How a Dynamics Partner Grooms Its Next-Gen Consultants

It's clear from the increasing number of LinkedIn job posts that partners are hiring again. During a panel discussion at Microsoft's recent Convergence conference, five Dynamics partner leaders agreed that adding qualified consultants to their teams was their top business goal. The fundamental challenge is not the hiring, but the preparation to turn new recruits into field-ready consultants.

Five years ago, I.B.I.S. Inc., a multi-gold Dynamics partner based in Atlanta, saw the problem coming and responded with a training program that turns college grads into valuable contributors. Now, the company is reaping the benefits with a vibrant, growing consulting team.

Creator and executive sponsor of the training program, I.B.I.S. Chief Operating Officer Dwight Specht saw the folly in the "steal from the competitor" hiring strategy. "We were causing an inflationary wage cycle and were not, as an industry, preparing new people," Specht said.

Through its college recruiting program, I.B.I.S. now taps grads from three major universities in Georgia to go through training and join the team. Five years into the program, training veterans now comprise 40 percent of the I.B.I.S. consulting team. Some have earned senior consultant status with four or five years of ERP and CRM implementation experience under their belt. One recruit has even authored a book.

The Training Program
I.B.I.S.'s one-year training program starts with 90 days of classroom training focused on building core consulting skills and product certification. During the following nine months, recruits work on site under the close supervision of senior consultants.

"As they gains skills on site, they are handed progressively more complex tasks," Specht explained. "When they first leave the program, they might just be functioning as a scribe in a meeting. By the end of the program, they may be handling an entire business process, like bank reconciliation."

The responsibility for classroom training is spread over 12 to 14 people in the I.B.I.S. organization, including the consulting team, directors and executives. The team approach not only shares the time commitment burden, but also allows senior staff to get to know the new recruits.  

"Because there are so many people involved from the existing staff, we have no problems with acceptance once the kids come out of the program. They know everyone by that time," Specht said. "And the junior staff has learned about real-world experiences from a broad range of perspectives."

Lessons Learned
For those partners considering an internally managed training program, the I.B.I.S. model provides valuable lessons.  

Through experience, Specht has developed a recruiting profile of the students that are a likely fit -- starting with majors in accounting, engineering and management information systems. "We are pretty specific. We look for passion around technology and service," Specht said. "A 3 to 3.5 GPA and leadership outside of school in a Greek or not-for-profit organization. We would also like them to have family and personal ties to the geographic areas where we work."

While the I.B.I.S. program is a group effort, Specht recommends that one person at a senior level be responsible for designing and driving the program. There is a significant time requirement with recruiting and coordination, but to support the long-term goals of the company, personnel development has to be a priority.

"The commitment has to come from the senior level on down," Specht said. "The consulting team has to have a vested interest in the outcome. There is no financial incentive, but our team takes great pride in being able to teach and develop all this fresh new talent."

Expectations on retention have to be realistic. An average of five years on the job was the original goal for the I.B.I.S. training program. While they are just passing the five-year milestone, very few original recruits have moved on. Crediting a supportive environment as key to success, Specht said, "Our entire culture is based on helping your teammates, which is also one of the reasons that our overall turnover is so low."

As to the ROI of the program, Specht said, "Based on our original economic analysis we targeted a break-even of getting half of the class to be half billable the first year. We have actually never had a challenge getting the group to be profitable in the first year."

Investment in the Future
In all technology projects, customers expect experienced consultants to deliver their service. They don't respond well to new recruits dumped on their project and left to their own devices. Those partners who invest in training and nurturing talent are building a stronger future for themselves and our industry.

How are you finding and training technical talent? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.  

Posted by Barb Levisay on May 02, 2013 at 11:58 AM0 comments

ISV Builds Channel To Tap International Markets

Whether due to monetary and language barriers or the cost of travel for service support, U.S.-based ISVs have been hesitant to expand into international markets.

In an app-based world where remote support has become the norm instead of the exception, this may be a good time for ISVs to think beyond borders.

Leveraging the Channel
Rochester, Minn.-based Metafile has 25 years of experience as an ISV providing scanning, optical character recognition (OCR), document management and workflow for financial automation solutions. MetaViewer, the company's flagship document management solution, is integrated with all four of the Microsoft Dynamics ERP products.

Transitioning from a direct to channel sales model several years ago, Metafile depends on its 57 partners to represent MetaViewer for document management to both existing and new Dynamics ERP customers. Based on its experience with the Dynamics channel in the United States, Metafile is expanding into international markets.

"Since we have been successful in the U.S. with the distribution channel, we believe that reproducing the model internationally will help our success in new markets versus having to create a sales organization in each one of the countries," said Steve Gregory, Metafile's partner channel manager.

Connecting to New Markets
To build a U.K. Dynamics partner channel, Metafile has enlisted the help of Cognitive Channels, a channel development firm based in South Oxfordshire, U.K., to help with recruitment and channel management.  

"It's easier to have local people help us. They already have connections into the Dynamics channel," Gregory noted. "Cognitive Channels is creating the relationship, and they will continue to manage the relationship."

In Australia, Metafile worked with a country firm to help with recruitment but managed the partner relationship itself. After facing some challenges with partner engagement due to time zone differences and long-distance relationships, Gregory chose to get local assistance for his company's U.K. market expansion.

According to Jacqui Sasserath, director and co-owner of Cognitive Channels, working with an in-country channel management firm to help with foreign country expansion can reduce risk. "The initial ISV business driver will be scale," Sasserath said. "The reason they seek a 'consultant' is for local expertise and because it is more cost-effective to test a market opportunity than hire someone."

Continuous Relationship Building
Based on Metafile's experience, Gregory advises ISVs to focus on channel management, not just recruitment in new markets. "If you do outsource, it doesn't mean you don't have to manage it. Once a partner is recruited you still need to know that the right steps in channel management are being accomplished," he said. "Make sure the people who are recommending your solution to the customer are fully educated so they position you correctly." 

As the barriers to doing business across the globe come down, ISVs should be thinking about how to build their distribution networks. In future blog posts, we'll look at how other ISVs are extending their reach across borders.

How are you building presence in new markets? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share the knowledge.

Posted by Barb Levisay on April 18, 2013 at 11:58 AM0 comments

Learning Partners Energize P2P, Part 2: The Power of MECs

Microsoft Experience Centers (MECs), the immersive, hands-on sessions that allow customers to experience upgraded software and its impact on their daily tasks, are opening up to a wider group of partners.

Certified learning partners are setting up MECs to promote collaboration with system integrators (SIs), value-added resellers (VARs) and large account resellers (LARs) taking the popular program to a broader audience.

"MECs allow partners to work together to increase customer engagement and give customers an end-to-end experience," noted Jenni Flinders, Microsoft's U.S. vice president of Partner Strategy and Programs.

An Obvious Solution to Limited MECs
The MEC concept began with partner-led events hosted in outfitted classrooms located in Microsoft technology centers. There were also a number of mobile MECs that could be shipped to partners. Success put pressure on the limited number of MECs, making it challenging for many partners to schedule sessions. Learning partners offered an obvious solution.

Since learning partners already have classrooms set up that could support the MEC environment, Microsoft's Partner Enablement and Learning Channel team encourages them to get certified and work with other partners on delivery.

"MECs are perfect for the learning partners," said Scott Akin, director of Partner Enablement and Learning Channel. "The learning partners can host the MECs and engage other partners such as LARs and SIs to provide an additional demand-gen engine."

Tiffany Wallace, director of partner alliances for New Horizons Computer Learning Centers, has embraced the concept fully. "We invested in the MEC certification and have one classroom in each of our facilities," Wallace said. "And, since MECs require a very consultative delivery, we engage with a system integrator, LAR or VAR to deliver the experience."

While New Horizons, like most learning partners, has historically had stronger relationships with LARs, the company sees the MECs as an opportunity to work more closely with SIs and VARs. Wallace sees an especially rich opportunity to partner with regional VARs, building on shared customers in the small and medium business market.

Typically, a MEC includes 10 computers plus the server, providing a very personalized customer experience. "LARs usually get 10 people from one company while the VAR will bring four from a couple of companies," Wallace said. "The MEC is just as impactful for each type of business."

Encourage Hesitant Upgraders
Especially appropriate for a customer who is hesitant to upgrade their organization to the next version, MECs can drive revenue for all partners involved. "In a typical scenario, we'd bring in the director of marketing, director of IT, CFO -- all the roles that really influence the purchase," Wallace explained. "Each workstation is configured based on their role for a hands-on experience."

During this year of refresh opportunities, MECs are an effective tool to educate customers on the value of upgrading. MECs allow them to see the possibilities from their personal perspective, which is a powerful motivator. If you are an SI or VAR, you have a new opportunity to work with a learning partner and give your customers a hands-on experience.

How are you making P2P relationships work? Add a comment below, or send me a note and let's share your story. 

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Posted by Barb Levisay on April 04, 2013 at 11:58 AM0 comments

Learning Partners Energize P2P, Part 1

Learning partners are experiencing a renaissance in the channel as a result of a Microsoft engagement model aimed to foster partner-to-partner (P2P) relationships. Providing a conduit to connect partners with a shared interest in customer education, the engagement model is fueling collaboration. large account resellers (LARs), system integrators (SIs) and learning partners are combining their strengths to help customers realize the full value of the software that they own.

New Value in Partnering
While learning partners have long understood the value of partnering, some SIs and value-added resellers (VARs) viewed them as competition for service revenue in the form of training. That concern is waning as the industry becomes more specialized. Most partners recognize that it's better to focus on their strengths than to try to be everything to every customer.

Learning partners have a different type of relationship with customers than other partners, as well. As teachers rather than consultants, their connections reach deeper into customer organizations. With the democratization of IT (like cloud solutions that don't require IT approval), direct connections with business managers have become more valuable. 

"Learning partners have deep relationships with our customers," observed Jenni Flinders, Microsoft U.S. vice president of partner strategy and programs. "They serve as advocates to help customers get the full benefits from their licensing. In turn, they are trusted partners and carry a lot of influence with customers. They help drive adoption and additional business."

The Three-Legged Stool
Over the past two years, Tiffany Wallace, director of partner alliances for New Horizons Computer Learning Centers, has seen a fundamental shift in the way learning partners work with Microsoft field teams. In the past, without partner account managers (PAMs) like reselling partners, learning partners missed out on the benefits of internal and channel advocacy. "We weren't really on the radar before," noted Wallace, speaking of the Microsoft field sales teams.

That changed in 2011, when Microsoft established the role of regional enablement director (RED) to promote higher visibility of learning partners and their capacity to contribute to the channel ecosystem. REDs help partners connect with one another based on the concept that LARs, service partners and learning partners form a "three-legged stool" to support customers.

The ideal triumvirate approach includes:

  • LARs selling the software to the customers
  • SIs and VARs deploying and customizing the software
  • Learning partners helping customers use and support the solutions

Fostering the P2P connection between the three partner groups is the fundamental purpose of the REDs. "The learning partners are getting more and more engaged with all of the partner types to drive a holistic approach to our customers," said Scott Akin, Microsoft's director of partner enablement and learning channel. "Training leads to adoption and deployment and ultimately customer satisfaction. The connection to the other partners is critical. My team is opening the doors to help the learning partners to engage."

Apparently, the new engagement is making the intended impact. "It's moved the dial for us," said Wallace, who covers 22 metro areas. "I can reach out to my RED and find out which partners I should connect with in Kansas City. He works with the field sales team and talks the internal language."

Through collaboration with local partners, New Horizons extends its reach to educate more customers. In turn, it can help service partners educate customers on new technologies in a number of ways, including Microsoft Experience Center (MEC) events.

Next Time: Expansion of MECs
Learning partners are now able to use their facilities and equipment to host MEC events to give customers a hands-on experience with the newest wave of business solutions. More on those collaborative ventures next time.

How are you partnering to help customers adopt new technologies? Add a comment below, or send me a note and let's share your story. 

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Posted by Barb Levisay on March 14, 2013 at 11:58 AM0 comments

Partner Makes the Right Moves with Kinect for Windows

Every partner is feeling that nudge, perhaps even a shove -- the push to diversify business models and add revenue streams to adjust to the new realities of IT service delivery. There are valuable lessons to be learned from those partners that are already making the right moves.

InfoStrat, a triple gold competency development Microsoft partner headquartered in Washington, D.C., has a long and successful history of providing custom development services to government and commercial customers. Following the course of many development shops, InfoStrat expanded the practice, building on the SharePoint and CRM platforms and solution accelerators like Grant Manager.

Kinect for Windows became a logical progression for InfoStrat's next-generation business model after working on projects that incorporated the natural user interface technologies of the original tabletop Surface.

Crossing the line between pure project-based work to speculative application development work, InfoStrat's Advanced Technology Group focuses on new technology to improve enterprise collaboration, immersive video conferencing and data visualization. "We take emerging technologies like Kinect and apply those to real world situations," explained Josh Wall, director of the Advanced Technology Group. "We are not doing R&D work that is 10 years out. While we are doing cutting-edge work, we are thinking about how this is really going to work in the enterprise."

Practical Application of Emerging Technology
Active involvement in the Kinect development community helped InfoStrat build its status as an expert and open doors with Microsoft. Joshua Blake, InfoStrat senior consultant, earned Kinect MVP status through his commitment to sharing knowledge, including founding the OpenKinect developer resource community. But while much of the community was focused on building one-offs or hacks, the InfoStrat team stayed focused on how Kinect would fit into the enterprise.

"When a CIO says, 'Talk to us about Kinect in the enterprise,' we need to show them something that applies," Wall said. "It's about how Kinect will fit into your bigger ecosystem. There is more than just the desktop or laptop experience. You have a bigger range of devices open to you now."

In 2011, the InfoStrat team was invited to demo a voice- and touch-activated data visualization application at the Microsoft CIO Summit. Projects and additional demo invitations have followed, further establishing InfoStrat's leadership in natural interface system design.

Building on Momentum
In addition to the project work emerging from its efforts, InfoStrat has released a number of products based on Kinect technologies. Remotion 360 is an application using Kinect to measure and provide on-screen feedback for a range of motion exercises to support remote physical rehabilitation analysis. The PointStreamer 3-D video application uses Kinect technology to capture, edit and share 3-D videos that allow the viewer to change perspective for any moment in time.

The InfoStrat Advanced Technology Team continues to look for the opportunities to use Kinect to solve enterprise challenges. The team's sights are currently set on the less-than-ideal interactive experience of today's remote meetings. "We are working to build an immersive collaboration experience that creates a feeling that you are face-to-face," Wall explained. "Our vision is that we create an experience that is better than being there in person."

Thinking Past the Current Project
InfoStrat is defining a strong foundation for the future by taking its expertise and applying it beyond a current project. It has done the hard work to build a reputation as experts and -- perhaps most importantly -- always keeps its focus on real-world uses for the solutions that the company envisions. 

One interesting element of the InfoStrat story is that this is not a vertical strategy. The common directive that all partners must go vertical to find their place in the future is far too simplified. Good execution based on realistic application to a market need is a formula for success.   

Are there projects that you are working on today that could mean more to your business? It's easy to get wrapped up in the work and avoid that proactive push to a new business model. Think past the current project and make the work mean even more.

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

Posted by Barb Levisay on February 21, 2013 at 11:58 AM0 comments

Accelerated Customer ROI Builds Service Opportunities

Customers are in a hurry. They want results immediately. In terms of IT projects, businesses want to prove an ROI before they sink big dollars into new technology or systems. 

The concept of iterative and incremental change introduced through agile project management is becoming the standard. Business managers understand that they can roll out a limited system implementation to test whether benefits will match the promises. The cloud is making pilot projects easier and less costly.

Whether you call it a pilot, a quick-start or rapid implementation, trial projects present a differentiating service delivery opportunity for those partners ready to adjust quickly. The value to the client comes from proving the benefits of a solution while limiting risk. The value to the partner is an easier sale and an opportunity to build a profitable, long-term relationship.

Foot in the Door with Fast ROI
In terms of approaching enterprise clients with new options in technology, the pilot project offers security and a reduced risk for the project sponsor.

"In a big enterprise, they have hundreds of different systems. While you could make the argument that they are the ones who would get the most out of productivity solutions like Lync and IM, they are also the ones that have the hardest time internally getting everyone on the same page," noted Matt McGillen, director of unified communications for Perficient. "We see those types of customers preferring to take a baby steps approach, doing incremental projects before they commit the whole organization."

For those partners trying to expand into the coveted enterprise space, a "packaged service" pilot program, with a predefined scope and deliverables demonstrates your willingness to prove value. By offering the client reduced risk, you can differentiate yourself from the large system integrators who are focused on the big engagements.  

Dynamics ERP RapidStart Programs
Microsoft has recognized the value in providing partners more tools to streamline ERP implementations. The Microsoft RapidStart services for Dynamics AX and NAV provide wizards and questionnaires to accelerate the ERP set up procedures.

Elliot Fishman, CEO of Vancouver-based Catapult ERP, noted, "In the mid-market, clients are looking for a streamlined and prescriptive implementation. They are typically responding to problems or obstacles in running their business. They are under the gun and their time and resource availability is limited."

RapidStart was a welcome addition to the latest release of NAV for the Catapult consulting team, who reported their experience on the company blog. Fishman believes it was a good move on Microsoft's part since the company's ultimate success is tied to helping the partners deliver services in a competitive way.

"There is a lot of pressure to be efficient with our customer's time," Fishman added. "RapidStart allows partners to focus on the high-value services."

Fast-Start Programs Open More Doors
In the past, IT projects had to be sold all the way to the top of the organization. A sales effort of that magnitude required resources only big system integrators could afford. With quick-start programs, smaller partners can get approval at lower levels to prove the solution and demonstrate service value.

Consider how can you add some form of quick-start program to your service packages. Pursue opportunities that allow you to get your foot in the door with a fast-return project and then build your relationship with great service delivery. Packaged pilot programs, with clear service definition, will open new doors and give you a competitive advantage.

Are you building business with quick start implementations? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on January 31, 2013 at 11:58 AM0 comments

Partner Supports Outreach Across the Globe

Working in difficult environments, where projects can take consultants far off the beaten path, is nothing new to Microsoft partners. But one partner has taken the concept of "onsite" to the extreme, helping a global humanitarian organization modernize its supply chain from the tent cities of Haiti to the remote mountains of Mongolia.  

Non-Traditional Solution with Global Reach
World Vision International, a global humanitarian organization serving over 10 million people in 100 countries, engaged Ignify, a gold competency Dynamics AX partner, to help bring order to its troubled supply chain.

"While they are a non-profit charitable organization, they are just like a big supply chain business," noted Sandeep Walia, Ignify's CEO. "World Vision receives a lot of products from donors to distribute across the world. They needed a solution to track these gifts in kind and maintain the integrity and responsiveness of the system."

The supply chain system needed to be designed to prevent theft and misdirection of goods while providing fast response in time of need. Equally important, the solution needed to be fully functional in places with severe limitations, including undependable power and communication service. Ignify's supply chain expertise combined with Dynamics AX has given the World Vision field team a state-of-the-art supply chain that delivers on its mission across the globe.

Risk and Reward for Consultants
While Ignify has used all of today's communications tools to manage the project remotely -- both to save money for the client and to minimize risk for consultants -- onsite time in remote locations has been part of the implementation. Consultants have all volunteered for assignments in undeveloped locations.

"It is difficult work because the conditions are hard in those countries. Our consultants have gone to places where even just finding food and reasonable hygiene can be a challenge," Walia said. "The biggest reason that our employees take on these projects is that they understand that the work they do benefits humanity."

Balancing Charity with Profit
At one time or another, all partners are asked to donate or reduce rates for worthy causes. Saying yes too often can have a significant impact on profits. To focus their charitable efforts, Ignify proactively set guidelines to support organizations whose missions help the world on a long-term basis, including disaster relief and child education.

"We do the work at or below cost so that World Vision can benefit from the technology that Microsoft Dynamics AX can bring to them," Walia said. "Fortunately, we have balance in a great set of profitable customers."

Making the World a Better Place
Every day partners quietly and heroically serve the charitable organizations that help the less fortunate and those in crisis. During the Hurricane Sandy disaster, partners spent countless hours helping their customers recover and rebuild. Partners may not be recognized for all the contributions that they make, but their impact makes the world a better place.

Are you doing work that makes the world a better place? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on January 17, 2013 at 11:58 AM0 comments

Microsoft Lync Moves to the 'Must-Have' List

Instant messaging and presence may have been a "nice-to-have" requirement for businesses in the past, but the fully connected world is moving them to the "must-have" list on project proposals. Fortunately for Microsoft partners, Lync has matured as a unified communication (UC) platform to scale across business size and industry.

The Maturing Market for UC
As director of unified communications for Perficient, Matt McGillen has seen a fundamental shift in the types of UC project engagements.

"Several years ago, customers just wanted to put in unified communication for IM and presence. It generally wasn't business-critical," McGillen said. "But over the last couple of years, as the product has matured, we have also seen customers' thinking evolve about what communications can do for them. Businesses have to support a distributed workforce so they need better communications strategies."

With Lync, communications projects can replace or augment current business communications through a single source for voice, IM, audio, video and Web-conferencing.

"Our clients are using Lync to facilitate day to day interactions," McGillen noted. "They are connecting everyone together with presence, taking advantage of drag-and-drop conferencing and screen-sharing for ad hoc collaboration -- everything that the departments within enterprises need to work together."

Emerging Midmarket Service Opportunity
As an NSI partner with 14 competencies, Perficient historically works with customers in the enterprise space, but sees a growing opportunity in the midmarket.

"A Lync project for a small to medium-sized business customer is really good consulting business. The value of Lync's components is exponential and the midmarket clients are better able to make it all happen at once," McGillen said. "We get in the door with Lync and really demonstrate our value. We have access to the top decision makers to earn their trust for further work."

While Perficient works with clients from all industries, McGillen finds that professional service businesses like accounting, advertising and engineering firms quickly see the value of Lync consulting.

"We found that professional services companies with a mobile workforce and people working from home -- where communication in real time is important -- those are the folks that immediately grasp what Lync can do for their business," he said.

Consumerization Driving UC
McGillen believes that the proliferation of communications in the home is driving change in the enterprise.

"Five years ago, we got funny looks from clients when we talked about OCS [Office Communications Server]. Now, when we go in to speak with a customer, they talk about how much easier it is to communicate at home than it is in the enterprise," he said. "The days when the IT department says it would be too hard to implement and train employees on unified communications are gone. The mindset has changed."

"As the workforce gets distributed and people bring their own device, we see communications fracturing," McGillen added. "Lync is the way to bring the people in a distributed and disparate workforce together."

Strategic Business Opportunity
As McGillen's team at Perficient has found, workforce transformations are taking communication system implementations to the strategic level. For those partners looking for differentiation in a crowded field, Lync may provide the opportunity to build a stronger advisory relationship with customers.

What services are you delivering to support Lync? Add a comment below or e-mail me and let's share the knowledge.

Posted by Barb Levisay on January 04, 2013 at 11:58 AM1 comments