In-Depth

And the Winner Is ...

Competition for Microsoft's Partner Program Awards is fierce, but winners like Jason Martin of Navantis say the benefits far outweigh the costs—and that the secret to winning is no secret at all.

It may not have been show business, but it sure was close. At its Worldwide Partner Conference in early July, Microsoft hosted a gala ceremony honoring the winners of its Partner Program Awards. Some 1,400 people were in attendance, with professional comedian Rodney Sherwood playing the role of Billy Crystal, joined by co-host Allison Watson and a star-studded cast of senior executives from across Microsoft.

"It really had an Academy Awards-type feel," recalls Jason Martin, president of Toronto, Canada-based system integrator Navantis Inc., which won the 2005 Infor-mation Worker Portals and Collaboration Excellence award. What was it like to accept the trophy? "Really exciting, fantastic," says Martin. "Music is playing, people are clapping for you. It's really nice to feel the recognition from your colleagues in the industry."

It takes more than a moment in the spotlight, though, to explain why so many Microsoft partners (more than 1,800 of them in 2005) participate in the Partner Program Awards every year—or why they take winning so seriously. A Microsoft Partner Award can mean enhanced credibility with customers, greater visibility inside Microsoft and increased stature among other partners. Those benefits, while not earth-shaking, are significant and far in excess of the costs associated with competing. In fact, based on the experiences of some past winners, it just may be that the less incremental energy you devote to the contest, the better your odds of taking home a prize.

Playing on a Global Stage
"Partners tell us this level of recognition means a lot to their businesses," says Pam Salzer, worldwide partner marketing director at Microsoft. "Year after year, we hear how partners leverage these awards to grow their businesses and that this visibility helps drive revenue."

After this year's ceremony, for example, a Danish partner told Salzer the award it won would change its business overnight, by enabling it to recruit new employees and land new business. "They said they were already being contacted by Danish press," she says.

David R. Romig II, President

"We felt pretty good to be a finalist, much less to have won. It was gratifying for everyone in our organization."

David R. Romig II, President,
The Computer Solution Company

Such testimony would come as no surprise to Char Baxter, a veteran brand and marketing consultant who specializes in the technology industry. Being recognized as the best at anything by an industry powerhouse such as Microsoft, she says, "provides a stamp of legitimacy that you really can't buy." For small or young companies especially, "a benevolent nod from a tech giant like Microsoft" establishes credibility in a potent and immediate way. "That means a lot when you have very little brand awareness."

Even large firms, though, stand to gain from close proximity to the powerful Microsoft brand. "I see companies that are much bigger than $100 million still going for that nod," Baxter says. "This is not just a poor man's marketing tool. Brand aura is valuable. It gives your company the legitimacy of the known brand. That's huge."

Whether that added legitimacy drives revenue, as Microsoft suggests, is debatable. David R. Romig II, president of The Computer Solution Co., based in Midlothian, Va., says that while his firm's 2004 Information Worker Solution of the Year award drew attention from customers, "I wouldn't necessarily attribute a certain dollar volume of business to it."

In a competitive marketplace, however, an award can provide a critical extra push. "I don't really think anyone is going to make a buy decision based on an award, but I think it can tip the scale," Baxter says.

Martin agrees. "It's not like it hits the front page of The Globe and Mail, but when we present it to [customers] they do take notice of it," he says. "Our customers really like seeing that we play on the global stage."

Similarly, Quest Software, which was named Global ISV Partner of the Year in 2004, has found winning an award to be a helpful competitive differentiator, according to Director of Alliance and Partner Development Andrew Fraser. "It used to be enough to be Gold Certified, but now a lot of people are Gold Certified on certain products," says Fraser, who credits the award with easing Quest's way into new Asian and Eastern European markets. Winning an award from Microsoft "gives customers validation that we're trusted and true in the Microsoft community. That's a big deal for customers looking to make a Microsoft investment."

Customers aren't the only ones who take note of a partner award, according to Romig. "Quite honestly, the additional credibility in the eyes of Microsoft employees and sales reps was equal in value" to the impression his company's award made on customers, he says, adding that credibility with Microsoft sales reps correlates directly to referrals and additional business. Similarly, Fraser says Quest's award has yielded increased access to Microsoft executives and future product information. "It gives us the ability to have very good conversations within Microsoft, not exclusively based on the award, but certainly that helps."

Winning can help initiate profitable conversations with other partners, too. For example, Pasadena, Calif.-based Tenrox, a project and workforce management ISV, found that the Information Worker Specialization award it won this year helped raise its profile among solution providers, an important channel for driving new business. "It was a good topic of conversation with partners after the ceremony," says Rafat Hilal, Tenrox's vice president of professional services. "There were 6,000 people at the show. It gives us a lot of exposure."

And yet the benefit of winning that most partners mention first is perhaps the least tangible of all: the sheer pride of being publicly recognized as a standout by Microsoft. Particularly for solution providers with a local or regional customer base, competing for partner awards offers a rare opportunity to measure themselves against peers around the world. Being crowned king of the hill under such intensely competitive circumstances can be a big confidence builder.

"[It was] astonishing, that's for sure," says Romig. "We're a 35-person company, and we were up against some large competitors. We felt pretty good to be a finalist, much less to have won. It was gratifying for everyone in our organization."

Quest receives an award in 2004.
Microsoft's Allison Watson and Mark Young (far right) present the 2004 Global ISV Partner of the Year award to (from L to R) Quest's Dick Skuse, Andrew Fraser and Jeff Thorpe.

A Major Effort
Perhaps that's why the Partner Program Awards have been growing in popularity ever since Microsoft introduced them in 1997. The more than 1,800 entries submitted in 2005 represent a 125 percent increase over 2004. Judging all those entries is a major effort that this year involved more than 200 people, drawn from Microsoft's business groups, customer segment groups and field organization.

Microsoft handed out 65 separate awards in 2005, and the range of categories reflects the diversity of the Microsoft partner community. Most awards correspond to a competency, such as advanced infrastructure or business intelligence. Within each competency, Microsoft named two Partners of the Year, one for sales and marketing and one for technical innovation. In addition, the company named one overall Global ISV Partner of the Year and one Global Enterprise Services and Technology Partner of the Year (you can view the complete list here).

Many competencies also have Specialization Awards, such as deployment and project management within the Information Worker competency. Initiative Awards were distributed for winning customers, customer experience and small business.

Microsoft announced winners of the Specialization and Initiative Awards shortly before the Worldwide Partner Conference. Microsoft Business Solutions distributed awards at separate ceremonies.

Focus on the Fundamentals
Compared to the potential returns, the investment required to submit an entry is relatively modest, which is undoubtedly one reason so many partners choose to compete. According to Tenrox's Hilal, two people, one each from the firm's services and marketing organizations, put in a combined total of 20 to 40 hours on the company's submission. Martin estimates that two or three people contributed to Navantis' winning 2005 entry, but points out that much of their effort had additional uses. "We're able to leverage the work we do on the submission for case studies," he says. "It's not that much extra work."

References, of course, play an important part in the Microsoft Partner Program, and therein might lie a clue for Microsoft partners eager to maximize their chances of winning a future award: It's the firms that work hardest all year on the fundamentals of partnering with Microsoft that tend to take home trophies, rather than the ones that work hardest once a year on their submissions.

To be sure, winning entries usually contain certain common elements, including specific details about a satisfied customer collecting significant return on investment from a solution involving several strategic Microsoft products (such as SQL Server and SharePoint Portal Server). Competitive offerings, not surprisingly, tend to figure prominently only when a customer is migrating away from them onto Microsoft technologies, if they appear at all.

Looking Ahead
Microsoft's Pam Salzer says the submission process for the 2006 awards competition is likely to begin in early February. Submissions are typically due in mid-April, on the same day that registration for the Worldwide Partner Conference opens. The best place to watch out for announcements and information is the Microsoft Partner Program home page.

Navantis, which won awards not only this year, but also in 2002 and 2003, has been successful not because it has unlocked the secret formula for writing a strong entry, Martin says, but because it focuses constantly on delivering "over-the-top value" to its customers. "If you provide fantastic service, you will create the foundation for a very strong reference from your customer," he notes, and a strong customer reference will in turn provide the basis for a winning submission.

Fraser similarly argues that it was many months of supporting key Microsoft initiatives, engaging with Microsoft's field organization and publicizing results that ultimately paid off in the form of Quest's Global ISV Partner of the Year award. "On an annual perspective, we spend a lot of time rolling up our numbers and achievements for Microsoft. The nomination is an accumulation of all those efforts. It's really a rolling wave, from go-to-market planning before the start of the year to how those things get executed starting in the fall."

All of which makes perfect sense. Why else would Microsoft stage a partner award competition if not to reward behaviors it wants all its partners to emulate? It's only natural that partners who continually strive to satisfy customers, promote the Microsoft platform and develop strong internal relationships get most of the glory at the awards ceremony every July.

"You need to remember what business you're in and focus on delivering value," Martin advises future award seekers. In other words, if you want a first-hand taste of show business at the awards gala, concentrate on the business of being a great partner.

More Information

  • A list of the winners of the 2005 Microsoft Partner Program awards is located here.
  • An overview of the Microsoft Partner Program awards and details about the 2005 competition can be found here.

Home pages of award winners mentioned in this article:

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