Azure ML Leading Microsoft Partners, Customers into the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drive Innovation for 'Internet of Things' Through Field Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azure Modeler for Dynamics ERP Helps Partners Explain Cloud Options

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Microsoft Partner Builds on Decade of Mobility Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Exchange Migrations, Governance Is an Emerging Partner Opportunity

Microsoft Exchange migrations are a hot topic right now. Microsoft's new Office 365 FastTrack Onboarding service has raised concerns of a diminished role for partners in the transition to the cloud (see "Microsoft Takes Some Office 365 Deployments In-House"). But there are ISVs and partners feeling bullish about the services clients need that follow and augment the migration process.

Gartner has even chimed in to recognize a growing need for solutions that address the age-old problems of e-mail, including information governance and e-discovery.

Migrations as a Beginning
As evidenced by the Office 365 FastTrack Onboarding service, Microsoft is just as focused on user adoption as it is on sales. Reducing the barriers to migrating data to the cloud means that more companies give users access to both current and historic e-mails in one place.

Dan Langille, vice president of business development for Bishop Technologies, agrees with the strategy. "The value to the partner is in getting the customer into the cloud faster. You add value through Yammer, CRM Online, SharePoint Online, and wrap services around those with Windows Intune and StorSimple for backup and recovery."

For Bishop, an additional opportunity comes through replacing its clients' in-house archiving solutions. "In the early days, Exchange wasn't built to house large quantities of e-mail data, which is why the archive tools were born," Langille said. "The model was to move Exchange data to an archive. Users could have as much data as they wanted, they just had to go to the archive to get it. With [Microsoft] Azure and Office 365, it has come full circle. It's no longer move to manage. It's manage in place."

"When we are migrating an archive, it's not uncommon for us to be putting tens or hundreds of terabytes of compressed data into the cloud. That's about 60 terabytes uncompressed," he also noted. "That's a lot of unstructured data to manage when you are used to controlling it through a third-party archive."

Opportunity in Information Governance
To respond to the need for information governance in the cloud, Bishop has partnered with Acaveo. Recognized by Gartner in its recent report, "Cool Vendors in Information Governance and MDM, 2014," Acaveo's flagship Smart Information Server (SIS) product enables IT teams to analyze and control large unstructured data volumes.

The Gartner report predicted that information governance is poised to become a top IT issue. "Massive data growth, new data types, litigation, regulatory scrutiny and privacy/information risks have all created an urgent need for information governance," the firm said.

Acaveo's timing was fortuitous. "We launched [SIS] about a year ago and within a few weeks of announcing the product to the world, Gartner identified a new technology category that is aimed at giving companies actionable understanding of their internal, employee generated data," said Geoff Bourgeois, CTO of Acaveo. "Since then, Gartner forecasts that this new technology category is in the early stages and will progress through the technology maturity curve."

Two-Fold Partner Opportunity
Langille believes that Acaveo provides two paths of opportunity in working with clients on cloud readiness. The first is in replacing third-party archives. Clients are anxious to get rid of on-premises archives because of the ongoing licensing expense, as well as the time required to manage them. Bishop has over 200 existing clients who still depend on third-party archives. SIS provides those clients with a solution to effectively manage in place, so they don't have to deal with another silo of data.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, SIS offers enhanced e-discovery functionality. "The e-discover program allows us to do an assessment on the client's unstructured data," Langille said. "It deploys in a matter of minutes, which is an important success factor in the cloud world. We find that the IT folks are often shocked by what data is out there, like SharePoint sites that they didn't know existed. It's a real eye-opener and the often say, 'I'm really glad we brought you in.'"

SIS also allows partners to offer a solution to the issue of data proliferation. "We can also implement a defensible deletion strategy to get rid of data that is duplicate or trivial. Statistics show that upwards of 60 percent of data is outdated, redundant or trivial. That's data you don't have to retain on-premise or move to the cloud, which saves them money," Langille explained. "Secondly, if they do end up in a legal case, SIS sits upstream of the discovery process and reduces the data going through the discovery service. That can provide huge savings, since every gigabyte of data going through the discovery process can cost 18,000 to 30,000 per gig."

SIS provides visualization and collection of the identities, data and permissions across Box, Office 365, SharePoint, OneDrive for Business, Exchange Server and file shares. For Bishop, SIS helps the company provide clients with actionable insights into the unstructured data that resides in the cloud and on-premises. The reality of information governance may finally have arrived.

For some partners, Exchange migrations are seen as the end of a process. For others the migration is just the start. "Information governance" is certainly not a new term, but we may be hearing it a lot more, as a growing number of organizations need to take a unified approach to unstructured data spanning across cloud, on-premises and everything in between.

How are you helping clients address information governance? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on September 10, 2014 at 9:57 AM0 comments

Microsoft's Cloud Focus Giving On-Premises Customers Pause

Microsoft's "cloud first" mantra is prompting some business decision makers to step back and pause before making licensing commitments.

Faced with Microsoft's promise that cloud applications will get priority in functional improvements, is there growing motivation for customers committed to on-premises deployments to take a wait-and-see approach to software licensing?

In response to my recent post, "Microsoft Takes New Tack in Pushing Partners to Cloud," Paul DeGroot, a licensing expert and senior consultant at Software Licensing Advisors, commented that he was not seeing wide cloud adoption from his clients.

"The push to the cloud is actually causing most of my enterprise customers to back away from Software Assurance (SA, which is 90% to 99% of what customers pay when they renew a volume agreement)," wrote DeGroot in response to the post. "The reason -- they don't need or want the cloud now, but they're concerned that further investments in on-premises software will not be worthwhile, since MS is 'cloud first' and will not focus on upgrading on-premises products."

An intriguing observation, so I followed up with DeGroot to dig deeper into the subject.

"We do a lot of work in the space of 1,000-2,000 PCs, as well as larger enterprise clients," DeGroot said. "These folks are just not interested in the cloud. I hear all the buzz, but I have only had one customer move seriously to the cloud -- and it made a lot of sense for them."

Most of the clients that DeGroot works with hold Enterprise Agreements (EA), the go-to licensing vehicle for organizations with 250 desktops or more. With payment amortized over three years, the decision to renew comes under review in the third year. EA customers are encouraged (to put it mildly) to renew by strongly incented Microsoft field sales personnel.  

According to DeGroot, Microsoft's cloud-first focus creates uncertainty in the minds of customers with on-premises deployments. Microsoft has clearly stated that it is focused on building software functionality in the cloud. If on-premises applications are not going to receive attention, where is the incentive to upgrade?

In addition, the highly competitive cloud services landscape -- and the associated price wars -- certainly doesn't motivate companies to make long-term commitments.

With so much in flux, is a three-year commitment still a reasonable expectation?  

Since even the most optimistic estimates from Microsoft suggest that 25 percent of enterprise customers are actually using Office 365, there is still a large segment of the business community with their operations still firmly planted on-premises. There are many valid and continuing reasons that customers are not ready to make the move to the cloud, from industry regulations to control over upgrades.

"For a lot of our customers, they have decided not to renew their SA. They will wait for two or three years and see what happens," DeGroot said. "Many have just moved to Office 2010 and will be on it until 2018. They will do just fine with it and then take a look at the environment. They can afford to wait as they amortize their current investment."

The transition to the cloud is clearly a driving force in our industry, but it's still not for everyone. To remain relevant, Microsoft's software development and licensing strategy has to meet customer's current needs, not just the expected future state. Over the coming year, business customers will surely let Microsoft know how they are doing as the decisions to renew license agreements are made.

Are your customers pausing on their license purchases or SA renewals? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on August 21, 2014 at 9:18 AM0 comments

The 3 'R's of Building Service Opportunities in Existing Accounts

Every business owner knows that it's easier to sell additional services to a current customer than to acquire a new one. But when your consultants visited client sites every month, it was easier to follow the business' growth and proactively identify needs. Now that cloud solutions and remotely delivered services minimize face-to-face contact, partners need to take a more formal approach to account management.

With nearly a decade of experience managing customer accounts, Nadia Isata, customer sales manager at BroadPoint Technologies, believes that following the three "R"s -- clearly defining roles, doing your research and building C-level relationships -- provides the foundation for a successful existing customer sales program.

Clearly Defined Roles
The job titles, as well as where the position fits in the org chart, for existing client account managers vary across the channel. Whether it's an account manager reporting to sales or a client service specialist reporting to consulting, the critical piece is in defining the job's responsibilities both internally and externally.

"It is imperative that the entire team understands the responsibilities of the account manager," Isata explained. "Account management is much more than just collecting license renewals. The goal is to build a position that will serve as a trusted advisor role for the client. Differentiating the role from the consulting staff is critical."

By introducing and defining the account management role early in the sales cycle, customers will understand how they will work with you once the initial project is complete. The account manager can be positioned as the client's primary point of contact to simplify their experience with your team. Setting expectations of a long-term relationship that involves more than just the collection of license fees sets the stage for more services.

Do the Research
As with any sales role, it takes initiative to be a great account manager. "Often times, we are pigeonholed as renewal collectors," Isata tells account managers. "It's up to you to research the client base. Take the time to research their industries and their specific business. It's critical that you understand their challenges and how you can assist them."

Doing research includes staying up-to-date on the solutions that your company offers. As opposed to sales reps who may specialize in a solution, account managers need to have a working knowledge of all the solutions and their business use cases. Investment in the education of account managers will pay off in uncovering larger service opportunities.

Research also allows you to prioritize accounts to determine how much time and energy you should spend. Rank and categorize accounts in line with the revenue potential. In Isata's case, "Each one of my assigned clients gets at least an annual review visit. For larger clients, we may meet quarterly to check in on the roadmap that we developed in the annual meeting."

Build C-Level Relationships
Another piece of advice that Isata offers account managers is to "get out of your comfort zone." To earn a position of trusted advisor for clients, account managers need to move up in the organization. While the entry point for most account managers may be users or the accounting team, executives are the ones who are making the strategic decisions.

"Make your way to the top of the food chain," Isata said. "Schedule time to review the account to make sure that you include the executive. You can bring a consultant from your team to dig into details, but you need to get in front of the C-levels. As long as you understand the value you want to deliver, you can be confident building those relationships.

So Much More than Renewals
As partners look to expand service revenue opportunities, existing customers should be at the top of the list. An effective account manager who is focused on cultivating deeper relationships with clients will uncover more service opportunities and build your value to the client. To ensure that your account manager succeeds, clearly define responsibilities and fill the role with someone who has the initiative to do research and build C-level relationships. 

How are you selling more services to your existing clients? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on August 06, 2014 at 1:57 PM0 comments

Microsoft Takes New Tack in Pushing Partners to Cloud

An underlying theme of every message to partners at the Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) this year was, "If you haven't started the transition to the cloud, you are going to be left behind."

The directed message, delivered during the keynotes and sessions, suggests that there is a good chunk of the partner community that is still not on board. Microsoft clearly wants to change that, but instead of the Ballmer-esque get-off-your-butt-and-do-it approach, we saw a kinder, gentler strategy.

Cloud Partners Tell the Story
Microsoft took a positive approach to the cloud conversation by, in large part, letting partners tell the story themselves. The avalanche of partner testimonials may partly be a reflection of the maturity of the cloud market. Early adopters have been in the cloud services business long enough to actually have best-practice advice to share. In every keynote and session, partners were brought on stage to validate the message.

Also released at WPC was a follow up to last year's IDC cloud partner research. "Successful Cloud Partners 2.0: Planning For Your Cloud Business" is a much more comprehensive and action-oriented e-book than the 2013 version, "Successful Cloud Partners: Higher, Faster, Stronger." Commissioned by Microsoft, the IDC e-book presents a very compelling case based on partner experiences, adding practical advice that will help partners build on lessons learned.

The e-book provides insights from those partners who have successfully navigated the cloud and recommends specific actions for all aspects of the business, including marketing, sales, managed services and intellectual property. Based on a survey of 700 partners, as well as 20 in-depth interviews with successful cloud partners, this e-book is far more than the standard self-serving vendor propaganda. Every partner, whether they have moved to the cloud or not, will find practical advice and guidance to build or fine-tune their cloud practice.

New Programs To Support Cloud Transitions
If the data points and the advice from successful partners aren't enough, programs that will help "underwrite" transitional costs were announced in the WPC keynotes. Gavriella Schuster, making her first appearance as the general manager of Worldwide Partner Marketing and Programs for Microsoft, dedicated her entire keynote to convincing those partners not yet on board.

"We heard from you that making that first year's investment is difficult. It takes a lot of investment. You have to invest in skilling up your people. You have to rethink some of your sales compensation, change up your business model and create new service offerings," Schuster said.

She promised three new performance-based cloud competencies, adjustments to competency fees, increased internal use rights and free Signature Cloud Support, which provides unlimited cloud support to partners who achieve a Silver cloud competency level. All in an effort to get hesitant partners to take the first step.

John Case, corporate vice president of the Office division, also announced the Microsoft Cloud Solution Provider Program, which will allow partners to directly provision and provide one monthly bill with partner and Microsoft services together. Office 365 and Intune will be the first services to be supported, with Azure and CRM Online rolling out later this year. This program takes a big step in simplifying the billing processes that have been confusing customers and vexing cloud partners the past couple of years.

The cloud message was loud and clear at WPC, but the approach was very different this year. If Microsoft is going to complete its own transition to the cloud, it needs the help of partners. The company has tried the strong-arm approach in the past, but the focus now is on appealing to the logic and wallets of partner business owners. It will be interesting to watch the results over the coming year.

How are you making the transition to the cloud? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on July 23, 2014 at 8:45 AM0 comments

Partner Nets Quality Recruits Through Community Involvement

The technical skills gap presents challenges to all growing partners, and even more so for those partners whose services require strict adherence to regulatory requirements.

One Microsoft managed services provider (MSP) whose customers include strictly regulated customers like financial institutions and medical organizations is meeting the challenge through active engagement in the community and classes at the local university.

The Challenge of Finding Great Candidates
The high performance 24/7 Network Operations Center (NOC) services provided by ClearPointe, a gold systems management and server platform partner based in Little Rock, Ark., require responsive, experienced employees to deliver on their service level agreements (SLAs). As one of only six accredited Master MSP NOCs in the world, ClearPointe makes recruiting top-level talent a high priority.

"The secret to success is finding the right candidates who understand both technical concepts and proactive management," said Bob Longo, executive VP of sales and business development at ClearPointe. "We also need those candidates to meet our security requirements, which includes thorough background checks."

A Community Approach
To increase the pool of local talent, ClearPointe has taken a community approach to build connections with business and education leaders. "Certainly, we want to promote our business, but we also want to promote the local economy," Longo said. "Arkansas unfortunately loses a lot of great candidates to out-of-state organizations. The more that we can offer opportunity here, the better for our community."

Through personal relationships built during active participation in regional groups like the Chamber of Commerce, the ClearPointe executives made clear their interest in giving back to the community. Through programs like the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce leadership program, executives connected with education leaders on a personal level. Offering to work with students opened the door to discussions about teaching a class at the local university.

"Over the course of five years we have taught three courses, fine-tuning the curriculum over time," Longo said. "We are helping the university by giving students real-world insight, which will open doors for them. They learn about cloud services, SLAs and proactive management."

The most recent class, "Cloud and Distributed Network Management," introduces Microsoft Azure and System Center to students. All the classes have been taught by John Joyner, ClearPointe's senior architect and a Microsoft MVP.

"It is a significant investment, dedicating the time of a senior professional, but we are also building goodwill," Longo said. "Giving back to the local economy is part of our corporate responsibility. We want to help keep talent in our state and raise the standard of living for everyone."

The Bottom Line
To date, four students have been hired by ClearPointe as a direct result of the university courses. Those new NOC employees, including one minority and one woman, go through a comprehensive training and apprenticeship program.

In addition to new employees, working inside the university environment has given ClearPointe first-hand experience with the education market -- a vertical it serves. Credibility earned through its relationship with the university is a differentiator in the market.   

To bridge the technology skills talent gap, partners need to take a creative approach to find qualified candidates. Taking a win-win approach that brings tremendous value to the local community, ClearPointe has established a pipeline to identify and recruit top talent.

How are you bridging the talent gap? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on July 09, 2014 at 11:54 AM0 comments

WPC Tips from Microsoft's Sales Specialist of the Year

Getting the most from the four days of the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) is in large part learned through experience. So, how do the most-experienced Microsoft channel players plan their time?

The 2014 Microsoft Sales Specialist of the Year, Geno Cenci, national practice director of ePlus Inc., agreed to share his strategy for WPC, including the topics he's interested in and how he'll spend his time.

This will be Cenci's 14th WPC, so he knows that pre-planning is critical to make the most of short time. "Each partner's business is unique, so it's important for your whole team to go with a clear definition of what topics, ISV solutions and partnerships are most important to your business," Cenci said.

Cenci shared the topics that he will be focusing on at WPC and why he thinks they are important:

  • Big Data: This is a huge issue for companies and great opportunity for partners. The demand and growth for data storage continues to grow. Partners should be listening for the big data trends that affect the types of services that they deliver to clients. The issues for the SharePoint shop are different than they are for the MSP. Focus on what your clients need.

  • The Internet of Everything: Where is all the data that companies are collecting being managed and how are they going to put it to use? Partners need to be looking at the big picture, the company's whole environment, and helping them to put it all together with a cohesive strategy.

  • Mobility: Mobility is always one of the top three things that our customers are thinking about. From sales teams to their own customers, companies are trying to figure out the best way to manage and secure mobile devices. Partners should be looking for the latest developments around data access and security to help their clients develop a mobility strategy.

  • Office 365/Microsoft Azure: This one is a no-brainer because so many companies are moving Exchange and Office to the cloud. Getting these basic workloads in the cloud frees IT teams to focus on more important things. Partners need to be on board with cloud.

  • Social Media: We are still in the infancy of social media, but it's growing. I think we are all still trying to wrap our heads around the where social will fit in -- not only for our customers, but in our own businesses. How do we take the next step with social media? That's what I will be listening for.

ISVs and partnering
"I have a list of 12 vendors that I will make a point to visit," Cenci noted. "I just want to check in with key vendors to see if there is any new technology or other developments that I need to be aware of."

In addition to attending sessions on his chosen topics, Cenci takes full advantage of networking opportunities and walks the expo floor to take the pulse of the channel.

"Some established partners tend to stay in their own box," Cenci said. "There is so much opportunity to establish alliances that build your brand and joint opportunities. No partner can do it all alone. WPC is a great time to find complementary partners that you can team up with to expand your solution set and win deals."  

From the Microsoft Leaders
The messages coming from the new leaders of the channel will certainly be a priority for most partners. Cenci recommends that partners listen to the leaders in terms of their own business.

"What action items are you taking away from WPC based on the vision that Satya [Nadella, Microsoft CEO,] provides?" he said.

Looking to Phil Sorgen, corporate vice president of Worldwide Partner Group, Cenci hopes that he will clearly explain how he is going to enable partners to grow revenue and their bottom line, and what tools and strategies Sorgen will be focused on in the coming year.

Take a lesson from the top sales professional in the Microsoft worldwide partner channel and go to WPC well-prepared. Identify the topics that are important to your customers and your business. Align your sessions, ISV connections and networking with those topics, but find time to walk the expo and look for new opportunities. Leave with specific action items to execute on your own vision.

How are you preparing for WPC? Add a comment below or send me a note and let 's share your story.

For more WPC-related news, blogs and analysis, visit our WPC 2014 page here.

Posted by Barb Levisay on June 18, 2014 at 11:52 AM0 comments

Set Your Game Plan for the Worldwide Partner Conference

No matter how many times you attend the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC), the week feels a bit like a carnival ride -- exhilarating, but over before you know it. With the month before WPC focused on closing business for Microsoft's year-end, it's often hard to find the time to plan ahead. You know you should and now is the time to lay out your plans to make the most from the whirlwind of WPC.

"You need to go to WPC with a strategy," says Christian Buckley, SharePoint MVP and chief evangelist for Metalogix. "With a firm grasp of what you want to accomplish, you'll know what sessions you want to attend, which vendors to see and which Microsoft meetings you want to set up. And, you should start as early as possible."

Face-Time with Microsoft
One of the top reasons that partners attend WPC is the opportunity to get mindshare from Microsoft product and sales team members. As an ex-Microsoft employee, Buckley offers advice to partners trying to get the attention of Microsoftees.

"The best way to connect with a Microsoft person is to understand how their job success is measured and align your asks with their metrics. When you can help them meet their metrics, they have a vested interest in helping you succeed," Buckley said. "Go into the meeting with specific asks for your business, but be clear on the benefits that you bring to Microsoft." 

Buckley recommends leveraging your partner account manager to help you figure out who you should see at WPC and get insight into what their metrics are likely to be. Monitor and participate in Microsoft Partner Network Yammer community conversations to learn all you can about what is driving Microsoft teams and what kind of partner participation they are looking for.   

"If you want to meet with product teams, sales or service folks within Microsoft, you need to start early to get on their calendars," Buckley added. "Their dance cards fill up fast."

Partner-to-Partner Connections
With your strategy set, you can search for partners and ISVs through Connect to request meetings. When you are requesting a meeting, clearly explain the purpose and potential benefits of the meeting. Time is limited at WPC and the value of a meeting may not be as obvious to others as it is to you.

As always, the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP) will have a strong presence at WPC to help you connect with other partners. Let your chapter know that you are attending so you can take advantage of all the networking opportunities. MPN Yammer communities offer additional ways to learn about and connect with partners and ISVs in your interest areas before July. If you want to build your visibility in a community, ask questions and contribute to conversations.  

Don't Overschedule
While you want to have a clear plan for the week, don't tie yourself down too much. Walking the Expo floor is a valuable part of the WPC experience and can lead to valuable but unexpected opportunities.

Buckley offers a few final bits of advice:

  • Don't miss the keynotes to hear the big announcements from Microsoft. The news may affect what you planned to get from WPC.

  • Be persistent. Schedules are fluid and even if you can't get the meeting that you want now, something may open up. Keep going back to Connect.

  • There will be ISVs at WPC that don't have a booth in the Expo. Keep an open mind; they may have a solution that is a good fit.

WPC will be here and gone before you know it. With a plan, you can make the Microsoft and partner connections that will add real value to your business. Make sure the money and time you spend on WPC provide returns that last the whole year.

What's your best advice for WPC? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on June 04, 2014 at 8:16 AM0 comments