Microsoft Partner Community Site Flattens P2P/M2P World

The newly launched Microsoft Partner Community Web site aims to address the globalization of the channel, enabling unified partner-to-partner (P2P) and Microsoft-to-partner (M2P) collaboration.

As partners adopt the less geography-bound cloud business models, Microsoft has to rethink partner engagement. The Microsoft Partner Community site is designed to provide a boundary-free platform to connect partners with the people and resources they need to succeed.

The Microsoft Partner Community Web site.

Cross-Border Connections
Just a decade ago, most partners -- including managed service providers, value-added resellers, system integrators and Learning Partners -- were primarily focused on serving their local business communities. Microsoft's partner engagement models reflected that regional focus with geographically assigned partner sales and engagement teams.

With the cloud, geography is less important, which means both partners and Microsoft need new tools for engagement.  

"We're really trying to promote that cross-border connection," explained Jenny Kordell, global partner community marketing lead for Microsoft. "The way we're thinking about the Microsoft Partner Community is really around conversations. It's going to be a more fluid experience for partners."

The site, a work in progress with full-scale promotion to partners planned for the Inspire conference in July, will serve as the hub for P2P and M2P conversations. Microsoft Partner Community will be the central destination for partners, regardless of their location, to connect with other partners, find business-building resources or ask questions of subject-matter experts. Yammer discussions groups will eventually be managed through the site. Microsoft Partner Center will continue to serve as the transactional site for partners, including Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) account management and the customer referral engine.   

A key function of the Microsoft Partner Community is to promote P2P interaction. For years, Microsoft has been testing vehicles to systematically encourage P2P relationships -- without much success. Inspire (formerly known as the Worldwide Partner Conference, or WPC) has always been ground-zero for P2P activity, with local events and Yammer fanning the flames through the rest of the year.

"How do we continue to build this community on a global scale?" said Kati Quigley, senior director of partner recruit programs at Microsoft. "Locally, it still is important for people to meet face to face, but how can they have this global connection to learn from each other? That's what drove the idea of the community."

The International Association of Microsoft Partners (IAMCP) is expected to play a prominent role on the site.

"IAMCP and our other influencer partner communities will help us build that partner-to-partner connection," said Kordell. "When a question comes up, we don't want there to always be this reliance on Microsoft. We want partners to be able to help each other. To kickstart that momentum, we are including groups like IAMCP to be an active moderator and influencer within our community."

Self-Service Is the Future
The theme of self-service is consistent with much of Microsoft's recent partner program development. From Marketing SureStep to FastTrack, Microsoft is providing more tools that partners can use on their own. Concierge support services are available for partners with more complex questions, but Microsoft is trying to wean partners from their traditional dependence on field sales teams.    

"We are looking at those opportunities where we can lift overhead from the field while ensuring a great experience through the Microsoft Partner Community," said Kordell. "We are also working to localize the experience for partners, serving up relevant content based on their profile. So regardless of high or low feel touch, partners in both our emerging and developed markets can have the conversations and the relevant information more quickly."

Inspire will provide the springboard for the launch of Microsoft Partner Community. Presenters will be asked to continue conversation on the site. Community advocates representing IAMCP and Microsoft will be building on themes from Inspire to continue conversations and spark connections.

Just as partner business models are undergoing change, engagement with Microsoft and other partners has to evolve, as well. The Microsoft Partner Community is a worthy attempt to flatten the channel, helping partners in a world without borders.

How are you using the Microsoft Partner Community? Send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on May 17, 2017 at 3:00 PM0 comments

Are MSP Partners Missing the Strategic Value of IoT?

As Microsoft partners look for their place in the cloud, the fanfare around Office 365 makes it seem the logical entry point. But competing in an already crowded field is risky for players late to the game. Many partners may be missing the relatively quiet call of the Internet of Things (IoT) as a strategic opportunity to stake a claim and build a practice.

Managed services providers (MSPs), in particular, have built their traditional business by providing services to monitor and optimize technical devices. Coordinating across software and hardware vendors, MSPs have a well-earned understanding of how to keep a network of disparate devices running smoothly. Since the foundation of the Azure IoT Suite is remote monitoring, the potential for MSPs to transfer skills is worth consideration.

There is no question of market opportunity; IoT is identified as a top growth area by all the big analyst firms. Given the potential of an emerging market, partners capitalizing on the opportunity could build their expertise to take a leadership position. But there is a reason that many partners are shying away from IoT.

"If you look at infrastructure partners as a class, I think they are comfortable with the three or four bottom layers of the IoT stack," said George Mellor, president and CEO KloudReadiness LLC. "Certainly, they can deal at the physical layer with physical devices. Certainly, the connectivity, they're very accustomed to and usually quite knowledgeable and skilled at. The edge computing area, where a gateway might reside, they can play there. Where they run into problems is in the analytics area."

Mellor, who advises infrastructure partners on cloud transitions, sees the reluctance to go into IoT as a missed opportunity. "The analytics layer of IoT may be keeping them from entering the field. Most MSPs don't have the people on staff with data analytics skills," said Mellor. "My viewpoint is, out of the gate certainly probably for your first year in the IoT space, you certainly want to look to partner with someone who's got business intelligence [BI] or application expertise. In other words, how do we take the raw data and turn it into something our clients can act on."

Working cooperatively with a BI partner provides the opportunity to ramp up the internal skills to take a partner practice to the next level. Through Microsoft's Azure stack, Mellor has seen partners take on a broad range of service opportunities when they make the move into IoT, including:

  • IoT strategy consulting
  • IoT infrastructure
  • IoT data analytics
  • IoT security
  • IoT integration
  • IoT managed services and outsourcing
  • IoT application development

Once partners decide to build an IoT practice area, Mellor recommends spending the time and effort to carefully package and price solution offerings. In addition to clearly articulating the business value to clients, your package should be priced to ensure a sustainable margin. Microsoft's Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) model is designed to support just this concept of packaged services offering.  

One of the challenges with evaluating IoT as a practice area is the breadth of the field. There are so many scenarios for IoT, it's no easy task to narrow down to a specific focus. To that end, Microsoft continues to create resources to help partners build the vision and case for an IoT practice. Microsoft's Internet of Things blog includes lots of partner stories. Microsoft's recently released Data Platform & Analytics Practice Development Playbook provides guidance on the IoT partner opportunity.

For partners looking to begin or expand their cloud service models, the action isn't confined to Office 365. Look to the skill sets that have built the success of your business in the past. As an infrastructure partner experienced with connecting devices across networks, IoT may be a better fit than you imagine.

How are you taking advantage of the Azure IoT opportunity? Send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on March 30, 2017 at 8:55 AM0 comments

Partner Helps Customers Navigate Microsoft's Evolving Collaboration Choices

Oh, for the days of simple answers to complex questions. With Microsoft's release of Teams this week, customers have yet another option to add to their confusion when it comes to choosing their best path to a collaborative workplace.

As the Office 365 collaboration toolset continues to expand -- Groups, Skype, Delve, Yammer and, now, Teams -- the challenge for partners to explain them all and how they fit together grows, as well.

Compounding the challenge of keeping customers informed and comfortable is Microsoft's recent move to continuous release cycles rather than the traditional periodic Big Bang. Since corporate decision making has yet to make the leap to agile, partners need to help customers accept and embrace the faster pace of innovation in technology.

"The IT leaders that I'm speaking with oftentimes want to try to make a decision that's really going to be the go-to solution across the entire organization. They've been hearing a lot about using a decision matrix -- when to use what tool," said Mike Oryszak, Managing Director at B&R Business Solutions LLC. "Generally, I think that's a mistake and I think you're missing some good opportunities when you take that approach."

"One of the things that we talk a lot about is reducing the size of the investment in any one decision," added Oryszak. "Secondarily, accepting the fact that things are going to continue to change, and the right decision today, for a given team, may not be the right decision 18 months from now. In order to truly take advantage of the innovation, you have to stay agile and not go all in on any one particular decision."

One example Oryszak uses to help customers "get it" is Microsoft's own evolution strategy. Until quite recently, Microsoft would release a major update to a solution, like SharePoint, and customers would adapt that platform to meet their specific needs (with their partners' help). "Certainly, the old on-premises days, that's absolutely how it was. You would define your sites and customize those," said Oryszak. "As a consultant, that was great because it provided us with a canvas to build all of those custom solutions."

In today's Microsoft, services and solutions like SharePoint, Yammer, Skype and Exchange are the pieces that stitch together to create the overall platform. Microsoft is investing in innovative solutions that evolve through continuous release to offer options that meet unique and developing business requirements. Through a less rigid platform and broader set of tools, companies can take an agile approach to meet the unique challenges of a given group.

The Strategic Role of the Partner
That changing approach also impacts the role of the partner and corresponding service opportunity. Partners recommending that clients remain agile aren't going to be able justify a huge custom SharePoint project as in days past.

"Ultimately, Microsoft is trying to lower the bar and reduce the friction for the end customer and trying to make these things easier without a whole lot of outside help," said Oryszak. "We're focusing more on things like self-service and finding ways for users to be able to initiate and provision the services and sites that they need. With that in mind, as a partner, we tend to focus more on the strategy. More about governance and how the platform should be used. Our opportunity has shifted from a lot of custom solutions to much more of a strategic role and a strategic partner for our clients."

Agile Education
To promote a more agile approach to technology decision making, partners need to apply the concept of continuous, evolving education in their own business and in customer communications. Currently, the B&R team is talking to customers about Microsoft Teams, which they have been using internally since Ignite last year.

"We jumped in and we started using Teams, really, from the week that it hit first release. We started getting traction using it for collaboration with groups that, previously, nothing ever met their needs and nobody ever was really happy," said Oryszak. "Where we would previously, maybe, concede to just a central library somewhere and it wouldn't be actively monitored, now we're storing conversations, we're collaborating on project tasks, we're doing all of this other stuff that we just weren't successful in doing before."

At the customer level, B&R bakes education into its service packages. "Our MSP customers receive platform enablement services as part of the package," explained Oryszak. "Depending on the package level, it's a different number of hours, but let's just say 24 hours of consulting per quarter. We do strategic briefings, provide demonstrations or some light training on a particular feature of interest." In addition, B&R sends out a regular newsletter and offers a range of webinars, live events and blog posts to educate customers.

For both partners and customers, the pace of change today requires a new approach to applied business technology. There are no pauses, no time to adjust. The role of partners today has to be interpretive and strategic, which means staying well out in front. Agility may have been a buzzword in the past, but it's a fundamental requirement in business today.

How are you helping customer adapt? Send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on March 16, 2017 at 8:25 AM0 comments

Personal and Partner Commitments Change Lives Through Technology

For partners trying to keep up with the high-pressure, day-to-day obligations of running the business, the good intentions of giving back to their community too often go unrealized.

Putting intent into action takes commitment from individuals, as well as support from partner leadership. But when those ingredients come together, partners can have a real impact on the lives of those in need.

Well-known to many in the Microsoft partner community though his lively presentations at the Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) and other Microsoft events, Dux Raymond Sy, PMP and chief technology officer of AvePoint Inc., plays a different role for an audience half a world away. In December, Sy traveled to Kampala, Uganda, to kick off a long-term partnership helping young people build the digital skills that will allow them to participate in the tech revolution.

"I support a lot of charities and nonprofits -- it's just something I do with my family. In May 2016, a member of my church reached out to me about the school and orphanage we support," said Sy, who is also a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP. "The school essentially takes in street kids or just orphans, and they live there, they grow up there and they go to school there. There's about 1,800 kids there at any point in time."

The church was looking to Sy's professional experience to help design and implement a technology program that would better prepare kids for success after school. "It's not like these kids can afford to go to college, and their skills are not competitive," explained Sy. "Working with a couple of people, we raised funds to build a computer lab which we built when we were there. We put together a curriculum around cloud and Web, with the plan to train the trainer. We were looking to build an ongoing program."

Since his two weeks on site, Sy has continued to work with students he mentored as they keep the training program moving forward. The organizing team continues to add software access through the nonprofit licensing group TechSoup and promote Web-based training through Pluralsight.

"My next step is trying to figure out how to set up a virtual internship program. It's one thing that these kids learn, but the other thing is how can they get experience and practice?" said Sy. "I'm trying to figure out [how] we can tap into this big Microsoft partner network. Is there a possibility to do a virtual internship program, for example. Because over there, there's really not many partners we can connect these kids with."

Sy is not the only AvePoint employee to spend time and energy giving back to the community. Across the company's global offices, concerned employees are making a difference. "In Jersey City, for instance, there's a Salvation Army daycare after-school program held at least once a quarter. We send folks out there to help students with their homework and more," said Franklin Teagle, director of communications for AvePoint. "Other causes, like soup kitchens in Australia, are how our teams around the world spend time volunteering to help out the community."

In response to these employee volunteer efforts, AvePoint has begun to take steps to formalize and expand its support of community enrichment work. "In a big, global and diverse organization like ours, you have all kinds of people interested in all different types of causes that are near and dear to their hearts," explained Teagle. "In addition to the outreach events we're doing in groups across the different offices, individuals have the opportunity once per quarter to use paid time-off hours to go and volunteer with a cause that is important to them. It's important to us as a company, and it's important to our employees to be able to have that time to contribute to the causes that resonate with them."

The recently launched AvePoint Philanthropy site describes the three pillars of the company's mission to impact humanity and drive change through technology, community and education. "We give away our technology to qualified nonprofits through TechSoup," explained Sy. "We provide education similar to what I did but on a regular basis or through different teams around the world. We do hour of code, at the very least. And we support our community."

Like many people who immerse themselves in another culture and share their knowledge, Sy learned far more than expected through his Uganda experience. His blog post, "Five Inspiring Lessons I Learned About Life (and Business) from Teaching in Uganda," is an eye-opening read.

"I think every partner, no matter how large or how small, can think in terms of how we're now in a world where everybody's connected. Especially as representatives of technology, the great enabler, that allows us to build our own businesses and careers and opportunities," said Sy. "Technology is also a great enabler for other people. We have the capacity to teach people how to use technology as a way for them to progress and improve their lives."

Working together, partner leaders and employees can make good on their intentions to give back to the community and advance the lives of others. Isn't it time to take those next steps to identify the causes that connect with your team and commit to get involved?

How are you giving back to the community? Send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on March 09, 2017 at 8:05 AM0 comments

Microsoft's New Cloud Practice Playbooks Are Massive and Well Worth Your Time

Following up on the popular Modern Partner Series, Microsoft has released four Cloud Practice Development Playbooks to guide partners as they expand their cloud practices.

On download, the sheer volume of the playbooks might make some partners think they are full of Microsoft fluff, but that is not the case. While they could be pared down to make them more consumable, the content is specific to each practice area and includes well-researched business advice and pertinent partner experiences.

To say the four practice development playbooks are comprehensive is an understatement. Each one is over 170 pages, and while there is some shared content, the detailed guidance and supporting data from other partners is practical and specific. The deep-dive playbooks cover practice areas, including:

  • Enterprise Mobility & Security
  • Cloud Infrastructure & Management 
  • Data Platform & Analytics 
  • Cloud Application Development 

Following 14 pages of content, the playbook introductions take another 15 to 20 pages to get to the real substance -- a shame, in that the excessive introductions may lose readers. Partners will find the "good stuff" spread throughout the "Partner Practice Development Framework" sections, starting around page 30. The framework includes:

  • Define Your Strategy: Define your offer, benchmark your practice and identify required resources.
  • Operationalize and Get Trained: Hire or train resources, complete certifications and get your practice ready to launch.
  • Go to Market: Execute your sales and marketing strategy to find your first customers.
  • Close and Execute Deals: Negotiate deals, write winning proposals, implement contract and leverage Microsoft investment funds.
  • Optimize and Grow Your Practice: Collect feedback, identify expansion opportunities, optimize your practice, grow partnerships and refine your offer.

In the "Define Your Strategy" section, partners are likely to find the "Define and Design the Solution Offer" pages to be the most valuable part of the book. Including data collected through surveys of partners currently pursuing the practice areas, the section gives a realistic picture of what to expect in each practice area. Descriptions of typical project services delivered, median revenue from services and project service breakdowns reflect actual partner experiences. Another highlight includes the "Practice Cost Calculations" and "Pricing Strategy Comparisons."

Each playbook's "Operationalize and Get Trained" section lists the roles that you need to support the practice, including recruitment guidance and compensation data. Training resources and certification paths are also included, providing a one-stop source partners may find easier to navigate than some of the Microsoft partner Web sites.

The "Go To Market," "Close and Execute Deals" and Optimize and Grow Your Practice" sections share much of the same content across the four playbooks, but still include specific practice resources and data worth digging out. It does require some digging, as the practice-specific resources and tips are mixed in with general sales, marketing and operations guidance.

The Cloud Practice Development Playbooks are impressive documents reflecting Microsoft's dedication to helping partners adapt their business models to the cloud. As with most things Microsoft, the playbooks deliver a drink through a fire hose. Partners would be well-advised to assign sections to different people within the organization to sort through and uncover all of the content that will truly help them build their cloud practice.

How are you using the playbooks? Send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on February 15, 2017 at 11:22 AM0 comments

With 20,000 CSPs, Microsoft Partners Need a Stand-Out Strategy

In a State of the Channel update this week, Gavrielle Schuster, corporate vice president of the Worldwide Partner Group at Microsoft, announced that there are now more than 20,000 partners transacting through the Cloud Service Provider (CSP) program -- up from 3,500 a year ago.

That's got to be a sobering number for every cloud partner. As the field of competitors grows, the average partner with 20 to 90 employees needs a clear strategy to stand out from the crowd.

An observer from outside the channel might think that defining a clear strategy seems like an easy and obvious path for partners. But for MSPs, VARs and SIs who built their businesses serving a broad range of clients, it's far from simple. With no previous industry or functional specialization, betting the farm on a narrow line of business can be paralyzing.

Microsoft is working valiantly to help partners see the value in specializing. The Modern Partner series, blogs and training are focused on helping partners take the leap.

One of the biggest barriers for partners is the valid concern that selecting a specialty without deep market research is risky. Few partners have the expertise, time or the money to pursue an objective, data-based research project. But there are several steps that partners of every size can take to start the progression to a specialized strategy.

Evaluate Internal Strengths
Bring your people together to talk about the expertise held within the organization. Since you will need the buy-in of everyone on the team, include them all in the process. Talk about the projects that have been most successful and the customers who have valued your work. Pay particular attention to the customers that you and the team enjoy working with the most. You're likely to be more successful if you can focus the business on work that your people are passionate about.

Research the Competition
While you may not be able to perform in-depth market research, the Web makes it easy to evaluate the competition and their messages. Stand in the shoes of your prospects and read what competitors claim objectively.

In 2008, when deciding where to focus his practice, Kevin Fream, CEO and CTO of Matrixforce Corp., started with Web searches. "I looked at what competitors were saying and then worked on how we could position it differently," he said.

"A good example was coming up with Overwatch to address the ransomware problem," explained Fream. "Most organizations need to have an ongoing and combined enterprise cybersecurity, data breach protection and device management. We didn't see competitors offering a complete solution so we put together a selection of products that combined to provide an easy-to-understand package. It is cost-effective for customers [and] has good margin for us."

Define and Validate Your Value Proposition
The secret sauce that Matrixforce has discovered is not only defining but validating the value proposition. "You have to have a good strategy and then spell out your value proposition," said Fream. "The epiphany for me was seeing that everyone said the same thing, without backing it up."

There are few partner Web sites that don't claim to have "seasoned professionals" or "industry expertise." Even if your organization does have depth of experience in a specific solution or industry, since every other competitive partner is saying the same thing, those statements become meaningless to prospects.

"One of the simplest things we have found to set our solutions apart is a brand name and slogan," said Fream. "It's inexpensive and differentiates the message."

Matrixforce registers its solution names to protect their brand and deliver a more professional message. The company has recently completed patenting its methodology to further demonstrate commitment to formal, professional processes -- especially important for its target of financial services companies. It also references qualifications, like being a C Corporation and its Microsoft Gold partner status, prominently to validate its expertise.

"By promoting your Microsoft certifications, you send the message that there is strength behind your services," said Fream. "The platform may be a commodity, but your knowledge and your services are validated by the Microsoft competency."

The effort that Matrixforce has put into its cloud offerings is delivering results. "2016 has been a big transition year and we are poised for a spectacular year in 2017," said Fream.

To thrive in a field with 20,000 competitors (and growing), creating a unique strategic direction for your company is imperative. Your solutions need to build on the expertise and passion of your team. You need to spell out why your solutions are different from the others and back it up with proof. The combination of clear strategy and value proposition will give you the foundation to make the cloud your next business success.

How are you differentiating your CSP offerings? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.


Posted by Barb Levisay on December 08, 2016 at 7:27 AM0 comments

Consultants: Partners' New Front Line for Sales

The traditional partner sales model has been turned upside down. In a world where technology is like electricity, sales opportunities won't continue to come in the form of implementations and upgrades.

Partners need to find new ways to identify and solve the business problems for their plugged-into-the-cloud customers. Consultants and engineers need to transition from technology fixers to business problem solvers -- and always be on the lookout for new problems to solve.

In the days when a technology sale was defined by an implementation project, there was a clear line where sales handed off the client to the consulting team. Engineers and consultants applied their knowledge of the latest version of SharePoint or Exchange and moved on. The process repeated as sales engaged with the client from time to time to talk about upgrades and look for additional opportunities to expand the relationship.

The cloud changes those customer relationships, in some ways making them closer and in some ways more distant. While partners may be connected to clients through managed services for ongoing support and training, there's less need for interaction with sales. Since support and consulting teams have the most interaction with clients in a cloud relationship, it makes sense that many partners are looking to them to uncover opportunities.

A New Role for Engineers and Consultants
"Deployment engineers or consultants truly need to be identifying potential opportunities rather than waiting for the sales team. Engineers are in the best position to know what the customer needs," said Paul Powell, Microsoft Practice Lead at Bishop Technologies Inc. "Thus, engineers need to be trained in soft sales tactics and become advocates for the partner products they implement to become a main source of new business opportunities."

Helping consultants and engineers expand their skills beyond technology is a challenge many partners are experiencing. "Our consultants need to understand business processes and how IT is managed," said Powell. "It's no longer just how many Microsoft certifications you have. Even as an engineer, you need a business degree or ITIL training. I think those are going to be even more important five years, 10 years from now."

To help guide the transition for Bishop's consulting team, consultants are trained to listen to clients and understand the underlying business need. Client assessments are built around business needs and problems instead of starting with the technology. Daily procedures are also designed to keep business opportunities top of mind.

"We ask our engineers to send out an e-mail at the end of each day as they are working on a project," explained Powell. "The e-mail has four basic categories. What have I done today? What do I need to do tomorrow? What do I need from the client to get my job done? And internally, to the salespeople and the rest of the project team, what opportunities have I identified and what are the pain points for the clients?"

The Challenge of Remote Service Delivery
Since consultants are able to deliver more and more services remotely, there's often less face time with clients. Bishop is working to include more on-site time during customer engagements to gain first-hand insights into client challenges that could lead to service opportunities.   

"When you're talking to somebody in person, you're sitting in the same room, you're working with them directly. You overhear conversations from other people who walk in the room. You get a much better picture of the environment," said Powell. "We're trying to get our consultants on site as much as possible -- for project kickoffs and close-out meetings, at the very least. And we are building more face-to-face interaction with the client into both project work and managed service offerings."

Define and Educate on Core Capabilities
In order for engineers and consultants to know what to listen for -- what constitutes opportunity -- partners need to clearly define their core services and educate internally. When all employees understand the partner's strength and focus, everyone becomes an advocate. While the consulting team may be the new front line of sales, every employee should be listening to clients with the firm's core capabilities in mind.

"When I reach out to customers for testimonials and success stories, I'm always listening to their pain points and their issues, trying to recognize an opportunity," said Tina Sieben, Bishop's vice president of marketing. "That just happened last week. I was talking to somebody and I could tell they were really struggling with user support for Office 365. As a result, I set up a call for the account manager and he's putting a quote out there now for support services."

The cloud is changing the nature of relationships partners have with their customers. Technology is moving to the background and partners must make an effort to stay in front of customers. There is no shortage of business problems that need to be solved, so partners need to get proactive in seeking them out. Consultants and engineers, as well as every other employee in the organization, who are trained to listen and ready with solutions can bridge the gap for partners.

How are you training employees to uncover opportunities? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.     

Posted by Barb Levisay on October 12, 2016 at 1:29 PM0 comments

Is There Partner Opportunity in a DIY Data Management World?

Every business today is accumulating massive amounts of unstructured data, from e-mails to documents to images. As the competition between Microsoft, Amazon and Google continues to drive down cost of data storage, it's tempting for those businesses to take a do-it-yourself approach.

But promises of easy administration that don't hold true provide an opportunity for partners to solve their customers' growing data management problems.

There are definitely two sides to big data. There's the sexy side, where partners can wow business owners by applying machine learning to ERP data and magically predict their customers' next purchases.

And then there is unstructured data -- the proposals that no one will ever look at again., the group list e-mails that are duplicated in every employee's .PST file. Not sexy, but most of it is sitting on servers that businesses would like to get rid of.

"Unstructured data is a lot like cleaning the attic. You know it's a big mess up there, and there's treasures, and there's some icky things," said Geoff Bourgeois CEO of HubStor. "But then nothing really happens. The problem gets kicked down the road to worry about later."

"But I think what's interesting from a partner angle is that the light bulb really seems to have gone on for businesses. That cloud is a smarter place to store the data that's not being used and is taking up space on hardware that's expensive to maintain," continued Bourgeois. "But when customers dig into it, the 'gotchas' come into play."

The "gotchas," according to Bourgeois, include the details that most cloud storage providers gloss over. Details like migrating data from legacy systems to the cloud, maintaining security through and after the migration, finding data once it's in the cloud and, finally, getting your data out of the cloud.

"Instead of finding it easy, customers are often surprised by the complexity. They look at Amazon Glacier and come out completely disillusioned," said Bourgeois. "They expect a nice turnkey Software as a Service solution, and what they are bumping into is infrastructure and platform. You've got to roll up your sleeves, learn the tools, connect them and maybe even do some development work to get everything really singing and dancing. I think that's where partners can add value -- understand the customer's use case and bring cloud solutions together in a way that's meaningful for your customer."

The common expectations that HubStor sees from customers include the ability to delete duplicate content, apply security policies and audit access to sensitive data. In the case of legal or regulatory issues, businesses need to be able to search data, which can be surprising difficult, if not impossible, through many cloud storage services.

"We see a lot of customers that just don't want to have to think about it. They want to have a partner involved as the virtual administrator, provide updates on the high points and perhaps an executive briefing on how things are going," said Bourgeois. "The customer is more outcome-oriented and doesn't want to get stuck down in the weeds of how to make it happen."

Focusing on the concept that customers want simplicity, HubStor offers its Microsoft Azure-based archiving and discovery solutions through unique pricing models, which have been well-received by its customers and channel partners. Unlike most cloud storage providers, HubStor reflects the Azure pay-for-what-you-use pricing model. Customers pay on usage, month to month, with no upfront costs.

"We make pricing totally transparent to our customers, the Azure costs plus our markup," explained Bourgeois. "This model really resonates with companies because they love the fact that it's transparent, they're paying only for what they use, without the large upfront costs."

Additionally, HubStor does not require long-term commitments to lock in customers. "We want customers using our solution because they're getting value out of it, not because we forced them into it technically or contractually," said Bourgeois. "I love that model because it sends the right kind of signals out in the marketplace. It also helps to diffuse people's concerns about the cloud when they can see zero lock-in."

Unstructured data management may not be the sexiest part of the Big Data play, but it's a service that businesses need. Through Azure, partners have a platform that provides tremendous potential to simplify data management for customers. And you never know what treasures you'll find helping them clean out their attics.

How are you approaching Big Data? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on October 05, 2016 at 8:47 AM0 comments

How an ISV Revamped Its Partner Program To Strengthen Its Channel

As more VARs, MSPs and SIs build their intellectual property and expand into the realm of ISV, they're seeing potential in working through partners to resell their solutions.

Building a channel, even if you only work with a handful of select partners, requires thought, planning and follow-through. Based on the experience of one ISV gaining momentum with Microsoft partners, a clear program with two-way expectations provides the foundation for strong channel partnerships.

After joining Episerver in 2015, Karen Chastain, director of strategic alliances and global partners, was tasked with revamping Episerver's partner program, as well as strengthening its strategic relationship with Microsoft. Chastain sees that dual role as an important factor in the program's success.

"On the technology side, a tighter relationship with Microsoft is beneficial because our solution, built on Azure, helps our partners go to market quicker," said Chastain. "Azure helps them sell against the competition, giving them an easier platform to develop on -- more efficient and more cost-effective for their customers."

"And from a marketing perspective, it's a shared responsibility for lead generation," added Chastain. "Episerver does lead generation, our partners do lead generation, and we expect Microsoft to help us do lead generation, as well. Sometimes that could be through joint marketing efforts, and also it could be through helping us with brand awareness."

In an effective channel partner relationship, each tier of provider can leverage the different relationships it builds within customers and prospects to the benefit of all. Microsoft, ISVs and service providers generally work with different roles inside organizations, so cross-pollination opportunities flow up and down the partner chain. 

Resources for Different Levels of Partner Relationships
While Episerver -- an ISV that provides a single platform for managing digital content, commerce and marketing in the cloud -- has approximately 800 partners worldwide, the depth of those partnerships varies.

"We build deeper relationships with very active partners," said Chastain. "For example, we have about 20 to 30 U.S. partners that we're working with on a very, very frequent basis, and 50 that are coming to us with something every year."

Like most ISVs, where something like the 80-20 rule holds, partner relationships are not all created equal. Partner programs need to be designed to support active partners who include the ISV's solution in every proposal, as well as those partners who stumble on opportunities from time to time.

"It's important that we put in place a lot of the tools and resources to help our partners be self-sufficient so that we could touch a broader community," said Chastain. "For example, putting together a partner portal, with tools like a marketing plan to help them from a marketing perspective. We show them how to tailor and customize it for themselves."

To rise to the top as partners choose their ISV partners, simplicity is the differentiator. "If you're not easy to work with, if you don't communicate, if you don't help them ... it's very basic things but if you don't make it easy for them to work with, they're not going to work with you," cautioned Chastain. "They're going to the path of least resistance, the path of 'Where I can get my revenue the quickest.'"

To build out an effective partner channel program, Chastain recommends that ISVs take a systematic approach, including:

  • Build a solid partner program framework. Partners want to know that everyone is operating under the same requirements with the same benefits. Establish goals and milestones for partners to achieve to move through levels of benefits. It may take a couple of revisions to get the program right, but you need a well-defined framework.

  • Communication is key. You have to be open and honest with partners and keep communication flowing. Episerver sends monthly newsletters to partners and holds quarterly webinars to keep partners in the loop. A partner advisory board keeps provides direct input from their channel to support two-way communication. 

  • Share your partners' success and leverage their expertise. Partners can submit their case studies for posting on Episerver's Web site. "We post it as a reference under their profile so it's attributed to the partner," said Chastain. "We'll also post it elsewhere on the Web site and may use the case study for blogs." Episerver also promotes the industry expertise of partners through joint marketing programs.

Chastain recommends that ISVs look at how Microsoft supports its channel for ideas on how to build their own partner programs. "Microsoft is a great resource for me. I've worked with them for a long time and they're a huge company but they do have a great partner program. I modeled a lot of what I wanted in my partner program from what Microsoft offers," said Chastain. "For example, you go onto their partner portal, you see all the sales and marketing resources that they have available. Obviously, we don't have the money to create all those marketing resources but it's a great source of ideas and ways that I can provide additional benefit to my partners."

As more service providers package their intellectual property to create ISV solutions, the natural path is to allow other partners to sell those solutions. For partners ready to tap the potential of a reselling channel, clear expectations and established rewards set the stage for mutually beneficial relationships. As Episerver has found, a strong partner program can deliver exceptional results.

How are you supporting your reselling partners? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.    

Posted by Barb Levisay on September 21, 2016 at 8:43 AM0 comments

Are Veterans an Overlooked Talent Pool for Partners?

Based on the record turnout and positive atmosphere of last month's Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC), times are good for partners.

When partners talk about their challenges, hiring usually tops the list -- a good sign, but still a roadblock to continued growth. Interestingly, it seemed that more time was spent on the talent gap at past WPCs. Two years ago, there was a significant effort to focus attention on the potential of veterans to help. Which leads to the question: Is the channel overlooking a source of well-qualified candidates?

A prime reason that partners may want to revisit the potential of veterans is that the nature of the talent gap appears to have changed. Instead of looking for knowledge of the latest applications, most partners say that people skills and business acumen have become the qualities they need in new hires -- and are having trouble finding.

Based on their changing needs, partners may find that veterans could help bridge the gap. Veterans taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill get financial assistance to return to college or retrain for new careers. For New Horizons Computer Learning Centers, career development for veterans has boomed over the past five years.

"One of our largest customer groups today are transitioning veterans. People who are retiring out of the military or have served their contractual obligation," says Jamie Fiely, president of 22 New Horizons franchise locations. "We have a unique opportunity to support growing partners with very talented, capable people."

"We have worked with veterans who shot artillery, were commissioned officers and everything in between," adds Fiely. "A lot of these folks, especially those who have worked in technical roles, come out of the military with a clear understanding of the latest innovations and how technology is deployed."

For many of the veterans taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, especially those who have been in the service for 20 years, looking for a job in today's market is a big challenge. "Our career development business has had to augment the kinds of services we provide -- it's much more than just technical aptitude," Fiely says. "We are providing job readiness, which includes everything from conducting an interview to writing a resume to branding themselves using CareerBuilder and LinkedIn. We really have entered the job readiness training field."

Fiely believes that achieving certifications is a good indicator of the potential of veterans coming through the New Horizons programs. "One of the best ways for someone to demonstrate that they are a quick learner is to achieve certification," Fiely says. "For a person to go through a program in four to eight months and gain multiple certifications shows a desire and willingness to learn and ability to adapt quickly."

To take advantage of what a veteran could bring to your business, Fiely suggests taking a more strategic approach to your workforce. "If you need specific technical expertise, invest in training someone who already works for you and then backfill with a less experienced person. Like an apprenticeship model, you can help someone fit into the culture while teaching them specific skills. That approach builds morale in your current team and supports junior-level hiring. That's a true workforce strategy."

For partners struggling to fill the roles that require people skills and a capacity to learn, veterans could provide the answer. As a place to start, connect with New Horizons or one of the other learning partners in the channel. There are veterans earning technical certifications that have life and organizational experiences that can bring tremendous value to you and your customers.

How are you filling the talent gap in your organization? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on August 17, 2016 at 9:00 AM0 comments

Microsoft's 2016 WPC Was the First for Millennials

  • See our full WPC 2016 coverage here.

Setting the tone for what may be a new generation of Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conferences (WPCs), Ariela Suster, founder of Sequence, opened last week's WPC with her powerful story of a childhood besieged by violence in El Salvador. With remarkable stage presence, Suster described her mission to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth to break the cycle of crime and violence. The underlying message -- and recurring theme throughout the conference -- was that Microsoft enables people and partners to make a difference in the world.  

With a new generation of entrepreneurs and workers looking for meaning in the work they do, Microsoft seemed to be phasing out the tech-talk to focus on partners as agents of change. Keynotes at past WPCs have always included heart-tugging videos with partners helping nonprofit organizations use technology to make a bigger impact, but at WPC 2016 last week, the theme of purpose was pervasive. 

Nadella's Keynote Set the Tone
There seemed to be universal agreement among partners that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's 2016 keynote was his best WPC address yet. He set the theme of purpose early on: "It's not about celebrating any one of our technologies, products or services; it is about celebrating what our customers are able to do with technology, how they are transforming their own business, achieving their own success and having their own impact." Each of his keynote segments focused on the outcomes that businesses are achieving, rather than just the technology.

Nadella's onstage interview with GE CEO Jeff Immelt was a refreshing acknowledgment that it's not only the under-30 startup crowd that understands digital transformation in business. While there was a pitch for the GE-Microsoft Predix analytics partnership, the bulk of the conversation between Nadella and Immelt focused on how companies need to adapt to the digital economy. The discussion played well to the partner role in leading change for customers.

Judson Althoff Caught Off-Guard
Judson Althoff's North America briefing, which will be his last as he moves into his new position as executive vice president of Microsoft's Worldwide Commercial Business, started out with customer/partner demos delivered with a twist of humor -- standard fare, though the lighter approach was appreciated by the audience. In the last segment, Lianna McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, surprised Althoff with a heartfelt tribute to Microsoft's impact on the effectiveness of There wasn't a dry eye in the house after her portrayal of how children's lives are being saved by the digital connections supported through Azure.

McDonald was a tough act to follow and Althoff struggled to regain his composure as he closed the session. As this was his final presentation to the North American partner audience before taking his new role, he clearly wanted to thank partners. The emotion of the moment won out -- Althoff had to make do with a wave -- but the crowd responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation. It was the human side of Microsoft executives we don't often get to see at WPC.

Mixed Reactions
Not everyone seemed to appreciate the humanization of WPC. There were grumblings in the press room that there wasn't enough substance. There were no device demos during the keynotes, no big product release announcements. Software was in the background, with partners and purpose taking center stage.

The partners I spoke to did like the change. Partners were there to learn how to improve their own businesses, rather than to learn about the latest technology. There were some complaints about a lack of detail around Dynamics 365, but session reviews were positive for the most part. They particularly liked the high percentage of sessions that featured partners sharing best practices and lessons learned.

Most said their meetings with field sales and product teams were very productive, with a renewed focus on going to market together. As usual, networking with peers was a primary reason to attend WPC, and with 16,000 attendees, there was plenty of opportunity.

Support for Gavriella Schuster's appointment as channel chief seemed unanimous from both partners and Microsoft employees. Schuster is highly regarded for her understanding of the challenges partners face in dealing with Microsoft, and there is trust that she will make a positive impact and improve programs, as well as relationships.  

WPC 2016 was different, designed for a new generation of partners. Since Microsoft needs to convince upcoming entrepreneurs that the channel is a good place to be, it's good for them to start practicing that message. Millennials want purpose, and Microsoft let customers and partners make a strong case for how meaningful this work can be. Instead of the showing us the latest form factor, WPC 2016 reminded us of the positive human impact from the technology we deliver.  

Posted by Barb Levisay on July 18, 2016 at 1:03 PM0 comments

Partners: Follow the CIO with Packaged Services

Two recent reports, taken together, provide valuable insight for those partners searching for their "angle" to focus their business and create packaged services.

A 2016 survey of CIOs confirmed the growing strategic role for IT leaders in their organizations. Those findings, combined with the latest release of the Modern Partner Series, which makes a strong case for packaged services, could guide partners as they choose where to specialize.

The call for partners to specialize is nothing new, but the drumbeat is getting louder. "Differentiate to Stand Out" is the second of the Modern Partner Series from IDC and Microsoft, and makes a convincing argument based on actual partner experience. For most partners, the challenge has always been in how to narrow in on the specialization that will deliver rewards quickly enough to justify the investment of time and resources.

While industry solutions used to be the primary path to specialization, partners are finding success with functional packaged services, as well. The "Differentiate to Stand Out" report recognizes the viability of building a service offering based on a business function. Partners can use their deep understanding of Microsoft technology and roadmaps to help customers improve the processes that will build strategic advantage. Improving customer service systems, building team collaboration sites, and centralizing business intelligence are just a few examples.

Since CIOs have long been the primary connector between partners and their customers, insight into their current challenges and priorities can help guide the choice and positioning of packaged services. To that end, "The Creative CIO" survey recently released by Harvey Nash and KPMG provides a banquet of food for thought.

Some of the top findings and how they could drive the selection and design of a packaged service offering include:

  • 57 percent of CIOs now sit on the executive board or senior leadership committee: Packaged service offerings need to be easy for non-technical decision makers to understand. Define the value of technology improvements in business-value terms to help the CIO explain it to the rest of the leadership team.

  • 67 percent of CIOs expect the strategic influence of the CIO role to grow in 2016: Packaged service offerings need to serve a strategic objective. The business-process improvements delivered should be linked to driving revenue, breaking into new markets or cutting costs.

  • 87 percent of companies are pursuing digital strategies: With insight into the Microsoft digital roadmaps, help your CIO clients plan for the future. Become the technical expert that the CIO depends on to figure out how to pursue their digital strategy.

  • The top three CIO priorities are increasing operational efficiency, improving business processes, and delivering consistent and stable IT performance to the business: By delivering packaged services with a clear connection to top priorities, it's much easier to make the business case to the CIO.

  • 50 percent of CIOs will increase investment in outsourcing this year, up 9 percent from 2015: There is no time to lose. Create packaged services based on the best possible information but don't over-analyze. You can adjust as you go.

Choosing a specialization is a big decision -- so big that too many partners simply avoid it. For those partners ready to narrow their focus, the CIO survey can be a starting place for conversations with your leadership team. The Modern Partner Series includes three more reports on marketing, operations and customer lifetime value that provide practical guidance on execution once you have made the decision. With these two sources in hand, and the summer months ahead, it seems like the perfect time to take on differentiating your business.

How have you approached specialization and packaged services? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on June 22, 2016 at 10:51 AM0 comments