for Azure deployment, cloud conversations are becoming more frequent -- and oftentimes driven by the customer. And customers who are considering deploying Dynamics ERP on Azure are likely to want to talk about moving other workloads, as well: "If I'm going to move the Dynamics servers out of the closet, it seems like a good time to look at Office 365."

That's a great point and one that most Dynamics ERP partners are not prepared to address. Fourteen years after Microsoft added ERP to the product lineup, there still seems to be a chasm separating Dynamics from the rest of the platform. (But that's a subject to cover another time.)

Azure Modeler for Dynamics ERP to the Rescue 
John Dooley, national Dynamics PTS for Microsoft, has been helping partners demonstrate value to customers for a couple of decades. Always right there in the trenches, Dooley has a knack for distilling and simplifying complex concepts so that the rest of us can understand them. 

Seeing partners struggle to gather the information -- from server sizing to Azure pricing -- to present configuration and cost options to their customers, Dooley decided to create a modeling tool that would bring all the variables together. Pulling together resources from both the Dynamics side and the Azure side, The Azure Modeler for Dynamics ERP brings sanity to chaos.  

[Click on image for larger view.] Send a topology graphic automatically generated by the Azure Modeler for Dynamics ERP to your customer.

First released in May, Dooley has posted an explanation of and a link to the modeler on his MSDN blog, Captain Stack. As Dooley has continued to refine the tool, the modeler now includes:

  • A "Guide Me" form that makes it easy to get started building your own models for customers.
  • Support for Dynamics GP, NAV and SL pricing.
  • A total cost of ownership (TCO) worksheet tab to help your customers and prospects compare on-prem, online and other SaaS-based solutions.
  • The ability to model your customer's current environment and compare these fixed costs with the dynamic costs for an Azure ERP deployment. And you can share the model outcomes with your customers via an e-mail sent directly through the spreadsheet.
  • An optional network topology map that will build dynamically based on the Azure environment that you model.

"The modeler is a way to breakdown a complex set of options and help your customers compare different scenarios," Dooley explained. "With the models you can expand the conversation and help customers evaluate their ROI."

Dooley wants to help partners build the competitive edge that comes with selling Microsoft's own ERP. Competitors like NetSuite can talk to businesses about a cloud-based ERP solution, but don't bring the Office 365 value along. Especially for the SMB market, simplifying the entire IT environment for the customer is a true competitive edge. 

An additional competitive benefit for Dynamics partners comes through the option for customers to own the software rather than just purchase a subscription. "Instead of paying a SaaS provider every month, Dynamics customers can lease the software and then own it for the long term," Dooley said. "Partners can offer customers a monthly expense but after the third year, they own it forever." 

Dooley has already received a lot of interest in the calculator from partners in the United States and abroad. With the number of requests he's received from Europe-based partners, he's releasing a new version of the modeler that will support multicurrency. Watch his blog for ongoing updates.

There is still a long way to go in making the transition to the cloud truly easy, for both customers and partners. Configuration and licensing is a real challenge, but the Azure Modeler for Dynamics ERP is a step in the right direction to simplify the process.

How are you making it easier for customers to move to the cloud? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on October 29, 2014 at 10:51 AM0 comments

Microsoft Partner Builds on Decade of Mobility Experience

Microsoft may have come late to the mobile party, but there are partners out there who have built significant experience over the past decade.

Recognizing the emerging trend in mobility in the early 2000s, TCC Software Solutions developed an application to serve the field workers in its vertical market. Through the years, TCC has adapted its solutions to take advantage of the latest Microsoft technology and apply the lessons learned to fine-tune and expand the business.

Adapting to Changing Technology
A multi-gold and silver competency partner with 200 employees, TCC has always developed its solutions using Microsoft technology. Originally built to serve the state agency childcare field workers, TCC's eXpedite Windows tablet solution replaces paper-based systems for mobile workers.

"When we first started on Windows 8 two years ago, there wasn't much traction. Everyone was on an iPad," said Jim Pangallo, principal at TCC. "Now, two years later, we almost never hear, 'Does it run on an iPad?'"

Even customers who had previously passed on the solution because they used iPads have resurfaced after switching to Windows 8 tablets. Pangallo believes that Windows 8 tablets are finally taking off in the enterprise and public sector markets.

Another Microsoft solution that has expanded options for TCC clients is Dynamics CRM. TCC uses Dynamics CRM to collect the information that is gathered through the eXpedite mobile application. While eXpedite can link into any back-end system, TCC often recommends Dynamics CRM to clients to reduce costs and enable rapid development. 

"eXpedite collects the data in the field which is then synchronized to Dynamics CRM using Scribe integration toolsets," Pangallo said. "Integration is often the hardest part of any project and Scribe simplifies the process. It's easier on us and for the people who are testing on the back-end."

Key to Success: Understand How the Field Force Works
While the mobile application leads initial discussions with clients, TCC's greatest success comes in helping clients understand and define their processes.

"We find that while clients want a mobile application, they often don't have their processes in place," noted Adam Clark, senior systems architect of mobile technology at TCC. "Our biggest success comes in working with clients to define their business processes and then helping them apply those from the user to the executive."

For TCC, the requirements gathering includes getting the whole team together, including management, field workers and IT, to understand and agree on business processes. Management often has misconceptions about how work is actually being accomplished in the field. The entire group must define and agree on the business processes that will work.

"The software enforces the standardized business process," Pangallo said. "Success comes when everyone in the field is doing their job consistently, in line with the processes that they have all agreed to."

The Importance of User Interface
In the early days of eXpedite implementations, TCC had to train users how to use a tablet. Since today's users are more sophisticated, adoption is no longer a hurdle. But sophisticated users also have higher expectations of the application interface. To ensure a consistent user experience, the TCC development team closely follows the Microsoft recommendations on interface design.

"Microsoft has done a really good job of putting together the whole UX standard," Clark noted. "If you follow their standards, when someone uses your application, they will see a familiar interface."

Expanding into New Vertical Markets
In several states, eXpedite has built leadership in its vertical market of state childcare agencies. Working now to expand the industries that it serves, TCC looks at trends in specific markets to identify those with potential.

"We can easily apply what we have learned in childcare to other verticals -- industries that have traditionally been paper-intensive and have large mobile workforces," said Paul Koscielski, director of business development at TCC. "We are looking at both public- and private-sector verticals."

As TCC identifies its specific industries, it launches targeted marketing campaigns using a variety of marketing tactics. Through telemarketing, seminars and digital marketing, the company focuses messaging for each market on the specific challenges that eXpedite solves for that industry.

For those partners expanding their mobile offerings, it's helpful to learn from those who have been there for a while. Pangallo offers practical advice: "The reason we have been successful is that we listen to the user and give them a product that they need. We help our clients define their processes and follow through with a solution that fits. We are very customer-focused. If you do those things and have talented people, you're on the right track."

How are you helping clients take advantage of mobile technology? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on October 15, 2014 at 10:34 AM0 comments

How Partners Can Add Value to Office 365 Services with Dynamics CRM

As Microsoft partners look for new ways to build their service value with Office 365 customers, adding Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online support services is a natural progression.

For those partners whose focus has been on infrastructure services, it's a big transition. To bring the full value of Dynamics CRM Online to your customers, business process guidance should be a part of the services you deliver.

Build Your Expertise and Focus
As with all business applications, Dynamics CRM Online requires a commitment of time and money to build your expertise. Dynamics CRM Online includes sales, service, marketing and social functionality, so there is a lot to learn.

By leveraging other partners, you don't have to master it all at once and you can build your expertise over time. Take a systematic approach to get started on the right path.

  • Use it in your business. As part of their Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) benefits, all gold and silver competency partners have access to internal use rights of Dynamics CRM Online. Check the MPN Web site for program specifics. As with any solution, you will better understand its strengths and limitations when you use it yourself.

  • Invest in training. There are multiple levels of Dynamics CRM certifications that you can achieve (again, check the MPN site for details). When you have decided what is right for you, encourage everyone on your team to learn about the product so that they will recognize opportunities.

  • Participate in the CRM community. There are several active Dynamics CRM communities that provide excellent sources for training, as well connections for partnering. The Dynamics CRM User Group Community (CRMUG) serves both customers and partners and hosts an annual conference; the 2014 event is coming up soon. Another event this month is eXtremeCRM in Las Vegas.

  • Partner to get started. You can build your expertise by working with a partner in your area. Of course, there has to be something in it for the other partner. You could bring them the opportunities when development work is needed or hand over opportunities that are above your skill set. By helping them grow their business, it's a win-win.

  • Build a vertical expertise. A common practice for Dynamics CRM partners has been to take configurations built for a single customer and roll it out to an industry. The opportunities for Dynamics CRM run across the organization. For a primer on the many ways that Dynamics CRM can be used, check out the whitepaper, "24 Wildly Creative Ways Companies Use Microsoft Dynamics CRM to Drive Revenue and Serve Customers."

Lessons Learned from Dynamics ERP Partners
When Microsoft's CRM solution was originally released in 2002 (remember version 1.2), Dynamics ERP partners led the introduction to the market. Much has changed since those early days, but there are still lessons to be learned from those who made the mistakes of transitioning to the new line of business.

Three important lessons that ERP partners learned the hard way included:

  • The decision makers you currently work with are not likely to introduce you to the sales team. Microsoft sales teams and Dynamics ERP partners mistakenly thought that their connections in the accounting department would be easy to expand. They depended on those relationships to open the doors to the sales department. While you may get lucky, your marketing should not be dependent on warm introductions.

  • Adoption is critically important to implementation success. The success of a Dynamics CRM implementation depends on the centralization of all customer data. If only some of the sales teams are using it, it's doomed.

  • Training, training, training. Aligned to the last point, training is critical. Yes, Dynamics CRM Online is easy to use, but old habits are hard to break. Your customers need to be told upfront how important user training is for the business to realize the full value of Dynamics CRM.

As a gateway onto the business process consulting world, Dynamics CRM provides a great opportunity. Your business is built on service, so Dynamics CRM really is a natural progression for your business growth. You've walked in those shoes and, with the right preparation, can bring tremendous value to your customers.

How are you bringing new value to your clients? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on October 01, 2014 at 1:06 PM0 comments