A Change for the Better
With few exceptions, members give thumbs up to the retooled Microsoft Partner Program, welcoming a new era of specialization and cooperation.
- By Kevin Ferguson
- July 01, 2005
For years, Microsoft resellers, system integrators and ISVs made
a sport of biting the hand that fed them. Microsoft, depending on
their mood, was too powerful, too lumbering or too greedy. Moreover,
its software was too buggy and didn't address their specific needs.
Now, these same solution providers have gone from biting Microsoft's
hand to kissing it.
With few exceptions, solution providers give the Microsoft Partner
Program high marks since it was retooled to encourage specialization
and cooperation among members. Those marks may get even higher this
fall if Microsoft, as expected, streamlines the program registration
process and institutes a major marketing push. Those changes are
among the announcements expected at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner
Conference in Minneapolis this month, says Kevin Wueste, general
manager of the Microsoft Partner Program.
Microsoft's Partner Program has seen signficant change, especially
in the last 18 months. The original Microsoft Certified Solutions
Partner program, launched in 1993, had only one tier. In January
2001, when its name was changed to the Microsoft Certified Partner
Program, partners were divided into two tiers: Certified and Gold
Certified. In 2002, Microsoft increased the requirements and benefits
for both levels.
The program was overhauled in October 2003, with changes and updates
rolled out gradually throughout 2004 and into this year. The overhaul
featured two major changes: the addition of a free, Registered Member
level and a new competency program that encourages Certified and
Gold Certified Partners to specialize in any of 11 different Microsoft
Creation of the Registered Member level was huge. In just the past
18 months, the program's partner base ballooned from about 40,000
to 275,000, including an estimated 3,300 Gold Certified Partners,
31,500 Certified Partners and 240,000 Registered Members. "Microsoft
knew there were a lot of small companies that weren't willing to
pay fees and be part of the [Partner] Program," says Paul DeGroot,
an analyst with Kirkland, Wash.-based research firm Directions on
Microsoft. "They were largely invisible to Microsoft, although they
were helping Microsoft increase its sales."
Now, not only are Registered Members on Microsoft's radar screen,
they're listed on the Microsoft Resource Directory, an online partner
directory available to potential customers and business partners.
To boot, Registered Members have access to a slew of discount goods
and services. Most notably, they can opt to receive "Action Packs,"
which are collections of multi-user licenses for business applications
and utilities, such as Microsoft Office 2003 with Business Contact
Manager and Microsoft Business Solutions CRM Professional. The software,
which is distributed quarterly, would collectively retail for about
$20,000. Registered Members can buy the lot for $299, provided they
agree not to resell it.
"We liked Microsoft's approach [to the Partner Program] quite a bit, so w dove in head-first."
Barry Martin, Senior Systems Engineer and Partner,
The Mirazon Group
The program is not free of criticism from member companies, however,
beginning with a perceived lack of marketing. "Microsoft needs to
build a strong image for the partnership program and brand these
competencies," says George LaVenture, president of Trinity Consulting
in Marlborough, Mass. "I had a client that was surprised to find
Microsoft [partner] levels had to do with skill and not sales levels.
I'm hoping they'll move aggressively into branding this year."
Partners also say Microsoft is swamping them with information that
is often not targeted to them. "I must get a box or a packet or
e-mail from Microsoft every week," says Jeff Mills, vice president
of marketing and channel development of Bluespring Software, a Cincinnati-based
developer of business-process management solutions. "It's all over
the board." Still, Mills appreciates the intent. "It's good stuff.
Microsoft is making a new effort to connect partners with customers."
Some solution providers, particularly those with few employees,
feel the requirement that competency candidates submit customer
case studies for Microsoft approval is too onerous. This criticism
remains in some corners, despite Microsoft's agreement last year
to allow existing Certified and Gold Certified Partners to complete
their annual re-enrollment without having to meet the new customer
reference or Partner Points requirements.
Those customer success stories, which are verified by Microsoft,
also have some partners worried that confidential information may
be shared with a third party. "I've had partners voice fears that
client information wouldn't be kept confidential," says Trinity
Consulting's LaVenture. He was quick to add, however, that he knew
of no such breaches in confidentiality and described Microsoft's
program changes as "a real strong, solid, exciting decision that
is going to benefit all Microsoft partners and our joint customers."
Similarly, DeGroot says there is "simply no evidence that [disclosure
of client data] will happen."
Microsoft's Wueste dismisses concerns for mismanaged confidential
information. He cites, among other things, rigid confidentiality
rules at Microsoft and in the state of Washington that discourage
Indeed, he says none of the criticisms represent significant challenges
to the Competency program, before replying point by point. First,
he notes, Microsoft will roll out an end-user marketing campaign
that extolls the benefits of working with partners. He would not
disclose a launch date for the campaign, saying only that it will
be in Microsoft's 2006 fiscal year, which begins this July 2005.
Regarding the application process, Wueste acknowledges it may take
applicants a few hours to gather the necessary data and forms, but
notes they only have to do it once per year. "The paperwork may
seem like a lot, but really, they've only moved from none to some,"
And while he says Microsoft will work to more finely hone the distribution
of marketing collateral, he notes the company needs the cooperation
of partners; the more details partners share, the better Microsoft
can target the material it sends them, he says.
"Microsoft needs to build a strong image for the partnership program and brand these competencies."
George LaVenture, President,
Playing to Your Strengths
Despite the handful of gripes, overall marks for the Partner Program
are high. Solution providers say Microsoft's continued efforts to
map the marketplace have improved their businesses. Potential customers
and business partners—as well as Microsoft—better understand
partners' particular strengths, they say. Given there are more than
775,000 Microsoft Partners worldwide (including those that are not
members of the Partner Program), and that more than half of all
partner engagements involve more than one partner, the clarity is
"Before we had this focus on competencies, everyone was a competitor,"
says Jim Stout, CEO of Invoke Systems, a Baltimore-based technology
consultancy. "Since we've made this shift, we have almost no competitors
within our geography."
Invoke provides an example of the Partner Program working exactly
as Microsoft envisioned. Using directory tools provided through
the program, Stout found Light Industries, a Millersville, Md.-based
CRM software developer and reseller. The two businesses are now
selling joint solutions, with Invoke handling the technical side
of Microsoft CRM deployment while Light Industries develops the
business processes, Stout says.
In addition to encouraging such cooperation among partners, the
new program requirements also encourage partners, particularly Registered
and Certfied Partners, to broaden their skill sets. MR Consulting,
a one-man shop operated by Mauricio Ramos in Austin, Texas, for
example, became a Registered Member in September 2004 and is working
to become a Certified Partner.
"I am looking forward to being part of the [Microsoft Resource]
Directory and to having more knowledge about the Microsoft products,"
Ramos says. Before it can receive Certified Partner status, however,
MR Consulting, like other partners, must employ, or contract with,
at least two individuals who are Microsoft Certified Professionals.
The Mirazon Group, meanwhile, had been a Certified Partner for
four years before program changes prompted it to go for the Gold.
"We liked Microsoft's approach quite a bit," says Barry Martin,
a senior systems engineer and one of four partners at the Louisville,
Ky.-based company. "So, we dove in head first." The Mirazon Group
so far has achieved Microsoft Competency in Advanced Infrastructure
Solutions and Networking Infrastructure Solutions, and is pursuing
Racking Up Points
Some of those competencies, at least, will earn The Mirazon Group
points under the revamped system Microsoft uses to define Certified
and Gold Certified Partner memberships. Microsoft awards 50 points
for the first competency you attain and 25 points for the second—but
that's it. "You don't get additional points for third or fourth
core competencies," Martin notes. "But there are so many ways to
get points, such as by selling licenses."
Indeed, while companies must still collect 50 points to attain
Certified Partner status and 120 for Gold Certified, there are far
more ways to do so. For example, as of January, Microsoft now awards
one Partner Point for each Microsoft Certified Professional a solution
provider has on staff. Completing a Master Certified Professional
Program or attaining Microsoft Business Solutions Certification
is good for two points each, while completing ISV Software Testing
to ensure Windows compatibility can earn an ISV 10 to 50 points
(although the tests cost $400 to $30,000). Selling software and
generating licensing revenue can earn you up to 60 points. Partners
can also earn up to 20 points by collecting customer references
beyond the three required to qualify for most of the competencies.
The idea, says Microsoft, is to reflect the diversity of strength
among its partners.
(Click image to view larger version.)
Rolling Out the Bennies
As for benefits, Microsoft continues to sweeten the pot for appreciative
partner members. Among several new benefits for partners is a Microsoft
Web-based resource, called Partner Channel Builder. The site, launched
in February, is a networking and resource-sharing site where Gold
Certified and Certified Partners can enter solutions and opportunities
and Registered Members can search for opportunities to connect with
other partners across verticals, locations and competencies (see "Partnering for Success").
"I [recently] called a potential partner and asked him to get involved
to sell the BackOffice on [Microsoft Business Solutions], because
that's not what we do," says David Dorer, director of business development
at Silver Bullet Technologies, a Miami-based solution provider that
has used the site. "So, we're bringing them into a meeting. They're
getting before they give."
Another benefit added since last year is a revised Microsoft Resource
Directory, an online directory where customers worldwide can search
for services and solutions. Also new is Partner Logo Builder, an
online tool that partners can use to build custom logos that note
whether they are a Certified or Gold Certified Partner and what
competencies they have achieved.
Partners also now have access to a quarterly Customer Satisfaction
Index, based on a 10-minute, confidential survey of partners' customers
conducted by a third-party research firm. "We went to a lot of customers
and ended up doing very well," says The Mirazon Group's Martin.
"It gave us significant feedback."
"These are all services that IBM Global and Accenture have been
using for years," says LaVenture. "Now, [Microsoft] Partners get
them for free."
Certified and Gold Certified Partners also get access to either
a telephone Partner Account Manager (tele-PAM) or a field PAM to
discuss non-technical issues, such as accrual of Partner Points
and program benefits. Regional Microsoft offices decide what level
of access partners receive.
Tech support, both free and fee-based assistance, has also been
strengthened at all levels. Registered Members have access to free
"business-critical" phone support in the event of a major problem,
such as when a client's local-area network crashes. Certified and
Gold Certified members also get improved pre- and post-sales telephone-based
technical support. In addition, Certified Partners get access to
Microsoft Online Concierge, a Web-based chat service available around
the clock to answer questions regarding Microsoft technical resources.
Gold Certified Partners also get direct access to a technical contact,
called a Technical Service Coordinator, who manages incident escalation
and provides guidance on hotfixes, patches and readiness resources.
This individualized service will be phased in, by region, to all
Gold Certified Partners, says Microsoft.
The biggest change to fee-based tech services, however, is the
creation of the Microsoft Services Partner Advantage in July 2004,
subsuming the Premier and Premier Enterprise service plans. The
latter two plans, which offered up to 200 hours of service, were
beyond the price range of many solution providers: $35,000 a year
for the Premier service and $60,000 a year for Premier Enterprise.
The new plan also offers two pricing tiers, but at more reasonable
rates. The Standard Plan, which consists of a pre-packaged set of
online resources, problem-resolution incidents and proactive educational
services, starts at $8,936 for 40 hours and five incidents, while
the Plus Plan, which also provides a direct, ongoing relationship
with a designated services resource, starts at $30,060 for 140 hours
and five incidents. In addition, Plus Plan customers get the added
ability to allocate hours for engagement in proactive consulting
"Overall, I see a lot more resources being mustered for partners,"
says Silver Bullet Technologies' Dorer. "There's an abundance of
resources. We just have to sort through it."
Learn more about the intent behind the Partner Program changes: