Turning Freeloaders into Business Partners

Certified and Gold Certified Partners are still lacking in numbers.

The problem with most successful projects is that they raise expectations for future performance. Measured by its first 18 months, the Microsoft Partner Program has been remarkably successful, but we need to ask what it will achieve, for both Microsoft and partners, in the longer term.

When Microsoft first rolled out the program in the fall of 2003, the company was aiming for 100,000 partners by the end of its 2005 fiscal year. That was an ambitious goal, considering that at the time, the company had something like 30,000 Certified Partners and 5,000 Gold Certified Partners and had picked up about another 5,000 partners through the acquisitions of Great Plains and Navision.

How did Microsoft do against its goal? They blew it away. At the 2005 Worldwide Partner Conference, which started shortly after the end of Microsoft's 2005 fiscal year (ended June 30), the company reported nearly 300,000 partners.

The problem: The ranks of partners at the program's top levels, Certified and Gold Certified Partners, have not grown at all. As of July, the company was listing 28,000 Certified Partners and 4,600 Gold Certified Partners. The entire increase in partners was from the 266,000 Registered Members.

That wasn't surprising. From the outset it was clear that the revised Partner Program wouldn't have much impact on Certified and Gold Certified Partners, who for the most part, were quite happy with the Partner Program. Most of the changes were aimed at the unknown thousands of small partners that Microsoft knew were out there but couldn't reach—because it didn't know who they were. The solution was a honey pot: A free registration in which, in exchange for a name, address and some other basic information, a company could get free break-fix support and access to the $349 Action Pack—the best software deal around, bar none.

Some Registered Members are probably freeloaders—most of us like something for nothing—and others are legitimate partners who either haven't yet done the work to become Certified Partners or who have other reasons for not making the effort.

The real challenge facing the Microsoft partner team is to turn this partner potential into a real business advantage. What they have so far—names, addresses and self-identified competencies—is a start, but it doesn't necessarily translate into new business for Microsoft or partners.

That's why I think many of the changes in the Partner Program over the next two years will focus on the Registered Member level, and in particular, on moving these partners into the Certified level. At that level, they become managed partners, with a hotline into Microsoft's partner team, and they become better proponents of Microsoft platforms.

We see this already with the new Small Business Specialist credential, which Microsoft calls a "competency-like" credential. It will be relatively easy for many Registered Members to achieve. If you know how to set up a reasonably secure Windows Server network, with e-mail and backup, you're ready to take the test and gain the credential. It's a "logo'd" credential, which means you get to use the Microsoft Partner logo, along with the title "Small Business Specialist" on your business card. In terms of impressing customers, which is the name of the game, it's almost as good as being a Certified Partner, since most end-user customers won't have a clue about the differences, and it doesn't cost $1,450 a year to keep.

I'd like to see one more major incentive, however. Microsoft has a great asset in its learning tools, and Registered Members do have access to resources such as online tutorials, online labs and discounts on local training courses, but Certified Partners also have access to Microsoft Learning Products Courseware, which helps in exam preparation. That seems like exactly the kind of thing that Registered Members need in order to move up to the Certified Partner level. If Microsoft is prepared to give away $10,000 worth of software in the $349 Action Pack, it would seem equally valuable to the company to put as much training as possible in the hands of Registered Members. There's a direct correlation between what people know how to do and what they sell in the marketplace.

About the Author

Paul DeGroot is principle consultant with Pica Communications, which provides consulting services for customers with complex Microsoft licensing issues.