Blueprint for Success

From pre-sales to delivery to support, partners like Tim Hebert of Atrion Networking find that blueprinting their processes makes them more efficient—and profitable.

Two years ago, some customers of Atrion Networking Corp. were waiting as long as 30 days for a quote, while staffers alternated from being overwhelmed with work to being frustratingly idle. At the time, the Warwick, R.I.-based firm was structured so that each salesperson was assigned a specific support person, who produced quotes and proposals.

"But we looked at the support team and saw that Mark was better at doing configurations of equipment, Chris was better at designing the statement of work, while Michelle was better at other elements," says Tim Hebert, chief operating officer for Atrion.

Hebert decided to revamp the process so that every quote or proposal would follow the same, consistent route through the organization. "We created a workflow where the support people worked as a team, and then we blueprinted it," he says. "So for every quote, you may have four people working on it at different times, but they were all doing something they were extremely good at. It became like an assembly line process."

The blueprint helped balance the workload better, because support people were no longer relying solely on the workload of one individual salesperson, and it became efficient fast.

"Within 30 days, we found the same number of people were producing four times the volume of work, while reducing the time it took to produce a quote or a proposal by half on average," he says. "And the quality and consistency was better."

Like Atrion, Microsoft partners struggling with delivering complex solutions on time and on budget have discovered a new weapon in their fight for profits—blueprinting.

According to partners who have embraced it, blueprinting is a strategy whereby you take every process in your organization—including pre-sales, sales, delivery, support and maintenance—and hone it until it is as efficient, predictable and repeatable as possible. The idea is to take the guesswork out of the business, and as a result, markedly increase your profits.

"We've seen a doubling of our net income in the last two years, just from doing blueprinting," Hebert says. "It has a huge impact on the bottom line."

Experts say blueprinting not only boost profits, but it also helps ensure a partner's viability, especially in the current climate of razor-thin product margins.

"Product margins aren't there and will continue not to be there, so partners have to focus on selling more solutions that include services with higher margins," says Laura McLellan, vice president of strategic marketing at Gartner. "The main way to do that is by having these playbooks, formulas and documented practices people can follow. It lets you do more, faster and with less labor."

The 80-20 Rule
The idea behind blueprinting is that 80 percent of what a partner does and delivers to each customer is the same, while just 20 percent is different. Blueprinting the 80 percent to the point where it is a predictable, repeatable process frees up resources to focus on the 20 percent that is unique, or the value-add.

"Nobody wants to believe that 80 percent is the same, especially the people responsible for delivering solutions," says Andrew Levi, president and CEO of Aztec Systems Inc., a Gold Certified Partner based in Dallas. "They like the world to think that it's black magic. But it is the same, and the real key is to figure out how to proceduralize the 80 percent so that you can spend more time and focus on the 20 percent that's unique. You shouldn't be reinventing 100 percent every time."

Prior to embracing blueprinting, Aztec found it difficult to keep projects on budget and within scope, especially within its business solutions practice, which focuses on deploying Microsoft Great Plains.

"In the year we’ve had [blueprinting] in place, every single one of our business solutions engagements has been under budget."

Andrew Levi, COO, Aztec Systems Inc.

"Before, it was assumed that the implementation of Great Plains was more of an art than a science," he says. "But we decided to apply this blueprinting process to our sales initiatives and found that's not so."

Levi's firm built a template for computing the time, expense, effort and resources to implement Great Plains for a variety of customers—small, medium and large. "We looked at things like number of invoices, number of POs, number of checks they write, number of employees and locations, and so on," he says. The result was a blueprint that did indeed address 80 percent of every solution.

"I can tell you the blueprint has made a tremendous difference in us establishing the right milestones in the delivery of a Great Plains solution and hitting them," he says. "In the year we've had this in place, every single one of our business solutions engagements has been under budget. And before that, every single one was over budget."

Building such a blueprint isn't easy, but it can be done fairly readily, even if you've only performed a process a few times. "You do a project once, but you make sure you have your people thinking about it as you go through it," Levi explains. "Then, the second time you test it, and the third time you test it. By the time you've been through it three times, you've tested it enough to call it a rules of engagement, a true blueprint."

Employee Concerns
Beyond efficiencies, experts say blueprinting can also help insulate partners to turnover and changes in their workforce.

For example, it may be difficult to take your best salesperson or Active Directory deployment expert out of the field for a short time to work on building templates and blueprints, but the overall result is more than worth it.

"Blueprinting takes short-term bandwidth, but like lots of development processes, it has long-term payout," says Don Nelson, general manager of Sales and Partner Readiness within Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Sales and Marketing Group. "If you take the time to have these processes documented, you can ramp up your new employees faster, no question. And you become far less dependent upon a key employee, because the overall process is documented."

Partners agree. "A lot of our competitors have one or two outstanding engineers, but that's all they have," Hebert says. "If one person leaves, they're stuck until they get someone who's equally competent to come in. We don't have that problem because we've built the right process, approach and methodology."

Blueprinting also helps when it comes to supporting and maintaining customer deployments, Hebert says, because all installations are largely the same. "Our support engineer doesn't have to figure out what the heck this guy did at this account. He knows what to expect and moves on from there."

A Never-Ending Process
Partners need to not only apply resources to developing the blueprint, but they also need to establish ownership of and continually revisit the blueprint as the process or the business changes.

Levi says Aztec has established an engagement management group that owns the blueprints and acts like mission control for every project. The group continually revisits processes to ensure they stay attuned to the business.

"Once a quarter, we'll choose a few blueprints that we think need review and we'll bring them into our war room to rehash them," he says. "We keep revisiting them because you have to remember, the blueprint is only good today. You have to be accountable for making sure it continues to mirror where your business is going."

Atrion's Hebert agrees and has even formalized the process of revisiting the blueprints. "Every quarter, each business unit is responsible for revamping the blueprints by coming up with at least one BHAG, or big hairy audacious goal," he says. "We are always looking for ways to make the blueprints more efficient and our overall processes better, and this is a good way to do it."

Tools Are Scarce
According to experts and partners, finding tools to help with the blueprinting process is not easy, although some tools can be repurposed to help (see "Blueprinting Wares"). Microsoft provides smatterings of information throughout its Partner Program that helps, but does not specifically address blueprinting per se.

"You won't see Microsoft publish the blueprint for, say, selling SQL Server 2005 to manufacturing businesses," says Microsoft's Nelson. "We prefer to think of it more as best practices, and we've accumulated some guidance for things we see to be common across a number of partner types and partner businesses."

Blueprinting Wares
6 tools that may help ease the blueprinting process.

Various Microsoft tools that partners sell and support—as well as those from other vendors—can aid in blueprinting processes. The tools include:
Visio 2003: "We use Visio to create all of our blueprints," says Andrew Levi, president and CEO of Aztec Systems Inc. in Dallas. "We build fairly elaborate Visio diagrams with a lot of backing documentation that supports phases of a workflow. It's been a good tool for us."

SharePoint: Microsoft's SharePoint 2003 is also a useful blueprinting tool in that users can create their blueprints and post them to SharePoint. This ensures that every member of the organization can access the blueprint, as well as that blueprints are stored appropriately and updated efficiently, partners say.

Exchange: Many partners use Exchange to ensure that blueprints are accessible and that employees keep up an ongoing dialogue on them. "We'll use a public folder on Exchange, and that way everyone can access them and discuss them," says Tim Hebert, COO at Atrion Networking Corp. in Warwick, R.I.

Live Communications Server: Partners find the instant messaging capabilities of Microsoft's Live Communications Server also help keep blueprints on track.

"Say an engineer is doing an install of Active Directory, and he's following the blueprint, but something at the customer site doesn't seem right," says Hebert. "He can actually IM the project manager and the person who developed the blueprint and say this is what I'm seeing—what should I do? It really ensures consistency of our delivery."

Silverback Technologies: For partners like Atrion, which runs a managed services business, tools from vendors like Silverback Technologies can help ensure services are delivered consistently across customer environments. "With their tool, I can apply a service to a device the same way every time—it's like its own blueprint," Hebert says.

Hosted Microsoft CRM: Another tool on the horizon is a hosted version of Microsoft CRM targeted specifically at Microsoft Partners that a partner portal called plans to get up and running in the near future. The portal, which will be available on a pay-per-user basis, promises to help partners blueprint the sales process by ensuring a more consistent approach, says Founder Brian Ocheltree.

— Joanne Cummings

He says that information is published on the Web, some is available in classroom training and some is passed along to partners by the field support force.

"There is no single place where you would go to for blueprints or best practices," he says. "Personally, I think we could do a lot better job of collaborating, collecting that and bringing it to partners."

Gartner's McLellan says Microsoft should think about becoming a better central collection point for partner blueprints and best practices. "It behooves Microsoft to be the facilitator and coordinator, pulling these things together and keeping them updated and being the distribution point," she says. "Because that role would probably give Microsoft the most value in partner eyes—and result in more sales."

Atrion's Hebert agrees. "I would love to see Microsoft come out and say, 'Here's how to blueprint your business and here are some tools that we offer to make it easier,' but it doesn't," he says. "That's not [its] focus and I understand that—[it] primarily wants us to sell more product. But I also need to be in business 10 years from now."

For his part, Hebert says he is a member of 1NService, a geographically dispersed group of resellers and VARs that meet quarterly to share blueprints and best practices. "They're a great tool for providing feedback and benchmarking," Hebert says. "If I'm planning on rolling out a new service, I'll tell them what I'm thinking about doing and they'll give feedback on that. I can also share my income statement and balance sheet, and see how it compares to everyone else. It helps me see how I'm doing comparative to them—is my payroll too high, is my profitability too low?"

Such organizations are few and far between, although some large vendor companies just recently announced plans for a similar organization designed to foster exchange of blueprints and best practices. Called the Technology Professional Services Association (TPSA), the group's founders include industry heavyweights BEA Systems, Computer Associates, Juniper Networks, and Sun, among others. Formed at the end of September, it is the first industry association of its kind focused on sharing best practices in service delivery. Microsoft to date has not joined the group.

Gartner's McLellan says formation of the TPSA bodes well for partners. "These large organizations are finding they're going to have to start sharing some of their best practices and intellectual capital with each other," she says. "I think this is a good prototype for what may eventually be used with partners."

Hebert is hopeful on that count. "It's not cheap running our kind of business," he says. "The engineers are very expensive. You have to figure out how to get the most out of them and get good quality product to your client. I really believe that the only way to do that is by blueprinting and re-examining your business on a regular basis. It would be nice if there was a place to find and share that kind of knowledge."

More Information

Organizations that share blueprints and best practices: