Going for the Gold
Partners say that making the jump from Certified to Gold Certified is worth the effort -- but not necessarily for the reasons that Microsoft emphasizes.
- By Rich Freeman
- June 01, 2006
PolyServe Inc. is a somewhat unlikely Microsoft Gold Certified
"We actually started out as a Linux-based company," notes Todd
Behrbaum, general manager of Microsoft solutions for the 7-year-old
Beaverton, Ore.-based maker of shared data-clustering software.
Eager to tap into a new market, however, PolyServe soon began shipping
Windows-based products as well, with encouragement and technical
assistance from Microsoft product groups in Redmond. Before long,
the company was exhibiting with Microsoft at trade shows and co-sponsoring
customer events. The payoff was substantial: In the second half
of 2005, PolyServe saw revenue from Windows-based clustering utilities
grow nearly 400 percent.
What role did being Gold Certified play in generating those impressive
numbers? Technically speaking, none. The company only achieved Gold
Certified status in February 2006, weeks after racking up that sales
growth. Yet Behrbaum is convinced that simply pursuing Gold Certified
standing -- an effort that Microsoft strongly encouraged -- generated
invaluable support and co-marketing opportunities for his company.
And he has no hesitation about encouraging other partners to make
the jump from Certified Partner to Gold Certified Partner. "We would
say hands down it's a critical component to your success in partnering
with Microsoft as well as demonstrating to customers that you have
widespread success," he maintains.
Few Gold Certified Partners are likely to disagree. Ascending to
the highest tier of the Microsoft Partner Program isn't easy, but
many firms that have made the trip believe it's worth the effort.
Though the official rewards are nice, they say, the true benefit
of achieving Gold Certified status isn't what it gets you but what
it says about your company. Above all, the Gold Certified ranking
is a statement -- an official stamp of approval by Microsoft and
a formal declaration to Microsoft that you're serious about partnering.
Firms that earn only a small portion of their revenue on the Microsoft
platform are likely to gain little from that statement, and even
more committed partners have trouble quantifying its value. But
make no mistake, they say: it's real.
Higher Comfort Level
In mid-April 2006, Microsoft had about 23,300 Certified Partners
worldwide (down 17 percent from July 2005) and 7,000 Gold Certified
Partners (up 52 percent since July -- and up 100 percent from early
2005). Given that Microsoft describes the latter group as elite
organizations that "have passed the highest level of requirements,"
the official list of exclusive perks that they receive is relatively
modest. Among other things, Gold Certified Partners have access
to training resources and technical support offerings that aren't
available to Certified Partners, and they also receive more free
software licenses for demo and internal use purposes (see "More
Reasons for Moving Up"). But from a program-benefits perspective,
stepping up from Registered Member to Certified Partner is arguably
more lucrative than moving from Certified Partner to Gold Certified
Partner. Freshly minted Certified Partners receive 18 incremental
benefits, including access to a Partner Account Manager (PAM) and
presales technical support. Partners ascending to Gold Certified
status get just seven additional benefits.
Reasons for Moving Up
Partners cite heightened credibility with Microsoft
and its customers as the biggest rewards of being
Gold Certified. Here are a few smaller, but still
Loads of Licenses. Microsoft Gold Certified
Partners receive free internal-use licenses for
44 Microsoft products. For example, each Gold
Certified Partner is entitled to 100 free licenses
of Office Professional and two free licenses of
SQL Server Enterprise Edition. Partners may use
the software to run their businesses or keep their
staffs up to speed on Microsoft's latest wares.
(Certified Partners also receive free licenses,
though in smaller quantities.) In addition, Gold
Certified Partners are entitled to unlimited free
demo licenses for 30 Microsoft products. "The
generous licensing they provide Gold Certified
Partners allows us to push those technologies
out in front of clients and really use that as
a resource to drive sales," says Michael Richmond
of P&N Technologies.
TAM Time. When Vonexus Inc. achieved Gold
Certified status, it received not only a Partner
Account Manager (PAM) but a Technical Account
Manager (TAM) as well, says company president
Jerry Fleming. TAMs assist partners with their
technical support requirements. "That really helped
our developers and technical people get to the
right person," Fleming reports.
Co-Marketing Cooperation. Many Gold Certified
Partners say they've done more customer events
with Microsoft since going Gold Certified. "The
joint-venture marketing stuff seems to be a lot
more active," says Mel Gordon, of Statera Inc.
"We now have a lot of events where we're doing
the hosting and presenting, but it's facilitated
out of the [local] Microsoft office." -- R.F.
Few Gold Certified Partners seem especially concerned about benefits,
however. In fact, several partner executives interviewed for this
article were barely familiar with the official list of extras attached
to Gold Certified status. One cited the Customer Satisfaction Index,
a source of client feedback, as especially useful -- even though
that benefit is available to Certified Partners as well. Another
had to refresh his memory with a quick visit to the Partner Program
Web site before commenting on the incremental privileges of being
a Gold Certified Partner.
What partners value most about the Gold Certified classification
formal benefits as much as something Microsoft rarely addresses
directly in its partnering literature: the heightened
credibility that comes with qualifying for the Partner Program's
top echelon. Mel Gordon, director of the infrastructure and engineering
practice at Statera Inc., an Englewood, Colo.-based solution provider
with five competencies, says that being Gold Certified tells clients
that "these guys know what they're doing; we can have a comfort
level of knowing that they truly are thought leaders and subject-matter
That added confidence is unlikely to close deals on its own, suggests
Henry Webb, director/practice manager for distributed computing
services at The Signature Group Inc. (TSG), but it can push a tottering
sale into the win column. Based in Vienna, Va., TSG is a network
consulting firm and Microsoft Certified Partner that ensures its
potential clients know it's on the verge of becoming Gold Certified.
"Honestly, I'm not sure if our customers really understand what
a Gold [Certified] Partner is versus a Certified Partner," Webb
admits, but adds that many prospects do take notice when it's explained
to them. "It may help solidify the client's decision to work with
you," he says.
Gold Certified status also provides a critical competitive edge
over Certified Partners, says Michael Richmond, chief operating
officer of P&N Technologies, a Gold Certified Partner and provider
of data security and network integration services with offices in
Baton Rouge and Metairie, La. "If we're going up just against a
Certified Partner, versus us being Gold [Certified], we can really
spell out the specifics of why we bring a little more benefit,"
he says. All other things being equal, Richmond says, customers
are more likely to go with the partner that has access to better
technical resources and more support from Microsoft.
Meanwhile, customers aren't the only ones who find the Gold Certified
ranking reassuring. Vonexus Inc., an Indianapolis, Ind.-based maker
of Internet telephony solutions, leverages its Gold Certified status
to attract resellers. "It's very important for us to be able to
advertise the fact that we're Gold Certified," says Jerry Fleming,
the firm's president, adding that the designation provides "a heck
of a lot of credibility within the partner community." What's more,
ever since Vonexus went Gold Certified in November 2004, Microsoft
has been directly assisting its channel-recruitment efforts. "They
make introductions to their top partners, who then become high-quality
prospective partners for us," Fleming says.
Proof of Commitment
Ultimately, however, it's not customers or other partners
but Microsoft itself that takes the Gold Certified status most seriously.
"Microsoft now looks at [our company] a little differently than
they did before," says Mike McMillan, director of system integration
at DSM Technology Consultants, a Lakeland, Fla.-based services provider
that became Gold Certified this January. "We've got their attention."
Same goes for Statera, according to Jessica Jorgensen, the company's
vice president of marketing, inside sales and strategic alliances.
"There's a greater level of comfort in being able to bring us in
on engagements," she says. "They know we've done the work."
Microsoft interprets the Gold Certified level as proof of a partner's
dedication to the alliance, says Chris Smaldone, Statera's vice
president of Microsoft Business Solutions. "If we just delivered
really solid Microsoft solutions [but never achieved Gold Certified
status], over time, that would dilute the relationship with Microsoft,"
Smaldone says. In other words, reaching the Gold Certified level
is a necessity to earning Microsoft's complete trust.
Webb confirms the symbolic importance of being Gold Certified.
Before joining TSG, he worked nine years in Microsoft Consulting
Services, where he saw first-hand just how much the Gold Certified
label matters in Microsoft's sales offices. "The business model
tended to support better those partners who really took the effort
to show Microsoft they were serious about being in the Partner Program,"
he recalls, "and the way we saw that was making Gold [Certified]
status." Now Webb hopes that when TSG reaches the Gold Certified
level, Microsoft will send him more leads.
That's certainly what happened for Vonexus. Microsoft has collaborated
with Vonexus on several joint marketing campaigns since the company
ascended to Gold Certified Partner. One recent effort produced hundreds
of leads, which in turn yielded multiple wins. Significantly, Microsoft
covered 80 percent of the campaign's costs. "We couldn't have done
that program ourselves if we had to fund the whole thing," says
Fleming. The cumulative impact of such campaigns has been substantial,
he adds: "I can't give you an exact figure, but [there's been] at
least a 10 percent increase in revenue as a result of [becoming
Gold Certified], and possibly more."
Richmond, of P&N Technologies, attaches less importance to
the leads Microsoft provides. In fact, he says, P&N salespeople
rarely bother with them because they have plenty of homegrown opportunities
to pursue already. Of more value, Richmond argues, has been the
greater access to Microsoft employees that P&N now enjoys. "The
communication level is definitely a little higher," he observes.
"I have multiple contacts now, and in different areas. That gives
me multiple paths to the information I need."
Some partners say they've gotten better PAM support since joining
the Gold Certified ranks. Microsoft has both in-person PAMs, who
typically cover between eight and 10 partners, and "telePAMs," who
provide phone-based assistance to as many as 60 partners. Though
no universal standard applies, Certified Partners generally work
with telePAMs and Gold Certified Partners usually receive PAMs.
Don Nelson, general manager for partner sales and readiness at Microsoft,
says that "some very long-tenured partners actually prefer a telePAM,
because they're at their desk when they need them," unlike PAMs,
who travel frequently and can be hard to reach.
Fleming, however, was delighted to have his telePAM replaced with
a PAM when Vonexus became Gold Certified. The way he sees it, telephone
account management means that "if you call into Microsoft, there
will be someone sitting there who will take your call. It's reactive.
Now we have a more proactive relationship with [Microsoft]."
I t's easy to summarize the base requirements for becoming
Gold Certified. Companies must earn 120 partner points (versus the
50 needed to qualify as a Certified Partner) through such activities
as selling Microsoft software, boosting the number of Microsoft
Certified Professionals (MCPs) on staff, and submitting customer
references. In addition, every Gold Certified Partner must acquire
at least one competency, a process that imposes varying additional
Sounds straightforward, right? Think again, say many partners.
Those simple prerequisites are accompanied by a lot of fine print.
Indeed, Microsoft's Partner Program Guide dedicates 14 pages to
accumulating partner points, and another 47 pages to qualifying
for competencies. "It was very difficult to understand the tool
set and which things were important," complains Webb.
Meanwhile, once you understand the requirements, you then have
to assemble proof that you've met them. Webb estimates that he spent
two weeks pulling together references, MCP test scores and the like.
"Ideally, I'd have liked to see that process take a day or a couple
of days," he says. "There should be a whole lot less overhead."
According to some partners, the qualification process can be expensive
as well as time-consuming. McMillan, of DSM, isn't sure exactly
what it cost his company to achieve its Gold Certified designation,
but notes that he personally put in 25 to 40 hours of work that
could have been billed out at up to $180 an hour. Johannes Scholtes,
president of ZyLAB North America LLC, a Vienna, Va.-based developer
of information access solutions that's currently applying for Gold
Certified status, expects to invest between $20,000 and $25,000
all told in time, labor and certification fees. On the other hand,
Scholtes observes, that's a one-time expense for an asset with numerous
benefits. ZyLAB's U.S. Department of Defense records management
certification costs the company $25,000 every three years and, he
says, confers no rewards beyond the right to say that they have
In fact, few partners appear to regret the time or money they put
into becoming Gold Certified. "Sure, there's an incremental cost
over what you're doing," says PolyServe's Behrbaum. "We feel it's
absolutely well worth it. It's very strategic." Smaldone agrees,
saying that for Statera to excel in its field, it needed to obtain
MCP certifications and competencies anyway. Qualifying for Gold
Certified status was mostly a matter of documenting work that Statera
was already doing. Bottom line, he says: Being Gold Certified produces
results. "That's why we keep investing in it," he says.
Seeking New Heights
As more and more partners achieve Gold Certified status,
and the percentage of Gold Certified Partners in Microsoft's channel
rises, will being in the Partner Program's top tier eventually lose
some of its cachet? Statera's Gordon, for one, doubts it. In his
view, more Gold Certified Partners means more satisfied customers,
which in turn means greater trust in the Gold Certified brand. As
long as customers are happy with their Gold Certified vendors, adding
more Gold Certified Partners "doesn't water down the gene pool.
It just proves the value of the gene pool."
McMillan, of DSM, suggests another possibility: "It will be interesting
to see if they eventually come out with a platinum level," he says
of Microsoft, adding that DSM would likely pursue such a designation.
McMillan's eagerness to join a new top tier, should one ever be
created, underscores a key reason that Certified Partners continue
climbing the Gold Certified mountain: because it's there. Simply
put, there's something irresistible about a summit. "When you log
into the [Microsoft] partner site, they immediately tell you how
many points you have and how many points are required to go to the
next level," McMillan notes. "I'm a very competitive person. That
drive to go to another, higher level was all I needed."
Meanwhile, he says, achieving Gold Certified status has been its
own reward. "It's going to be difficult for me a year from now to
determine how much business I've gained from this new level of partnership
with Microsoft," he acknowledges, but adds: "There's something about
accomplishing a difficult task that to me speaks for itself."