Truckin' for Customers

The Microsoft Across America program helps partners score big with product demos aboard technology-laden RVs -- it's just a matter of knowing the ropes.

Microsoft Partners with experience in the small and midsize business (SMB) space know there's nothing better for closing a sale than letting a customer actually handle the technology.

"When customers can see the technology in action, and actually touch and feel it, it helps them put the rubber to the road," says Kevin Royalty, chief consulting officer at Solution Net Inc., a Microsoft Registered Member in Cincinnati. "They're far more likely to buy at that point."

Unfortunately, that's not always possible, especially when customers aren't near one of the few-and-far between Microsoft Technology Centers (MTC). But Microsoft has an answer: New technology-laden, tractor-trailer-sized RVs that continually tour the country and are available free of charge for Microsoft partners to use.

"The trucks provide the wow factor," explains Neal Wadhwani, Microsoft's Eastern Region Events Manager, who handles the Microsoft Across America program. "They're a way for us to take the technology to the local partner and the customer, especially in areas where they may not have close access to an MTC."

The trucks are available to book at private events and for individual customers. But, for the most part, partners use the trucks in conjunction with a Microsoft-sponsored SMB event, such as the Connections, TS2, TechNet and MSDN seminars. Attendees at the events are encouraged to visit the trucks parked outside and try the Microsoft technology inside.

Anya Ciecierski, marketing manager at Intellibridge, a Microsoft Certified Partner in Milford, Conn., has used the trucks twice so far and says she has seen the wow factor in action. "We had a customer come up to us after an event and visit us in the truck. She said she hadn't realized before that we were so closely aligned with Microsoft," Ciecierski says. "She was impressed and it put our company in a stronger position."

The first three trucks came online last fall. Since then, demand has increased and Microsoft has added four new-and-improved models, for a total of seven trucks crisscrossing the country at any one time. To date, the program has reached more than 10,000 customers and as of June more than 400 partners have booked time on the trucks, Wadhwani says. Beginning in July, the trucks are slated to provide more than 1,400 partner opportunities across the country through the end of 2005.

Royalty says that since last fall, he has used the trucks about a half-dozen times and on average, he closes two customers per event. "My record is four in one day," he says. "When I first started, it was more like one per event. So it's definitely getting better," as he gains experience with the venue.

Ciecierski has closed a total of seven customers during the Connections events in general, although she hasn't yet landed a sale that could be attributed directly to the RVs. "But we just started using them," she says. "As we gain more experience, I'm sure we'll see a change there."

People at the Microsoft RV
A few of the 10,000 customers Microsoft's tech-laden trucks have reached thus far.

A Look Inside
Wadhwani says the trucks are outfitted with lots of technology, including servers, laptops, mobile devices, plasma screens and projector systems. "They've been designed so that the partner can demo to their customers, as well as speak and maybe even try and close the deal right there," he says. "If they choose, they can also demo a number of solutions we have specified in our virtual PC environments on the truck."

Those solutions run the gamut from SharePoint Portal Services to CRM, he says. Partners can get a full list by contacting their Microsoft rep or checking out Microsoft's Technical Demonstration Toolkit, which was mailed out to all Certified Partners and above in January.

"If partners have a certain specialized field that is not in that listing of environments, they can create their own demo, bring it on their own laptop and present it in the RV using all the presentation technologies we have there," Wadhwani says.

"We have used the truck to demo SharePoint Services, which was really helpful because that's something you really need to see in action to understand," Ciecierski says. "It's also good for something like Great Plains, which is expensive and not readily accessible. It's not something customers can download a free demo for, so this really is a good tool."

5 Tips for a Better RV Experience
  1. When booking the RV at an event, shoot for the middle time slot. Most events end at noon, and the RV is a big draw at that time, so be a co-presenter if you can or ask for that middle slot ahead of time. Be prepared with food and drink to set up outside.
  2. Scope the venue. Make sure the RV can be parked close to the event and is readily accessible to the customers.
  3. Consider sponsoring your own event. Microsoft makes the trucks available to partners on a first-come, first-served basis. Just make sure you can accommodate the RV at your venue and attract enough customers to make it worth Microsoft's while.
  4. Watch the sponsors. Currently, the RV is sponsored by HP, Compaq and Cisco, so if you represent a competing company, say IBM or Dell, you won't be allowed to bring their equipment or brochures onboard.
  5. Consider partnering with others. Take a team-based approach to the time slots to make the most of the opportunity, especially in areas where you don't yet have a presence.

— Joanne Cummings

Plotting Strategy
Partners need to book time on the trucks at least six weeks in advance. In cases where more than one partner wants to book the same time slot, Microsoft gives preference to the partner at the higher level, say Gold Certified vs. Certified, or Certified vs. Registered. "I've never been bumped from a slot though," says Royalty, who is a Registered Memeber.

Truck time is split into three parts, early morning from 7:30 a.m. to about 9:45 a.m., mid-day from 10 a.m. to about 1:45 p.m. and late afternoon from about 2:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. Each slot is then broken into public and private time, with a little more than an hour in each slot for private time to speak with customers you invite, particularly hot prospects and the like. "The rest is public time for the customers attending the event. But both work out just as well," Royalty says.

Still, he's clear on which time slot he prefers. "The second slot is the best one," he says. "The events usually get over at noon, so typically, the people who did not get a chance to go out to the RV during the break come out right after it's over." Partners that are co-presenting at the event--as Royalty usually does--automatically get the coveted middle time slot, he says.

The second-best option is the first slot, because customers come in during the morning break, but the afternoon slot can be quite slow. "At first you think the third slot could be good, because you'll be the last one the customers see. But in reality, most of your customers have gone home by then," he explains.

With proper planning, the third slot can be effective, however. Invite customers to come specifically to the truck during that third time slot, or partner with another company that agrees to funnel customers your way. For example, in cities where he has yet to establish a presence, Royalty usually hooks up with another Microsoft Partner company that's based there.

RV situated in parking lot.
The trucks require ample room in a flat parking lot, so plan accordingly.

In Columbus, Ohio, for example, he partners with GNS Partners, a Microsoft Business Solutions provider that specializes in software such as CRM and retail management. GNS lets its customers know that it has the RV during the morning time slot, while Royalty takes the late afternoon slot. Then, GNS sees its customers in the morning, and sends customers who are interested in Solution Net's infrastructure- and server-based expertise to the afternoon slot. "It works out well," Royalty says.

For co-presenters in the middle time slot, which coincides with lunchtime, Royalty offers this piece of advice: Bring food. "Microsoft doesn't allow any food or drink on the truck, but you can bring food and have it set up on a table under the RV's awning right outside," he says. "It turns out to be a nice service and a draw at the same time."

New Opportunities
Beyond booking time on the RV at an event, partners can also book the trucks for their sole use as they see fit.

"Partners like to use this as a closing tool, so if they put in for a bid and they've been short-listed, they'll show up with the RV at the customer site and do their closing pitch on it," Wadhwani explains. "It shows the Microsoft backing that they have and can be a pretty powerful tool."

A customer appreciation day is another option. "It's an enticing way to get existing customers and maybe some potential new customers to their offices," he says. "They do a cookout or have some event, and the customers can get on the RV and try out the technology. It's a great event."

Royalty says he plans to book the truck for a private event as well, but is waiting to get final availability schedules from Microsoft. "It doesn't cost us anything. Microsoft will drive it down here and they'll staff it," he says, noting there is usually one Microsoft staffer present on the RV at all times. "All we have to do is show up and put on the event, so it's a definite win."

There is one caveat. "You have to have a big enough event with enough people to justify it," Royalty says. "Otherwise, you will probably be turned down the next time you ask. So be very careful about that." An event with a guarantee of 20 people or so works far better than one with just a handful, for both the partner and Microsoft, he says.

Royalty says he has seen events where the RV just didn't work, primarily due to the venue. One site Royalty worked last January took place in a movie theater within a shopping mall. But the RV, because it is so large and requires a level surface, ended up being parked far from the event. "It was January and it was really cold," he says. "I think we had two customers come the whole day, which is not good. Partners really need to scope out the venue ahead of time and be fully aware of the parking limitations for the RV, especially if they're putting on their own event," he advises.

Ciecierski also had weather issues when using the truck during a Connecticut winter. "If there were a better way to enclose the outside awning or have some kind of heat lamp, that would probably be good," she says. "We're looking forward to using it in the better weather, which won't be as challenging."

But all in all, the trucks are a free-yet-strong sales tool that partners would be wise to consider. "We've gotten a lot of leads out of it," Royalty says. "My CEO says it's worth it, because he's seen the contacts and a lot of follow-through. We'll continue to use it more and more."