In-Depth

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.

PolyServe Inc. is a somewhat unlikely Microsoft Gold Certified Partner.

"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.

More 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 welcome, bonuses:

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 isn't the 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 experts."

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]."

Incremental Costs
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 requirements.

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 it.

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."

More Information

The Microsoft Partner Program Guide, which details the requirements and benefits of Certified and Gold Certified status, is available at https://partner.microsoft.com/US/program/supportmaterials/

A Redmond Channel Partner article about Microsoft's plans to offer Certified and Gold Certified Partners more PAM and telePAM support in 2006 is at http://rcpmag.com/news/article.aspx?editorialsid=7126