Can Dynamics 365 Business Central Break Through Partner Channel Silos?

Microsoft's goal to offer customers in the SMB market a unified cloud platform for "digital transformation" is one step closer to reality with the release of Dynamics 365 Business Central, planned for April 2.

But the nagging problem -- having enough partners to deliver the full package -- remains. Microsoft needs more partners to get comfortable selling its Dynamics ERP and CRM products.

From the beginning of his CEO tenure, Satya Nadella has been trying to break down the silos within Microsoft and the partner channel. He understood the potential of Dynamics, the solutions group he once led, and the need to appeal to a broader set of resellers. The Dynamics solutions seem to have finally been incorporated into the overall product vision, but they are still not fully embraced by the vast majority of partners.

Dynamics 365 Business Central is a native cloud business management solution, based on Dynamics NAV functionality (previously code-named "Tenerife"), targeting small and midsize organizations. Microsoft's messaging appears to be directed at partners as much as customers: "Business Central offers terrific value because it integrates with other Microsoft cloud services including Office 365 and can be customized or extended for specific industry needs with PowerApps, Microsoft Flow and Power BI." Can this latest iteration of Dynamics finally convince Office 365 partners, MSPs and Cloud Solution Providers (CSPs) to dip their toes in the ERP and CRM waters?

"Microsoft's Dynamics 365 Business Central is an improvement from two points of view. First, for small and medium businesses using Office 365, it's a natural extension of everything they do from a productivity standpoint and extend that into a more financial ERP functional plane," said AJ Ansari, NAV product manager at Columbus Global. "Microsoft is making a strong statement about an end-to-end play for small to medium businesses. From productivity apps, to accounting apps, to resource planning, and managing of sales purchasing, et cetera."

"The second perspective is that Microsoft is just firing a shot across the bow for all the other competitors in the small and medium business space that have long knocked them for not having a true SaaS player in the SMB area," added Ansari, a Microsoft Dynamics MVP. "I think that this has been something that's been a constant message from folks like NetSuite and Intacct. Now, Microsoft can say our best SMB offering is a true SaaS offering."

To make it easier for a broader group of Microsoft partners to feel comfortable supporting Dynamics 365 Business Central, Microsoft has made a number of technical changes. "Traditionally, you would have to know Dynamics 365 or know how to develop within a product like NAV or GP to extend, but what Microsoft is doing in focusing more on APIs, which are going to be a central point in this Dynamics 365 Business Central," said Ansari. "And they're also focusing on tools like PowerApps and Flow, which leverage the Common Data Service. These are some of the tools that pretty much any type of Microsoft partner can understand and leverage to extend the capabilities of their value-added offerings. Gone are the days you would have to know something that was proprietary and unique to this application."

The hesitancy of Office 365 partners, CSPs and other partners usually stems back to a lack of expertise in the complexities of the accounting, supply chain and production functions. Partnering with traditional Dynamics partners has been a go-to strategy for those partners not ready to fully invest in hiring and training to support a new product line.

"Partnering to support Dynamics has really been a two-sided play. The partners that are good at the CSP model and fully understand how to go to market, they're focused on selling. They can pair with organizations who are specialists in implementing but are just not equipped to sell a SaaS product and do not fully understand how to leverage their CSP sales competencies," said Ansari. "Microsoft partner organizations, like IAMCP [International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners], are a great place to find and align yourself with complementary peers."

Ansari also sees room for improvement in Microsoft's current approach to helping net-new Dynamics partners get started. "I think one of the challenges is there wasn't enough documentation focused on partners new to Dynamics. If you were a traditional Dynamics partner, you probably had the greatest advantage because you understood the base product. But the depth of information available for a partner was no different than the depth of information publicly available for our customer," said Ansari. "So, to Microsoft, obviously, my recommendation would be that they focus on deeper partner-centric and partner-specific documentation around this to really help new partners catch on."

Having been in the Dynamics space for more than a decade, Ansari is more optimistic about the future of the product than ever before. "I think you truly now have everything that is needed by an SMB organization. It addresses needs for financials to operational requirements, like selling, purchasing, and inventory management of warehousing and manufacturing," said Ansari. "It's priced very competitively and will do well in that respect, as well. I am extremely encouraged, extremely optimistic about what lies ahead."

One measure of Microsoft's interest in bringing more partners onboard for Dynamics will be how it positions Dynamics 365 Business Central at its Build and Inspire conferences later this year. At last year's Inspire, the focus seemed to be on a partner-to-partner-driven strategy rather than attracting net-new partners. But to reach the masses, building toward numbers like Office 365, Microsoft needs to convince a lot of partners to jump into Dynamics with both feet.

How are you going to add Dynamics 365 Business Central to your Office 365 offering? Send me a note and let's share the knowledge.

Posted by Barb Levisay on March 29, 20180 comments

Cloud Powers Partner's Resilience in Puerto Rico Recovery

Five days after Hurricane Maria ripped across Puerto Rico in September and annihilated the island's infrastructure, Rock Solid Technologies opened their doors providing a business sanctuary for their clients. An early cloud adopter, Rock Solid's foresight enabled their clients, including municipalities and distributors, to get up and running quickly—solely focused on rebuilding the island. As recovery transitions to rebuilding, both the island and Rock Solid are proving their resilience and strength.

"We are developing a new normal. Things are not back to normal or back to the way they were. I don't think they're going to be," said Ángel L. Pérez, vice president at Rock Solid Technologies. "That's good. I'm not saying it in a bad way. The new normal is somewhat different. People are more aware of their surroundings and how to better plan and prepare. That's good. We're going to be more resilient going forward."

Immediately after the storm, hundreds of clients conducted their business in the Rock Solid generator-powered offices. As a Microsoft Dynamics partner, Rock Solid supports operations from payroll to shipping for the clients. Employees used the offices as home away from home, bringing children to work since schools were closed.

While some parts of Puerto Rico are still without power, Pérez says that over 90% of their employees have power. The ones who don't have power generators or have found other ways to cope. Any client locations without power have been moved to alternate sites. Cell phone coverage is restored for most of the island.

"I don't want to say it's not a crisis anymore. It's just kind of how you manage with the new reality," said Pérez. "Some customers still have issues but very few. As long as they have access to the internet they can work. It's not an issue anymore. They're not coming to the office to run their operations anymore."

Rock Solid's dedication to the cloud prevented what could have been massive interruptions in operations for their clients. It paid off for them as well, ensuring their own survival as a business. "If we didn't have the recurring revenue of the cloud, we would have been in a lot of trouble," said Pérez. "What do you do with no billing for three months or four in some cases? You're dead. We have over a hundred people on our staff. It would've been deadly."

In addition to the recurring revenue that supported their Puerto Rico-based staff, Rock Solid had made a commitment, well before the storm, to diversify geographically. During the aftermath, new sales on the island were non-existent. With sales people in Panama, the Dominican Republic and the United States, the company was able to keep new projects coming in.

Not all partners in Puerto Rico have fared so well. "Some of them changed strategies and focus. Some decided to focus on the U.S. and sell in the U.S., some others focus more on what they do best," said Pérez. "In our case, we are doing a lot of business outside of Puerto Rico and trying to increase that to diversify our revenue sources. That's been working really well."

Recently, new business has started to ramp up in Puerto Rico. The public sector, one of Rock Solid's specializations, is adopting the cloud more readily. With federal funds coming in to help the rebuilding, technology purchases are on the upswing. Another focus industry for the company, distribution, appears to be joining the cloud migration. Those companies who installed systems in Y2K are finally ready to replace aging ERP with technology that will keep pace in the digital economy. 

"Business-wise we're doing better than ever. We should have our best year ever in 2018. This is our 21st year running the company and that's how it's looking," said Pérez. "First month January was great, February is looking the same. We're getting it done."

Business is so good that Rock Solid is facing the same problem vexing the entire partner channel. Hiring enough people, with the right skills to meet demand. Schools and universities were forced to close down after the storm, delaying a wave of graduates. Students who were due to graduate in December are just now finishing up—which means Rock Solid is spending lots of time recruiting.

As part of that recruiting effort, Rock Solid continues to execute on their diversification strategy. "We are hiring a sales person for the U.S. We are hiring an additional sales person for Puerto Rico, which we see this year as the biggest opportunity ever. We are betting on that," said Pérez. "We're strengthening our efforts in Panama and in the Dominican Republic. We expect significant growth in all the markets we serve."

For those partners who are looking for ways to help the recovery in Puerto Rico, Pérez suggests exploring business opportunities instead of charity. "Look for opportunities to partner with us or with other local partners and have them do services for you, kind of be your extension," said Pérez. "When you do it that way, you spread the money into many, many families instead of just charity. I think that's a sustainable way contribute to the recovery. It's a more rewarding way to help."

Hurricane Maria may have flattened much of Puerto Rico's infrastructure, but the people or businesses of the island are bouncing back. Rock Solid was able to be a first responder for technology, equipping municipalities and businesses with the tools to recover and rebuild. The cloud provided the digital sanctuary they knew was the key to continuity for an island in the path of destructive storms.

How is the cloud changing business for your clients? Send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on March 01, 20180 comments

Prospering as an 'Expert in a Sliver of Technology'

Based on the number of mergers and acquisitions in the Microsoft channel, one would think that large scale is the only way to prosper as a partner in the cloud. Many partners believe high growth is the only path to strengthening ties to Microsoft -- and tapping the motherload of leads. But there remain partners without super-size aspirations who capture Microsoft's attention and reap the rewards.

As one of the first partners to implement BPOS, the precursor to Office 365, LiftOff launched into the cloud early. "We latched on, and committed to learning that product," said Ron Braatz, president of LiftOff. "One of the things that I had been telling partners, as a Microsoft employee was, if you want to get into a new market, start small, build your experience, build some case studies. Grow it however you like from there. You have to be an expert."

Heeding his own advice, LiftOff started small, implementing low user count BPOS systems and taking their time to build expertise before tackling larger projects. "The goal of Liftoff was to help orgs deliver successful projects. I thought that I had seen enough, and worked with enough partners and clients to really be able to do that," said Braatz. "To go into a project, no matter what kind of an IT project it was, and make it successful, that was our intent."

Based on his experience at Microsoft, Braatz knew that consistency in delivery of projects was the foundation of building the kind of relationship that would earn referrals. Microsoft personnel look to those partners who they trust to be the experts in implementing a given solution. Like any sales person, they want the best to deliver the services to their customer.

"I think more than growth, Microsoft gives attention to partners doing the job right. So, when Microsoft reaches out to us, for a project or a conversation, or an engagement, or just questions," said Braatz, "it's because we have good, mutual respect. They understand that we're experts in a sliver of technology."

While many partners working outside the enterprise market feel abandoned through the One Commercial Partner engagement model, Braatz sees it as beneficial to LiftOff. "The effect of what's happened is a lot of the Microsoft sales people that we used to work closely with have been transitioned to working larger projects," said Braatz. "So, the smaller projects are more hand offs, and that's a good model for us."

Liftoff's expertise in the product means they don't need the presales support that many partners look for from Microsoft. "We don't require a lot of co-selling with Microsoft. But, initial engagement, and introductions, are critical," said Braatz. "What that means is, they are being introduced to us. Which is great, for us. It's hard to say that less engagement from Microsoft is good. But, it's working in our favor in the latest model."

In a State of the Channel update this week, Gavriella Schuster, Microsoft corporate vice president for One Commercial Partner, announced that there are now more than 68,000 cloud partners. Since July, almost 80,000 customer referrals have been passed on to partners, she said. Big numbers like that drive home the importance of standing out in the crowd.

"My advice when I talk to partners is still, be great at a few things instead of pretty good at a lot of things because there's a lot of competition when you're pretty good," added Braatz. "What we found is that by focusing on a few things, we're able to position ourselves as a leader. We're one of the top partners because we do so much of our Microsoft technology sliver."

How are you making the most of your partnership with Microsoft? Send me a note and let's share the knowledge.

Posted by Barb Levisay on January 25, 20180 comments

Microsoft Partners Forge Ahead Through OCP Turbulence: Part 2

The lack of reassuring announcements from Microsoft after the sudden departure of Ron Huddleston, chief architect of the One Commercial Partner (OCP) engagement model, would have the partner community in an uproar if it weren't for their confidence in his replacement.

From the partner perspective, Gavriella Schuster never lost her mantle of Worldwide Channel Chief and her formal reinstatement will be universally welcomed.

Schuster's reputation as a good listener presents partners with a renewed opportunity to guide the future path of OCP. On the flip side, Microsoft needs to communicate the new landscape more effectively -- an area in which many felt the company was lacking the past six months. To achieve the lofty goals Microsoft has set for the channel, partners need to know how to best allocate resources and focus their energy. Sooner, rather than later.

Two channel leaders, Ric Opal, vice president SWC Technology Partners, and Christine Bongard, president of IAMCP's Women in Technology (WIT), shared their recommendations to partners and Microsoft to help the entire ecosystem navigate through the continuing turbulence of FY 2018.

"I guess one thing I would say to partners would be, you've got to be vocal," said Opal. "Microsoft cannot course-correct on what Microsoft does not know. So, I think I would be vocal in partner surveys, I'd be vocal with your PDM [partner development manager], I'd be vocal with whatever context and conduits you have. Let's celebrate the successes and let's make the adjustments needed going forward. But if we sit there as an ecosystem, and we say nothing, and we just become dissatisfied, that slows everybody down, slows our interactions with customers down."

"Our goal is to grow revenue, be profitable and service our customers. We do that with Microsoft," Opal said. "Don't be stuck in what they're doing or how choppy it is. Stay focused on customers and then look back with your Microsoft colleagues and see how far it's gone. It's gone a long way, really, since July 1. Is it perfect? No way. Is it different? Yes. Is it improved? Yeah, already better. Not done, but better."

With Schuster's leadership, there is likely to be more two-way communication on the direction of the channel. This is an important time for partners to be paying special attention to the Microsoft Partner Community and MPN Yammer to see the latest announcements from OCP.

"Whenever there is a time of change, which is going to happen, there's a lot of insecurity. There's a lot of frustration. The worst thing that Microsoft can have is for partners to be in the dark," said Bongard, who, in addition to being WIT president, is also director of partner alliances for Axispoint Technology Solutions Group (ATSG). "The best you can do to weather any storm is to have really good communication. It would be great for someone at an executive level within Microsoft to provide a monthly webinar or an update to the partner community."

Encouraging that concept, IAMCP WIT sponsored a webinar with Huddleston in November. Over 200 partners joined the call, asking more questions than could be addressed during the Q&A. Bongard, who hosted the call, said they have a list of 25 follow-up questions that will be sent to Microsoft. Hopefully, those questions will help Microsoft narrow down where clarifications of the OCP models are needed.

"I think the best way to foster better communication would be to get online and be honest. 'Hey, here's where we're at this month. These are the things we tackled over the past month that were not working great. Here's where we're at with it, and here's what we're looking at this month,'" Bongard said. "Going toward that honest approach of, 'We're doing the best we can, and here's what we're doing.' It calms people down. It will make partners feel that they are more a part of the changes and a part of a process than not."

Both Bongard and Opal are optimistic about the changes coming through the OCP engagement models. While the road has been a bit bumpy, the nature of the channel is changing and Microsoft must adapt.

"I have confidence in the worldwide OCP team, immense confidence," said Opal. "I think the reality is, we've come a long way. We must, as an ecosystem, as a partner channel and a partner-vendor relationship, we must never forget who ultimately is king. It's the client. If we stay centered on that and we stay patient, and Microsoft listens and Microsoft calibrates, I do think frankly they'll get better."

The ball is in Schuster's court now, and partners are anxiously waiting to hear how her vision of OCP will unfold. Fortunately, economic times are good, customers are open to technology investments and partners are optimistic. Now, if Microsoft and the channel can get all the oars in the water, "Oh, the places you'll go."

Posted by Barb Levisay on January 03, 20180 comments

Microsoft Partners Forge Ahead Through OCP Turbulence: Part 1

Almost a year into Microsoft's One Commercial Partner (OCP) reorg, and the channel is still learning how to navigate it. Designed to simplify partner engagement that had become fragmented and siloed, the "Build-With," "Go-to-Market" and "Sell-With" motions that form the foundation of partner engagement are coming into focus.

In this post, we share the experiences of partners working with partner development managers and getting a handle on the OCP catalogs.

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"The OCP restructuring has been a little turbulent. To understand it, to feel it all the way down on the field and to make it real, right?" said Ric Opal, vice president SWC Technology Partners. "I chose the word turbulent purposefully because I do feel that much like when you're taking off and you go through the clouds and it's a little bumpy, once you clear sky, it kind of makes sense. I agree with the long game."

The OCP long game is to simplify the partner experience. Over the past several years, Microsoft had responded to the transformation of cloud by segmenting partners. Ironically, the cloud has made the segmentation of partners less clear. For example, the Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) program basically turns all VARs, SIs and MSPs into ISVs. CSP program partners must have well-defined solutions, preferably with unique IP -- just like a traditional ISV. Partners are not segmented by type in the OCP models.

The lead in simplifying the partner journey in the OCP world is the partner development manager (PDM), whose role is to help their partners navigate the ocean of Microsoft resources. The concept seems to be working -- at least for those partners lucky enough to be managed.

"That PDM is the person who has my back. So that's my north star, that's my ship captain. I try not to worry about all of the gyrations in the silos that exist from a Microsoft prospective," said Opal. "I'm working hand in hand with a PDM. I think one of the things the partners have asked for a long time, right, is a simpler, easier relationship."

"We're managed, so we have a PDM and I have to say -- and I've given these compliments to Microsoft, as well -- that the people that they put in these roles, it's really spot-on," said Christine Bongard, president of IAMCP WIT and director of partner alliances at Axispoint Technology Solutions Group (ATSG). "They really nailed it with this role. This person, and I believe it's across the board, not just the candidate that we have, the caliber of the person is well-aligned strategically with helping me with my business. From Day 1, I've been impressed, and have come to really appreciate the relationship in a whole new way."

The OCP Catalog
Another core tenet of the OCP engagement model is centralizing and listing partner solutions in industry and functional maps or "catalogs." The role of channel manager revolves around building, prioritizing and sharing the catalogs with Microsoft inside sales and field teams. Conceptually, channel managers will ensure that the best partner solutions rise to the top of the list so that Microsoft personnel can connect customers with the cream of the channel.   

"That's been working out really great. The whole catalog, the One Commercial Partner catalog, I think it's going to be very interesting to see where that goes," said Bongard. "Our PDM, Paul, is trying to help us differentiate ourselves in that catalog. I think everywhere you go, you're hearing people use that word. Unique IP. Differentiation."

"It is critical, because you're going to take 300,000 partners, or however many partners there are, that are all going to enter into this catalog and it's going to be chaos," continued Bongard. "It's like a race to put the flag in the ground. And it's not just put it there and keep it there, but it's put it there and keep updating it constantly, because you want to always be seen fresh, ahead of the pack, and as the best solution possible with regard to each of the technologies."

Bongard echoes a common concern in the channel. The status and rollout of the catalogs has been less than clear so far. Reportedly, confusion around ownership and management of catalogs has slowed down the process. Without real clarity in who will use the catalogs and how they will be prioritized, it is no surprise that some partners are reluctant to invest too much time in the process.

"I know that we're supposed to be putting all these solutions in, right? But I'm hesitant to overload it with data," said Opal. "Eventually, the receiver of the catalog has 150 choices to pick from -- who's going to be the best security partner to do an Intune deployment? They're not ever going to use it at 100 or 150. They're going find the two or three that they know, and maybe somebody's worked a relationship. I understand it is theoretically smart. I don't know if it's going to work."

The turbulence of the OCP launch is clearly not over yet, especially with the departure of Ron Huddleston, the chief architect of the OCP engagement model. But partners have been down this road before -- it takes time for the dust to settle with reorgs. Partners will adapt and keep moving forward.

How is the OCP engagement model impacting your business? Send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on December 14, 20170 comments

First Impressions of Microsoft's ISV Cloud Embed Program

It's been four months since Microsoft launched its ISV Cloud Embed program as part of the One Commercial Partner (OCP) engagement vision to Build-With, Go-to-Market and Sell-With partners.

We caught up with a partner enrolled in the program, Binary Tree, to see how the program has been working since the July launch.

The ISV Cloud Embed program uses embeddable "building blocks." Participating ISVs get access to Dynamics and Azure services to accelerate application development and simplify data management and integration. To help partners extend market reach, ISV partners are encouraged to list solutions on AppSource and Microsoft promises co-marketing opportunities.

"One of the problems we were having with the managed service application platform were limitations of data access and replication of solutions," said Justin Harris, manager of product architecture at Binary Tree. "We are taking full advantage of the ISV Cloud Embed program. We've recently launched several new cloud products built on Azure."

Designed to support their mergers-and-acquisitions practice specialization, Binary Tree recently released an application to support Active Directory sync in on-prem and cloud environments. "Using the cloud platform, a company working through a merger can leverage our platform and have a global address list on Day 1, instead of the typical delays setting up a network," said Harris. "It's a huge business value prop to customer."

The ability to roll out applications across customers instead of building custom apps can deliver big returns for partners. "For an ISV in a multi-tenant environment, the beauty of the Embed program is that we can unlock capabilities for customers without long dev times," said Harris. "With Power BI and PowerApps, we can create a dashboard and make it available to all our customers at the flip of a switch."

The ISV Cloud Embed program is an important part of Microsoft's strategy to build a robust AppSource environment catering to the business community's growing interest in SaaS vertical and functional apps.   AppSource potentially reaches 100 million commercial active users of Office 365 and a growing community of Dynamic 365 customers. Partners appear to see the potential opportunity -- AppSource, which launched in July 2016 with 200 apps, now boasts more than 2,600 and is growing rapidly.

"By registering these programs on AppSource, it allows us to be discovered from a wide global net," said Brad Sevenko, Binary Tree's managing director for Global Microsoft Alliance. "From the technical point of view, the program allows us to accelerate what we can do, creating repeatable modules accessing customer data through the Power BI and PowerApps. The capabilities to deliver these products through the [Cloud Solution Provider] program helps from a profitability standpoint. Piece all of these together, and it delivers a clear business value and return on investment."

For those partners considering whether or not to make the investments of time and training to qualify for the ISV Cloud Embed program, Sevenko sees the program as an opportunity to gain exposure and align with the goals of Microsoft field reps. "It's hard being a Microsoft partner, navigating so many touchpoints. Especially if you are new, the ISV Cloud Embed program opens up your market. Being listed on AppSource can connect you with the Microsoft field in all geographies."

In addition, cloud consumption drives the compensation of the Microsoft employees who interface with partners. It's no surprise that they will be interested in helping partners who are actively building and selling apps that will help meet those goals. Being a member of the ISV Cloud Embed program demonstrates a commitment to the vision of Microsoft's future. 

The OCP organization appears to be gaining traction with its Build-With, Go-to-Market and Sell-With strategies. As one of the first engagement programs to roll out, ISV Cloud Embed seems to be a good start, delivering a win-win-win for customers, partners and Microsoft.

How is your practice adapting to the OCP reorg? Send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on November 16, 20170 comments

Microsoft's Strategy for Partner Marketing in the OCP Takes Shape

As the One Commercial Partner (OCP) leadership team continues to refine Microsoft's partner engagement models, the resources and tools that can best support marketing and sales are also undergoing review.

Cheryl Miller, general manager of Worldwide One Commercial Partner Go-to-Market (GTM) at Microsoft, leads a team of 35 building the strategy that will guide through- and with-partner marketing program development. The GTM team takes on a big challenge in developing strategy that can serve an ever more diverse community of partners.

"One thing about Go-to-Market that's funny is the term is used a ton, and it means a bunch of different things depending upon who you ask. And, from our perspective, we really look at it like it's an action plan to drive the partner's success with Microsoft," explained Miller during an interview earlier this month. "And that can be with Microsoft, through our customers and our enterprise customer base, or our SMB segment, or it could be through the partner into their own customer segment. So, just trying to figure out what is the combined value of us plus them, because it's really all about the customer at the end of the day, and the problems that they're trying to solve."

In line with the overall approach of OCP, the GTM strategy is based on matching partner maturity with the appropriate level of Microsoft field support. Working more directly with top-tier partners, Miller's team helps with the development of market plans, as well as delivery of campaigns. "We actually build up these high-touch, go-to-market plans and offers, directly with them. And so, you can think of it along the lines of where we will have a two- or three-day workshop, lock-step with the partners, and really think about the best way for us to create an offering that meets a customer's needs," said Miller.

For the bulk of the partner channel, the GTM strategy is aimed more at equipping Microsoft's advisers in the field, defined as Partner Market Advisors and Partner Channel Marketing Managers in the OCP world.

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To support the field, a portion of the GTM team is focused on developing the resources and programs that will drive scale through partners, including guidance, best practices, templates and workshops. "What we've been trying to foster, and one of the things that keeps me up at night, is how do I reach my partner marketing advisers that are in the field? And, to give you an idea, there's lots of them in the U.S. and in the U.K., and they scale anywhere from one to few, to one to many, depending on the market and the region," said Miller. "But they're looking for guidance, they're looking for leadership, and they're looking for connectivity around the company so that they're not on their own creating things for the partner, but can leverage the whole of Microsoft."

One of the challenges for Microsoft in developing through-partner marketing activities today is the push for specialization. The message to focus on industry and function-specific solutions has been loud and clear for years, but how can Microsoft provide marketing support en masse for partners delivering vertical solutions?

"It's a very challenging thing to solve, and I don't know that we've solved it. I think we have a lot of good approaches," said Miller. "So, it's really giving them this, kind of, stair step process, where they can come in. Once you're in MPN the benefits that you get scale as your investment in Microsoft, and on our platform, does. So, there's self-serve marketing materials, and readiness and training that's available. There's also chats and online help that they can get. And then, as they start to get into silver/gold competencies, the benefits increase and the focus and resources increase. I think that, from our perspective, we are going to get much more focused on industry and vertical solution selling, and this is, kind of, where you kind of see the co-sell motion come into play."

To that end, Microsoft is introducing solution maps that will be managed by the channel managers to provide the go-to vertical solutions for a selection of industries and regions. Inclusion on those coveted maps will likely require partners be high on the maturity continuum, with proven solutions and multiple customer reference sites.

To take full advantage of the marketing resources and programs that Microsoft will be rolling out over the coming year, Miller recommends that partners stay tuned into online resources. "Start with MPN [Microsoft Partner Network] and Partner Center. Those are the two main areas that we're trying to drive people to, and the good thing about OCP and bringing together what was previously DX and the Worldwide Partner Group, I think it's the fact that we're consolidating tools, portals and resources in one location," said Miller. "We want one place for the partners to go, and we want to build up those sites and tools for them. I know we're not fully there yet, but the vision is spot on."

On Microsoft's Partner Network site, the Reach Customers site is the central location for marketing resources, training and campaigns. Keep in touch with community conversations on the Partner Community site.

How is the OCP engagement model impacting your business? Send me a note and let's share the knowledge.


Posted by Barb Levisay on October 19, 20170 comments

Unexpected Curves Crash Microsoft's Dynamics 365 Roadmap

At the recent Directions North America conference, Microsoft's announcements about the Dynamics 365 roadmap didn't quite go as expected.

The spring-scheduled release of Dynamics 365, code-named "Tenerife," was introduced as a modular cloud ERP with full Dynamics NAV functionality. The decision to go modular was a change of direction, but not a show-stopper for partners. When Microsoft went on to explain the cloud software would be available to partners as a white-label component for vertical packaged solutions, the brakes screeched.

To its credit, Microsoft listened to its channel's concerns and announced a revised plan to give partners the options of selling branded Dynamics 365, as well as white-label solutions through AppSource. According to a blog post by Alysa Taylor, general manager of global marketing for Microsoft's Cloud & Enterprise Business Applications and Industry division, the modular approach sticks, replacing the original Dynamics 365 vision of fixed-function Business and Enterprise editions aimed at separate markets.

"Microsoft will offer a single collection of Dynamics 365 applications for customers of all sizes and complexity to digitally transform their organizations across all lines of business -- Marketing, Sales, Service, Finance, Operations, and Talent -- at their own pace," Taylor wrote.

Steve Mordue, CEO of Forceworks, sees competitive forces as the drivers for Microsoft's evolving Dynamics 365 strategy. "Microsoft doesn't operate in a vacuum. They can come up with all the grand plans they want in the face of competition, but competition isn't just going to sit there," Mordue said. "They make changes, too, and that sometimes necessitates that you have to make a change before a plan's executed, because you can see that the conditions have changed since you started down a path that make it no longer look like it's going to get to the goal."

Mordue, who is also a Microsoft MVP and participates on partner advisory committees, was as surprised as anyone by the announcements at the Directions North America event, but he's generally in favor them. "I think it's a good strategy. On the CRM side, really what's happened here is they made a decision that it's not making sense to segment our customers by size of customer. It's creating some artificial barriers that didn't really seem like they were needed," Mordue said. "What they've evolved it into, and particularly on the CRM side is, let's instead have our price points -- instead of based on small customer, big customers -- let's have them based on small needs versus big needs. Not worry about the customer size. That makes sense to me."   

All About Verticalization
Underlying the Dynamics 365 announcements, and a continuation of Microsoft's drumbeat to partners, is verticalization. Especially in the SMB market, Microsoft wants partners to overcome their reluctance to move to business models built on industry specialization. Partners, also especially in the SMB market, still fear putting all of their eggs in one basket and continue to try to be all things to any prospect who happens to end up in the sales pipeline.

The new roadmap for Dynamics 365 offers partners two paths to serve customers, both designed to promote industry specialization but not quite so imposing as the white-label-only option. Partners can offer the Dynamics 365 application through the Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) program supporting key business functions, including sales, financial management, project management and operations. Or ISVs can use the Microsoft ISV Cloud Embed program to build and offer vertical cloud solutions directly to customers.

"Obviously, when they first announced it as a white-label-only solution, their entire thought about Tenerife was that you were going to build a vertical application with Tenerife. The whole white-label approach isn't about, build the same thing we have and call it your own. It's, build something specific for a vertical," Mordue said. "Microsoft, I think, came out and assumed that if you're going to go vertical, you're going to want to give it its own name, and I think they just misread that one piece, and now we're giving them the option. Clearly that whole approach is about verticalization."

Consulting Services on AppSource
Since Directions North America, Microsoft has announced an additional way to help partners market services around Dynamics 365. As of this Monday, partners can now offer fixed-price consulting service packages via AppSource, which has huge potential as a lead-generation platform. According to the AppSource documentation, "Consulting services offerings are customer-specific engagements that are conducted on-site and are fixed in scope, can be fixed-price or free, have a fixed duration, and have a clearly defined outcome. Consulting services offerings can be briefings, assessments, workshops, proofs of concept, or implementations."

In the SMB market, no decision has always been the hardest sales outcome to overcome. Many partners have offered fixed-fee implementations, but still customers are hesitant to take the risk. With Microsoft validating the offers by listing them through AppSource, the hope is that more customers will take the leap.

"The new consulting services offer that just dropped Monday, out of preview, for anybody to get involved with, is less about verticalization and more about giving a customer a way to move forward more easily. Right now, a customer, if they've decided they want to look at Dynamics 365 and they reach out and call some partners, they're getting a lot of different stories, because every partner approaches them differently," Mordue said. "The biggest challenge that customers have is really wrapping their arms around what the whole endeavor may cost. Lacking an answer, they'll assume worst case, and that's not a good move either. That keeps a lot of customers standing in concrete, because they just don't know what it's going to cost."

The evolution of Dynamics 365 is likely to continue to offer a changing landscape to partners -- both welcome and not so much. The SMB market for CRM and ERP has been a tough road to navigate since Microsoft entered the race 20 years ago. The cloud makes the turns come even faster, so the wild ride for partners is probably far from over.

You can read more of Mordue's perspectives on Dynamics 365 -- including several blogs specifically about the Directions event -- on his always-informative and entertaining blog.    

How is your organization preparing for Dynamics 365? Send me a note and let's share your story.     

Posted by Barb Levisay on September 28, 20170 comments

Tech Community Reporters Control the Burn at Microsoft Ignite 

With more than 700 sessions and a sea of announcements, Microsoft's sold-out Ignite conference (which kicks off on Sept. 25) challenges even the most seasoned event-goer to stay on top of it all.

There is so much going on, in fact, that it would take a dedicated team to effectively help you set priorities and hit all the highlights. Fortunately, Microsoft has assembled an all-star team of Tech Community Reporters who will be positioned in the field to help you cover it all...starting now.

Microsoft Ignite's Tech Community Reporters
The 10 Microsoft Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs) serving as Tech Community Reporters are recognized community influencers and technical experts. The team will be focused on helping partners make the most of the week in Orlando, Fla., calling out key announcements and "don't miss" opportunities. For partners not attending Ignite, the reporting team will provide an on-the-ground perspective from Orlando.

Microsoft's Ignite Tech Community Reporters team includes (left to right, starting at the top row):

Within their profiles, linked above, each MVP offers practical advice and recommendations for people to follow during the conference. To help attendees set priorities as they make final plans, members of the Tech Community Reporters shared sage advice, accumulated through years of attending events.

Don't Hesitate To Ask Questions
"We are all human beings, so do not be afraid to ask for clarification or a question. There is no such thing as a dumb question. As panelists and speakers, we value your input. In fact, that's exactly what we want. There's nothing more disconcerting to a speaker than a quiet room. The more you, the attendees, engage, the more we want to help and share our knowledge. It's a win-win situation. So please, if you have something to add or ask, raise your hand. Don't be afraid." --Alistair Pugin, Office Servers MVP

Sit Up Front To Make More Connections
"Sit up front when you go to a session and arrive early enough to introduce yourself to the people sitting around you. You already know you have a shared interest because you are at the same session so especially for partners, you just never know what type of networking connection you might make! Plus, you get the added benefit of walking out at the same time -- and if you are sitting up front, that's a longer time to have a more meaningful conversation." --Susan Hanley, Office Servers and Services MVP

Think Social
"Bring extra battery pack for your phone! Make sure to keep up to date with the scheduler and social events at and near Ignite. Follow #msignite!" --Magnus Mårtensson, Azure MVP              

Make Personal Connections and Follow Up
"While there is always great content at these events, spend time talking with other attendees and partners, especially within the expo hall. Ignite provides the largest gathering of Microsoft technology practitioners in the world -- use the week to get to know some of them, make new connections, and expand your personal and professional network. Spend time in the Community Hub or live video/podcast recording, and get involved. And this is old-school, but still relevant in making connections on the fly at a major event: Bring plenty of business cards, and follow up within a week with everyone you meet. Most of my business has come through these connections at events, not through a marketing campaign or sales call." --Christian Buckley, Office Servers and Services MVP

Focus on Networking
"Networking and building relationships with IT pros is key to success and information. Sessions are recorded and can be viewed later if you did not get the chance to attend a session or a few. Attendees at Microsoft Ignite come from all backgrounds, have different skillsets, have varied expertise, they travel from all over the world and are diversely rich. Make the time to talk to the next person and learn about what they do and where they come from, whether it's in a session, in a food line, while you're getting a cup of coffee, or while you're on the shuttle bus to and from the hotel. Speak to vendors and inquire about their evening social events which provides you with another great opportunity to meet new people. These networking opportunities are essential for staying current in technology, for technical resources, and for future support mechanism between peers. And best of all, you've made some new friends for future conference connections and for long term friendships." --Harjit Dhaliwal, Windows and Devices MVP

Whether or not you are attending Ignite, take advantage of the experience of the Tech Community Reporters to filter the firehose and help you focus on the highlights. You can follow the aggregated team's Tweets here

How are you making the most of Ignite? Send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on September 13, 20170 comments

5 Ways To Help Customers Switch from a Project Mindset to Continuous Improvement

The cloud may provide the perfect platform for technology as continuous improvement, but most customers still think about IT in terms of discrete projects.

While DevOps and agile development promote the concepts of incremental improvement, far too many customers still want a start date and an end data for their IT projects. And, with the cloud, they expect the time in between to be smaller than ever.

One of the toughest challenges for partners in the cloud era is to reset this traditional perspective of IT and help customers view technology as a path to ongoing, continuous improvement. To change the perspective of customers, partners need to realign their own processes to promote the long-term view. From sales through service delivery, partners need to help customers take an evolutionary approach to technology and business process improvement.

Some of the ways that partners can promote the concepts of continuous improvement to customers include:

  1. Develop a roadmap for the customer's journey. As part of the sales cycle, customers should be educated about the need for a strategic technology roadmap to help them realize the full value of the business solutions they are implementing. Identify and prioritize each of the workloads the business needs to reassess and streamline.

  2. Business process consulting. For most partners, business process consulting has become an integral part of any service offering. Customers need help in applying technology to the functions of their business, and you should have the resources on board who can deliver that guidance.   

  3. Change management program. Help customers realize success early by proactively working with them to ensure adoption success. Identify and manage resistance while generating enthusiasm towards more intuitive, streamlined processes.

  4. Ongoing customer education. Through webinars, newsletters and blog posts, continue to educate your customers about business process improvement and the advancement of technology solutions. Microsoft FastTrack offers a broad range of educational resources you can tap to make the job easier.  

  5. Customer strategy sessions. Meet with your customers face-to-face periodically to check in on the strategic technology roadmap. Take the time to understand changing priorities and align your services to help them. As a proactive participant in their business plans, you can become an integral part of their strategic team.

Old habits die hard and the perception that technology comes in nice, neat project form is still ingrained in most businesses. It's up to partners to change those outdated ideas -- one customer at a time. By implementing internal processes that promote continuous improvement concepts, partners can build stronger, more profitable relationships with customers. 

How are you modernizing your internal processes for the cloud? Send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on August 24, 20170 comments

Making Progress: Partner Builds Diversity with Mentoring Mentality

There is no easy fix to the diversity challenge the Microsoft partner channel faces. Most partners would like to hire more women and minorities, but without big recruiting budgets, it's difficult to reach a larger, more diverse audience.

One partner making strides towards a more balanced workforce promotes a culture of mentoring -- both internally and externally. The strategy appears to be working. 

"I recently heard someone mention that we, at Planet, really have a mentoring mentality across our company," said Scott Tucker, president and CEO of Planet Technologies. "We work hard to establish a culture where really smart people unselfishly share their experiences and knowledge with each other. That makes us a more valuable partner for our clients, but also a better company."

Tucker attributes a decade-long practice of discussion groups to instilling Planet's culture of mentoring. "We have real-time discussion groups on topics like cloud and cybersecurity and Office 365, where employees can reach out at any time for help on an issue, posting a question," explained Tucker. "It goes to over a hundred consultants at Planet Technologies, and you might see five or six people immediately respond. The process is very basic, but it is highly effective and allows everyone to participate equally."

The mentoring philosophy contrasts with the way many partners have been managed in the past: A few experts hold specific knowledge and dole it out when needed on a project. That mindset protects the expert's value to the company, but doesn't help grow the knowledge of the entire staff, which will benefit the organization as a whole.  

In Planet's discussion groups, engagement is so active that Tucker uses it as a sales tool. "I show our customers the activity when someone from our team reaches out," said Tucker. "I tell them, 'You're not getting an individual, you're getting a team. Even though an individual or a couple of people might be supporting your project, you really have over a hundred consultants behind the scenes also giving feedback and sharing knowledge.'"

Mentoring at Planet extends out to the community, as well. Individuals across the organization participate in Women in SharePoint, DigiGirlz, Women in Technology and more. Planet encourages employees to participate in the community, building connections whenever possible. Connections can come from anywhere -- especially when you are tuned in. For example, Tucker had a conversation with his son's coach at a recent school event. The coach mentioned his daughter was an aspiring coder. Tucker set up a meeting with one of Planet's women executives, and now the young woman has a female mentor and is building connections in the tech community.   

There isn't one factor that Tucker attributes to Planet's success in building diversity, but he thinks the culture is fundamental. "I do think that our participation and our culture, which is inclusive, valuing the individual, celebrating the individual and the team, I think those help," said Tucker. "We promote our involvement in these organizations like Women in Technology. We promote the individuals. Women or men, we highlight, we celebrate and we're pretty good at it, both internally and externally."

The benefits of a diverse workforce translate to both the customer and company level. "The approach, the perspective, the experience, the challenges that each individual has faced no matter what their background," said Tucker. "I think those experiences, when brought into the professional environment, bring significant value to our customers and, just as importantly, to our company."

How are you building diversity in your workforce? Send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on July 06, 20170 comments

Partners: First Impressions Could Be Killing Your Business

What happens when a prospect reaches out to your organization? Do they receive a fast, professional response from their first contact? Is their journey through the sales process equally professional and efficient? Are you sure?

Based on the recent experiences of a mystery IT shopper, there are too many managed service buyers having less-than-exceptional customer engagement experiences.

A post written by Cheryl Salazar of The Partner Marketing Group about her experience as a mystery IT shopper for managed services is a real eye-opener. Salazar contacted eight professional services firms requesting proposals for managed services to support IT, security and ERP. A number of the firms she contacted were slow to respond, with one completely ignoring three voicemail messages. First contact with the firms ranged from puzzling to pleasant, with follow-through similarly skewed.

While Salazar's sample size was admittedly very small, it's probably an indicator of truths for far too many partners.

To ensure that your customer experience processes are working as well as you think, run you own test. You can engage a mystery shopper of your own by hiring a college student or an Upwork freelancer as a start. They can make initial inquiries to test your sales and marketing response processes. Test every entry point, including Web forms, e-mail and phone calls, to make sure that your prospects don't hit dead ends or frustrating loops.

The next step is to walk through the processes your sales team follows when they receive a lead. Your sales and marketing team should have a well-defined system with supporting content to usher prospects through their buying decision, including:

  • An established list of qualifying questions designed to draw out more details from the prospect.
  • Collateral that explains the value of the services you deliver, not just a laundry list.
  • Content that validates the claims you make, like case studies from satisfied clients.
  • An established process to arrange reference calls with current clients.

A particularly surprising, and disappointing, observation by Salazar was the quality of proposals she received. As the final step in closing the sale, one would think that most tech service providers would have a fine-tuned proposal process. Apparently not.  

As Salazar suggests, proposals should be designed to explain the value the services deliver to your prospect. Your potential buyers are deciding whether the benefits from your services justify the money they will pay you. Stand in the shoes of your prospects and look objectively at your proposals. Do they answer all the questions that you would ask? Do they convey professionalism?

Bad first impressions are a silent killer of businesses. You generally don't hear complaints from prospects -- they just move on. If your sales and marketing teams aren't working in lockstep and tracking results, prospects could be falling through the cracks without anyone knowing. Before you fall victim, take a look at your systems and make sure first contact with your prospects is a stellar experience.

How are you creating great first impressions and building better customer experiences? Send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on June 21, 20170 comments