Getting Close to Microsoft

Once he learned how to work the relationship, Terry Beck saw his Microsoft sales climb 200-fold. Learn how you, too, can get cozy with Microsoft.

In 1999, The Harding Group did no more than $15,000 worth of business with Microsoft. The company had lots of network operating system expertise, but it was mostly with Novell NetWare, as attested by its Novell Platinum Partner status. "We had a real hard time trying to get Microsoft's attention," says Terry Beck, president of the IT services company in Arlington, Texas.

In 2000, Beck hooked up with the independent International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners (IAMCP). "Then we started getting traction," he says. "By meeting with other partners, we learned the matrix of the Microsoft organization, the right people we needed to work with to get opportunities and tout our wares."

At that time, lots of organizations were ditching NetWare for Microsoft Windows servers, which meant plenty of migration work for Microsoft partners."The Microsoft partners didn't know how to handle the Novell side, so they'd come to us."

Reading the writing on the wall with respect to NetWare, Beck knew it was in his interest to delve deeper into the Microsoft world. He hired Bill Pritchett to develop his Microsoft practice from the technical side. Beck continued to work with the IAMCP while also working directly with Microsoft on marketing seminars and other events. Most importantly, the company had some success in the market.

"If a new company is trying to get Microsoft's attention, the best way is to drive revenue," Beck says. "Microsoft can help you do that, but initially, it wants to see that you're doing it." The Harding Group was indeed driving revenue. A mere four years after joining the Partner Program, the 50-employee company did $3 million in Microsoft-related work, a200-fold increase from year one.

The Harding Group's experience illustrates a number of recurring themes among Microsoft Partners looking to forge a closer relationship with the company. Rule No. 1 is don't go looking for a handout. "Everyone is looking for something from Microsoft. We don't approach the relationship that way,"says Scott Burgess, chief technology officer with Internosis, an IT services company and Gold Certified Partner in Greenbelt, Md. "Partnership dictates that both sides contribute, and that's how we try to look at it."

Hand in hand with driving revenue is showing Microsoft that you've got satisfied customers, or what Microsoft refers to as customer evidence. Customer testimonials, in fact, are now mandatory to achieve Microsoft Competencies under the revised Partner Program rules that went into effect over the past 18 months. Achieving competencies, in turn, is another way to ingratiate your company with Microsoft.

You also need to be visible, which means showing up at quarterly Partner Program meetings, participating in regional marketing events, as well as major events—such as the Worldwide Partner Conference—and sitting on Partner Advisory Councils (PACs). And at a time when Microsoft faces threats from the open source community as well as traditional vendors, some say it pays to be 100 percent in the Microsoft camp, right down to the systems you use internally.

Do all that and the benefits to your company can be great, from help with marketing and seminars, to personalized contact with a Partner Account Manager (PAM). PAMs, whether the field PAM or tele-PAM variety, provide ideas, incentives, training and other resources intended to help partners improve sales. The catch is that only Certified and Gold Certified Partners have access to either type of PAM—which brings us back to the idea of giving before you get.

U.S. President Bill Breslin, Steve Ballmer and Terry Harding
The IAMCP helps its members get close to Microsoft—literally. At a recent meeting in Houston, current IAMCP U.S. President Bill Breslin of Insource Technology presents Steve Ballmer with an honorary membership, as The Harding Group's Terry Beck looks on.

Don't Go Hat in Hand
Internosis understands that idea well, as you would expect of a company that's been in business for 25 years in various incarnations. It adopted the Internosis name in January 2000 with the purchase of the Technology Services Division of Corporate Software & Technology Inc. At the same time, Internosis decided to focus whole hog on Microsoft. But it also was mindful of cultivating business on its own, rather than relying on Microsoft to feed it leads, says CEO Robert Stalick.

"We are absolutely dedicated to supporting Microsoft's technologies and making sure they work in both homogeneous and heterogeneous environments," Stalick says. "But we are fiercely independent." His rationale is that any partner company needs to be "stand-alone credible" in front of its customers."Customers really value someone who is not trying to sell them software, doesn't have that at stake, and simply tells the truth about the software, good or bad. So when we tell the good about the software, it resonates."

It's a danger to rely too much on Microsoft, he says, because for all of its size, the company still has finite resources. In any given district, he says the Microsoft field team has "dozens of partners or partner aspirants ranging from three guys and a coffee pot to 100 people and two coffee pots, who are knocking down doors trying to develop a relationship and get business." That's why he figures it's best to focus on getting customers on his own, then calling on Microsoft when appropriate, such as when he needs additional skill sets.

Marlene Frank, a Microsoft Business Development Manager (a.k.a. PAM) who is part of the U.S. VAR Channel Group in Waltham, Mass., readily admits that local sales offices all have quotas they have to meet, so they're looking for partners that can help. The good news is they also typically have partner-facing programs in place to help them meet those quotas. The programs can include marketing and sales collateral, live or recorded training, and vouchers for certification exams. Partners can find out about such programs through the Partner Program e-mail newsletter, which includes information targeted to each partner's profile. Frank encourages partners not to opt out of too many such targeted e-mails, noting Microsoft "tries hard not to spam people to death."

Sheer numbers show that you've got to bring something to the table in order to rise above the din and get Microsoft's attention. In the United States alone, the company has some 115,000 Registered Members, Certified Partners and Gold Certified Partners. Of those, 12,000 are Certified and Gold. "You have to prove yourself before they recognize you at all," Beck says. "We stayed in front of them and communicated our successes to them." The Harding Group also brought opportunities to Microsoft, including migrations from competitive technologies—which are particularly attractive to Microsoft.

"It doesn't have to be a large deal, but if it's on a competing platform—moving from Notes to Exchange or GroupWise to Exchange, it will be more noticeable than an Exchange upgrade," says Debbie Besaw, director of marketing for Interlink Group,a regional systems integrator based in Englewood, Colo.

"But the biggest thing that's going to get Microsoft's attention is selling product," she says. That doesn't necessarily mean selling products directly. Interlink, for example, is strictly a services company; it works with VARs who sell the Microsoft products. But Microsoft understands how much business Interlink drives—so much so that the company's Microsoft PAM sometimes sits around the corner from Besaw. "He likes to work from our office on occasion," she says.

Start Local
While few companies have that close of a relationship with their PAM, it is a relationship worth cultivating. "The most important thing is our PAM," says Jim Veraldi, principal with Micro Strategies, a solution provider in Denville, N.J. Micro Strategies achieved Gold Certified status in only about two months after attending the Partner Conference in 2004, thanks largely to the help of Microsoft's Frank, who is his PAM.

"The portals and all are good, but like any relationship, it's the one-to-one you get from the organization that really helps. The PAM is the key person in making sure we grow our Microsoft business."

Veraldi and his team have conference calls with Frank every two weeks, and she's on site every other month. It wasn't always this way, of course. "You can't just say ‘I want a partner account manager,'" Veraldi notes. For Micro Strategies, it was a matter of demonstrating competencies and showing it was making investments in the Microsoft Partner Program, by attending events and getting to know the local field reps.

Don't expect overnight results; it took Micro Strategies years to get the kind of attention it now enjoys. The level of attention has "changed dramatically since we've been Gold," Veraldi says. He's since been invited to events like the U.S. Partner Summit in San Diego in May and has been nominated to sit on a PAC, which provides feedback to Microsoft.

Day to day, however, it's Frank who provides the Microsoft connection, helping with end-user seminars, technology readiness programs, securing marketing funds and the like. "When we had our first Open Value deal, it was complicated. She helped us sort through the details so it wasn't quite as painful as it could've been," says Sharon Palmer, a vice president at Micro Strategies.

While the rules are rather vague about who exactly qualifies for a field PAM like Frank, as opposed to a tele-PAM, it's clear that revenue plays a larger role than Microsoft may admit. "We popped up on their radar at a certain dollar amount," Palmer says. Revenue is part of the equation, Frank says, but not the defining factor.

"My goal is to increase partner revenue. We're measured on overall partner revenue, which is not just license sales, but influence," Frank says. Influence is an umbrella term for numerous services a partner might perform, from delivering a solution that brings significant value to the customer to convincing a client to remain on a Microsoft platform, such as Exchange vs. Notes.

The Harding Group's Beck says investing time is what got him a field PAM. "I spent a lot of time going and being in front of their partner account managers of different types, even if they weren't representing me," he says. "They felt comfortable with us around and fed us some opportunities, or we brought opportunities to them."

Keeping It Pure
As Frank and others suggest, of particular interest are those opportunities that involve migrations from a competing platform. "Steve Ballmer wants the penguins out of his accounts, essentially," says Jerry Fleming, president of Vonexus Inc., an ISV in Indianapolis that focuses on voice over IP software. "We're not afraid to say we run exclusively on Microsoft."

His advice for reseller partners is much the same: Standardize on Microsoft platforms and find an opportunity where you can help drive revenue. "They need to understand where Microsoft's efforts are focused, so they can get in line with Microsoft's goals," Fleming says. Microsoft typically has about five top go-to-market strategies per year. "As a partner, you need to understand what those go-to-markets are and focus your attention on those areas, because that's where you'll get Microsoft marketing funding." Top initiatives for Microsoft's fiscal 2006, which just began, include Small Business Server 2003 in the SMB space and Office Communicator 2005 in the enterprise realm.

While PAMs can help partners ascertain some of this top-level strategy, it also helps to attend the regional quarterly partner briefings, where Microsoft presents its latest and greatest.

Keep in mind also that Microsoft is very much concerned with convincing customers to upgrade existing Microsoft products. "If you can show Microsoft how your technology will help it upgrade customers to the next release, as well as generate new license revenue, then you're right up at the top of their list," Fleming says.

Interlink is a prime example. In 2002, the company decided to commit exclusively to the Microsoft platform, Besaw says.At that time, it was a Certified Partner. Now it is Gold Certified with five competencies: Advanced Infrastructure, Information Worker, Security Solutions, Integrated E-Business and Microsoft Business Solutions.

"Deciding to focus on the Microsoft platform really catapulted the relationship," she says. "We've built our entire business on Microsoft," including using Great Plains for billing, SharePoint for internal and customer collaboration, Microsoft CRM to manage sales opportunities and a Web site built on Content Management Server. This internal Microsoft experience helps in selling to customers, she says, because Interlink can show them how the technology works in practice. "When we're managing a project, they're interacting with us through SharePoint Portal Server," she says.

Interlink is now one of only a handful of regional systems integrators and does 30 to 40 joint marketing events per year with Microsoft, from in-person seminars and other events in various districts to webcasts and product launches. Its relationships at the Microsoft corporate level help Interlink gain access to Early Deployment Programs and Technology Adoption Programs, so it gets early product deployment experience. "Every time Microsoft releases a product, we want to be among the first to release it to a customer," Besaw says.

Such a deep relationship is built over time, but customer evidence played a significant role, she says. That includes submitting customer testimonials, which can result in getting case studies published on the Microsoft site, as well as awards and marketing funds. Interlink also has satisfied customers participating on panels at industry events.

PAM Marlene Frank, Jim Veraldi and Sharon Palmer
Microsoft PAM Marlene Frank (left) helps Micro Strategies' Jim Veraldi and Sharon Palmer map strategy. Frank is "the key person in making sure we grow our Microsoft business," Veraldi says.

Declare Your Competencies
A good way to get started on your journey to Interlink-type status is to get certified in one or more Microsoft Competencies. "Enrolling in competencies allows us to understand partner strengths," says Microsoft's Frank. "If you want to get engaged with Microsoft, talk about competencies."

It was at the Worldwide Partner Conference in July 2004 that Micro Strategies' Veraldi got competency religion. He came away fired up and ready to take on the challenge of attaining Gold Certified status, which comes down to accumulating 120 Partner Points. That's accomplished through a combination of attaining competencies, Microsoft certifications,customer references and software sales.

Veraldi used the then-recently enhanced partner Web site to detail his company's various competencies, in terms of Microsoft certifications held and technical resources, and see how they matched up with the Microsoft Competencies. He found he already had the technical resources in place for two competencies: Network Infrastructure and Advanced Infrastructure. He then got busy contacting about a dozen customers for the required references, which were submitted and approved.

"From there, we were close to the 120 points we needed for Gold [Certified]," he says, although not quite up to par on the revenue side. Frank helped him find some additional revenue points and, around the end of August—less than two months after the Partner Conference—Micro Strategies became Gold Certified. "As a Gold Partner, you get a lot more attention, special pricing and training on go-to-market initiatives," he says. "It has forged a much stronger relationship between Microsoft and us."

In part, that's because Frank was impressed by the initiative of Veraldi and his team. "As much as I gave, they gave double," she says.

Be Visible
Aside from competencies, forging a good relationship with Microsoft field folks largely amounts to making yourself visible through various events and programs. Internosis CEO Stalick says the key for his company is having his field salespeople build relationships with Microsoft's field teams, including account reps, field sales and their associated partner reps, and Microsoft Consulting Services (MCS) folks. He counts those one-on-one relationships as more important than some of the mega-events Microsoft puts on.

"I've seen small companies send armies of people to the [Worldwide Partner Conferences]," he says. "We don't send an army. We send the right people to pick up the market information on what Microsoft is doing and to keep track of trends."

However many people you send, it is important to attend the annual Worldwide Partner Conference, Veraldi says. "If you don't go to any other events, go to that one. You'll get a clear understanding of where Microsoft is going from a product and solution perspective in those three or four days."

Aside from the big annual partner conference, Microsoft holds lots of smaller events throughout the year, including the quarterly TechNet, TS2 seminars, MSDN events and partner briefings in the various regions. In addition to meeting area PAMs, the partner briefings can be a good venue for hearing about other opportunities, according to Vonexus' Fleming, who says Microsoft allows ISVs to make short presentations at the meetings. "We can tell partners what we do and how we can help them generate revenue. It's good from both sides," he says.

Nominating your company for various awards programs is another way to gain visibility. Internosis has won Partner of the Year Award six times in different regions, Stalick says. The award is "not about selling software," he says. Rather, it's about implementing solutions that prompt customers to tell Microsoft good things about your company. The process varies by region, but he says once a regional PAM receives good feedback on a partner in a key market segment, the PAM may nominate the partner for an award.

Similarly, The Harding Group early this year won the General Manager's Award at a quarterly partner meeting for its district, which encompasses at least seven states. "A lot of it came through the wins we had and customer responses," Beck says. He notes that partners themselves, customers and Microsoft can all nominate a partner for the award.

Beck says it's also a good idea to consistently give feedback to Microsoft, largely by making sure your customers fill out the questionnaires required to gain and retain Partner Program points.

Jason Stanke, lead consultant with MindGent, an IT consulting firm and Gold Certified Partner in Indianapolis, says participating in product launches and live events online is another good way to gain visibility. Supporting local Windows User groups and .NET developer groups is another idea. "Microsoft backs these groups and knows who the local supporters are," Stanke says.

PAMs can also nominate partners to sit on PACs, which exist at various levels, from regional to international. In addition to visibility, PAC meetings offer another way for partners to give feedback to Microsoft. Internosis CTO Burgess recalls a military customer that needed the S/MIME protocol added to Exchange, a request he brought to Microsoft through a PAC meeting.

"We were able to influence the production release of Exchange Server 2003 to meet some of the security requirements of the U.S. military," Burgess says. "It very much strengthened an already strong relationship with our military customer," he says, because the customer saw first-hand Internosis' ability to help deliver a key requirement due to its relationship with Microsoft.

In general, Microsoft's Frank advises partners to take the effort to find out what's happening in local Microsoft offices. "They do a ton of stuff. They springboard off of what Microsoft corporate and the Microsoft Partner Program roll out, and they take it deeper," she says. Opportunities range from end-user and training events to user group and developer group meetings. "Take a few minutes to find out what's going on—and engage. That's where you encounter Microsoft."

More Information

Get Close—But Not Too Close

By Paul Desmond

Back in 2000, Internosis decided to focus its business wholeheartedly on Microsoft technology, so you might think it does everything it can to get tight with Redmond. And the company does indeed cultivate relationships on multiple levels, particularly with field personnel.

But at the same time, the 300-employee Gold Certified Partner prides itself on being "fiercely independent" of Microsoft, as CEO Robert Stalick puts it. "To be a good partner, whether everybody at Microsoft realizes it or not, it's important to be standalone credible in front of your customers," he says. In part, that means being able to tell the truth about software, good or bad. Doing so ensures the good news will resonate with customers, he says, but "it doesn't always endear us to everyone at Microsoft."

Stalick sees a number of dangers in trying to get too close to Microsoft. One lies in the sheer size of the company. "Microsoft is so large, and the number of relationships you would have to maintain if you wanted to have everybody love you is so vast, that you would have literally hundreds of people doing nothing but relationship management if you wanted to do business in very many areas," he says.

Internosis does take advantage of some of the programs offered through the Microsoft Partner Program, but not to the extreme. "The question is, do you want to spend your time standing in front of customers with checkbooks or do you want to spend your time in an indirect foray?" he asks. "Every minute not spent with a customer is a minute spent losing relevance."

Stalick once had a CTO who spent the bulk of his time trying to maintain the Microsoft relationship, including participating on partner advisory councils (PACs) and making regular treks to Redmond. "As a CTO, he lost relevance. He couldn't talk to our other lead technologists about the meaning of changes in technology because he wasn't sitting with any customers," he says. The current Internosis CTO, Scott Burgess, has a mandate to keep up to speed on Microsoft technology, which includes going to events such as the Worldwide Partner Conference. But he is also expected to talk to customers, "to make sure that our interpretation of those technologies for the customer's benefit is accurate," Stalick says.

That kind of attitude resonates with Microsoft field personnel, Burgess says. "They understand that our ability to sell a combination of services that implement Microsoft technologies in concert is really what makes us a strong partner," he says.

In fact, trying to get too close to Microsoft, such that you are largely dependent on the company for leads, is a "growth-limiting" strategy, Stalick says. In any given district, Microsoft field personnel have dozens of partner companies trying to get business from them. The reps have influence over some amount of services business—say $200 million as an example. Even if your company is in the top 10, and Microsoft divides the business evenly, it maxes out at $20 million. "And, oh, by the way, they have to keep some of that for [Microsoft Consulting Services]," Stalick says. "So the reality is they often end up trying to take care of far too many partners. That's why we emphasize the need to identify on our own the customers that need our solutions."

As a result, Internosis "just as often" brings Microsoft into an opportunity where it requires additional skills as the reverse, he says.