In-Depth

Navigating Microsoft

Microsoft is a massive, complex organization. Finding your way through it isn't easy, but savvy partners know it's essential to their success. 

Ask Liz Eversoll to name a time when knowing her way around Microsoft paid off, and she'll tell you it happens every day.

Eversoll is vice president of the Microsoft practice at Madison, Wis.-based Berbee Information Networks Corp., a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner with six competencies and offices in 11 cities. Press her for a specific instance when understanding who's who in Redmond profited Berbee, and she'll tell you about the time a major customer considering a wholesale move of its infrastructure onto Microsoft technologies began voicing doubts. With the deal in jeopardy, Eversoll called someone she knew in Microsoft's consulting organization for help with the pitch. "We were able to take a stronger story to the customer and get them to buy into the entire platform upgrade," she recalls.

Stories like Eversoll's are anything but rare. In fact, many partners call a deep pool of personal Microsoft relationships an essential asset. Filling your Rolodex with Microsoft contacts, they say, usually translates into more referrals, better assistance with sales opportunities, and earlier access to new product releases.

Alas, making acquaintances at a company as large and complex as Microsoft's isn't easy. The software giant employs more than 63,000 people worldwide and its headcount has been growing by an average of 11.4 percent annually for the last five years. "I have about 15 direct reports that have to overlay with hundreds of Microsoft folks," says Eversoll.

"There are all these different field reps out there. Don't blast them all initially. Call into ones you're going to bring value to."
-- Liz Eversoll, Vice President, Berbee Information Networks Corp.

The upshot is that while knowing the right people at Microsoft is critical, trying to know everyone is a hopeless task. To navigate the Microsoft labyrinth successfully, you must approach it strategically, pursuing the right connections in the right places. According to Ted Dinsmore, co-author (with Edward O'Connor) of Partnering with Microsoft: How to Make Money in Trusted Partnership with the Global Software Powerhouse (CMP Books, 2005), that's a subtle game involving high stakes. "You can set yourself up to be successful," he says, "or just waste a lot of time."

Recognizing the Great Divide
Step one to plotting your course through Microsoft is understanding how the company is structured. The software maker's byzantine org chart intimidates many of its own employees, but all that most partners really need to grasp up front is that everyone at Microsoft ultimately falls into one of two categories: people who work at the company's Redmond HQ (aka "corporate") and people who don't (aka "the field").

Following a major reshuffle announced in September 2005, the bulk of Microsoft's corporate operations are now split into three divisions, each run by its own president. The Microsoft Platform Products & Services Division, co-led by Kevin Johnson and Jim Allchin (until Allchin's pending retirement, scheduled to follow the release of Windows Vista around the end of this year) is responsible for Windows client and server applications, developer tools and MSN. The Microsoft Business Division, under Jeff Raikes, oversees Microsoft's information worker offerings (including Office and SharePoint) as well as the Dynamics product line. The Microsoft Entertainment & Devices Division, headed by Robbie Bach, manages a hodgepodge of largely consumer-oriented technologies, ranging from Windows Mobile to the Xbox.

Organized into 102 national subsidiaries, Microsoft's field organization reports to Kevin Turner, the company's chief operating officer. Personnel in the subsidiaries drive sales, design and execute local marketing campaigns and deliver services. The U.S. subsidiary, by far the biggest, is further sub-divided: employees focused on enterprise customers are deployed across three geographic regions containing 12 districts. Four industry sales units -- covering financial services; health and life sciences; retail; and manufacturing -- support the district teams on vertical opportunities. Meanwhile, a separate team serving small and mid-market customers is also grouped into three regions, enclosing 14 "areas."

In theory, corporate and the field play neatly complementary roles. Corporate creates products, and the field sells them. Corporate writes code and the field helps support it. Corporate crafts global marketing strategies, and the field rolls them out to customers and partners. For example, consider the relationship between the Worldwide Partner Group, under Allison Watson, and the U.S. Partner Group, under Margo Day. Watson's team, part of the Microsoft Business Division at corporate, sets policy for the Microsoft Partner Program, while Day's organization applies that policy for the U.S. subsidiary.

In practice, however, the interplay between corporate and the field is more complex, for the subsidiaries enjoy surprising latitude in enacting Redmond's directives. So while corporate produces Microsoft's official list of go-to-market (GTM) campaigns every year, it's the field that decides which ones actually get executed. Similarly, though the Worldwide Partner Group issues guidelines for identifying Microsoft's best partners, the subsidiaries ultimately pick their own favorites.

Further complicating matters is a less tangible but equally important cultural divide often separating corporate and the field. Corporate accuses the field of missing the big picture. The field accuses corporate of failing to appreciate the pressures of working on the front lines with customers and partners. Corporate resents the field for selectively implementing its plans. The field resents corporate for distracting it with barrages of unimportant information and pointless reporting exercises. And if partners aren't careful, they can get caught in the crossfire. For example, warns Dinsmore: "If you go to corporate and learn about some cool new initiative, keep your mouth shut when you go back to the field. They don't want to hear about it."

Taking the Field
Dinsmore speaks from experience. In addition to being an author, he is also a managing director at Conchango plc, a U.K. Internet professional services firm and Microsoft Gold Certified Partner with offices in New York and Boston. Sales happen in the field, Dinsmore argues, so relationships in the field are the first and most important ones to cultivate. "You've heard the phrase 'All politics is local'? All sales are local, too," he says. "In Microsoft, it's all about relationships on the ground."

For most partners, the field contact they interact with most regularly is their partner account manager (PAM). Full-time partner advocates, PAMs have traditionally spent their time tracking down information and resources, facilitating connections with other Microsoft employees and collaborating on business planning. In its current fiscal year, Microsoft has been pushing PAMs to focus more on assisting partners with pipeline and opportunity management. Key performance metrics for a PAM today, in addition to partner satisfaction, include revenue growth, share growth, competitive migrations and partner engagement with Microsoft accounts. A typical PAM covers eight to ten partners, though "telePAMs," who provide phone-based support, work with 40 to 60 partners each. (See related article in the March issue, "Certified Partners to Feel the Love.")

"The way to get attention is be successful in the marketplace."
-- Don Nelson, General Manager, Microsoft Partner Sales and Readiness

Which partners qualify to have a PAM? "If there was a rule of thumb," says Don Nelson, Microsoft's general manager for partner sales and readiness, "it would be that Gold Certified partners have PAMs and Certified partners have a telePAM." In reality though, the subsidiaries decide who gets a PAM, and exceptions occur. "Our goal would be for every Certified or Gold Certified partner to get one or the other," says Nelson, but it doesn't always work that way. Ultimately, asserts Dinsmore, the critical ingredient is revenue. If you're making good money for Microsoft and are at least a Certified partner, odds are strong you'll be assigned a PAM or telePAM.

In the small business and midmarket space, where Microsoft's sales efforts are 100 percent partner-led, a PAM is often a partner's most important contact. Few partners that focus on enterprise customers, however, consider them key to getting in on opportunities. "Honestly, [PAMs] tend to be good traffic cops," says David R. Romig II, president of The Computer Solution Company Inc., a Midlothian, Va.-based Microsoft Gold Certified Partner that provides consulting and application development services to enterprise businesses. "If you have a question, they can answer those. When it comes down to it, though, they truly don't affect whether an account rep uses you or not. The account rep makes that decision."

More Tips for Finding Your Way Around Microsoft

Here are a few relationship-building secrets from veteran Microsoft partners:

  • Find the influencers. Some field relationships are more valuable than others, says David Romig of The Computer Solution Company. "In each regional office, there tend to be movers and shakers," he notes. "If you can influence them, they in turn can influence the remainder of that geography." Those key players aren't necessarily at the top of the org chart, Romig adds, so watch all your field contacts to see which ones have the most pull among their peers.
  • Specialize in specialists. In every U.S. enterprise district, a "specialist team unit" containing technology and solution experts works alongside the account teams, providing pre-sales technical support. Get to know them, advises Liz Eversoll of Berbee Information Networks. "They have broader account coverage than the account manager, so they have insight into all of the opportunities that are in your particular area of technical expertise," she says.
  • Get in on events. Jeff Rutherford, of ProClarity, advises partners to sponsor Microsoft events such as Tech·Ed and the Worldwide Partner Conference. "Not only is that a good marketing opportunity for you, but it's also a venue where you can meet and connect with more people," he says.
  • Concentrate on compensation. The more you know about how your Microsoft contacts are compensated, says Romig, the more effectively you can work with them. "If 75 percent of somebody's compensation has to do with [Microsoft Business Solutions], trying to get them to refer you .NET custom application development opportunities is going to be a tough row to hoe," he observes. -- R.F.

Account reps, formally known as account managers, essentially serve as the quarterback of an enterprise customer's account team. Every account team includes a variety of players, such as an account technology specialist (who provides pre-sales technical guidance), several solution specialists (who contribute pre-sales assistance on specific products and applications), and a technical account manager (who oversees a customer's post-sales technical support requirements). When a new opportunity arises, the account manager coordinates the team's efforts, and makes the final call on which partners are invited into the deal. PAMs, it's worth noting, work with account teams but aren't part of them.

Romig encourages partners to court account managers aggressively. Eversoll, of Berbee, agrees, adding that the reps to contact first are the ones who call on your company's existing customers. "There are all these different field reps out there," she observes. "Don't blast them all initially. Call into ones you're going to bring value to."

That last point is crucial, says Romig. Microsoft account managers hear from partners they've never met all the time. "You have to bring them information, bring them in on opportunities," he says. Do that a few times, and they'll usually reciprocate.

Same goes for people attached to Microsoft Consulting Services (MCS). MCS has personnel in every subsidiary; in the United States, there are MCS consultants in every district. According to Eversoll, they're worth knowing. "Since they work [both] with the sales team and post-sales, they have a similar, but different, pipeline of opportunities," she says. Romig says MCS sometimes sub-contracts work to his firm. "Often," he adds, "MCS refers work to us as an alternative to their higher bill rates." The key to winning such referrals, Romig asserts, is bringing opportunities to MCS first: "The last thing they want is someone begging for work who hasn't reciprocated."

For new partners without a rich pool of prospects to share, gaining entrée with the field can be trickier. SourceCode Technology Holdings Inc., a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner and business process management software vendor, faced that challenge several years ago. According to Jeff Shuey, global alliance director for the Redmond, Wash.-based firm, arranging meetings with U.S. district leaders proved to be the solution. "We asked for half an hour to do a business presentation on what we're doing, how we're doing it, and how we plan to be successful," recalls Shuey. What resulted were agreements to pursue joint opportunities.

Shuey counsels partners seeking to replicate SourceCode's tactic to prepare thoroughly beforehand. "You need some basic tools to go in and get Microsoft's attention," he contends. Prepare concise PowerPoint decks that summarize your qualifications, outline the market opportunity and concretely specify how you intend to help Microsoft go after it. "Have at least a thumbnail sketch of a business plan for how you expect to target accounts in that territory," Shuey adds. Microsoft will want to know you can back up your promises with results.

Demystifying the Managed Partner

"Managed partners" are widely regarded to be the cream of the Microsoft channel. But what exactly is a managed partner? "That's a holdover term that we'd almost like to get rid of," says Don Nelson, Microsoft's general manager for partner sales and readiness. "It comes from a few years ago. If you had a PAM, you were considered managed." Back then, there was less consistency across geographies in how Microsoft assigned PAMs. Today, states Nelson, "if you're Gold or Certified in the program then you will be getting managed resources, either a PAM or telePAM."

Which is not to say that all Certified and Gold Certified partners are managed equally. For example, in addition to working with PAMs, U.S. partners with multi-regional or national customer bases get assistance from business development managers (BDM) in Redmond who perform the same functions as a PAM on a subsidiary-wide scale. In addition, the top several hundred ISVs worldwide, as measured by revenue, have BDMs with similar responsibilities in Microsoft's Developer and Platform Evangelism Group and the very biggest partners (such as SAP, Accenture, and HP) have BDMs in the Enterprise and Partner Group.

Interested in acquiring a BDM? No need to call us; we'll call you, Nelson says. Companies big enough to rate a BDM inevitably attract Microsoft's attention.  -- R.F.

Making Friends in High Places
Field relationships are critical, but contacts in Redmond can be equally beneficial, especially if your firm does business nationally or internationally. Just ask Jeff Rutherford, worldwide director of strategic alliances at ProClarity Corp., of Boise, Idaho, a maker of business intelligence software. When Microsoft released SQL Server 2005 last fall, strong ties with corporate enabled ProClarity to play a role in numerous launch events. Though local offices had significant leeway in shaping those events, lobbying from Redmond on ProClarity's behalf made an impact. It's a pattern Rutherford has seen before. "I wouldn't say it's impossible to get results in the field without corporate, but it's a much higher degree of difficulty to do it that way," he says.

For many partners, the most coveted relationships at corporate are with people in Microsoft's products groups. The Computer Solution Company, for example, uses its contacts on the Office and Visual Studio teams to offer input on potential improvements and sneak early peeks at pre-release code. "We get the capability to fold in functionality on behalf of our clients without having to wait and see if it's going to be there in the next version," says Romig. Having friends in Redmond also builds credibility with local account teams, he adds. For her part, Eversoll uses her connections among product marketers at corporate to get the inside scoop on upcoming GTMs.

The easiest way to get in touch with product groups is through a PAM. But don't expect instant results if you haven't yet built up a reputation as a dependable source of revenue. "That's what typically will get access and attention at corporate," says Shuey, of SourceCode. As always, companies that bring value to Microsoft are generally the first to get rewards back from it. Newer partners should concentrate on establishing a track record in the field before asking a PAM for introductions to the product groups, partners say.

There are ways to make contacts at corporate without a PAM's assistance. The simplest is to attend Microsoft events such as Tech·Ed, the Professional Developers Conference and the Worldwide Partner Conference. Those gatherings are often effective venues for meeting people from the products groups and elsewhere at Microsoft. Romig has struck up conversations at events that later landed his company in invitation-only early adopter programs.

Earning Attention
Nelson, of Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Group, discourages partners from fixating on the relationship hunt. "I personally believe that partners spend too much time on this," he says. Participate actively in events, training classes, and other offerings, argues Nelson, and relationships will evolve naturally over time. Above all, he counsels, keep your eye on the bottom line: "The way to get attention is be successful in the marketplace."

Few partners would disagree with that last assertion. "Microsoft relationships are very important, but you have to earn them," says Eversoll. "You have to come to the table with value, and once you do that the word spreads." It's worth the effort, says Romig.In some respects, at least, working with Microsoft is no different from working with any other company: "Regardless of how structured the org chart or processes may seem to be," he says, "business still comes down to relationships."

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About the Author

Rich Freeman is a Seattle, Wash.-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology.

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