Secrets from the Winners' Circle

Want to take home a Microsoft Partner Award? Try this insider advice from past recipients.

It's that time again.

No, we're not talking about Valentine's Day or the beginning of income tax season. Instead, it's time to start the application process for the 2007 Microsoft Global Partner Awards.

Whether you're a first-time entrant intimidated by the process or a past applicant looking to increase your chances of taking home an award, you're likely to benefit from the insights we've gathered from past winners. We also offer tips from Pam Salzer, Microsoft's worldwide director of partner marketing, about what judges will look for this year.

Why bother to apply for a Microsoft Partner Award? Well, for one thing, winning -- or even being named a finalist -- sets your company apart. In 2005, judges winnowed an initial field of 2,300 entrants to just 265 winners and finalists. Considering that Microsoft has hundreds of thousands of partners worldwide, being part of such an elite group is no small distinction. Past winners say that they also benefit from promoting their successes on their Web sites, in their marketing collateral and when meeting with prospective customers or industry analysts.

Awards can also increase customer loyalty, stimulate repeat business for the honored product or service and even generate new areas of growth. And some award winners cite benefits they've gained simply from going through the application process -- for instance, gaining improved clarity about their market goals and areas where they hold a competitive advantage. (For more on the benefits of the awards program, see "And the Winner Is ...," September 2005.)

Before you decide that your company isn't big enough, powerful enough or mature enough as a partner to capture Microsoft's attention, listen to Salzer: "We have had winners that are very small. For one- or two-person shops, there are awards for them, too." Garry Olah, a senior director at past winner Citrix Systems Inc. who oversees his company's global Microsoft relationship, adds this insight: "If you're a new partner, you have equal chances of winning if you're very targeted with your solution."

Following is some time-tested advice for acing the Microsoft Global Partner Award application process.

1. Start early and choose your categories carefully
Sure, you can slam together a sales proposal at the eleventh hour, but don't approach the Microsoft Partner Awards the same way and expect to win. (Besides, how many of those last-minute proposals are actually successful?) "You can tell who has scrambled at the last minute," Salzer says.

First, consider the award categories, which are announced when the online application tool goes live, to determine which ones best fit your organization. You can apply for multiple awards, or you can apply for the same award several times with different solutions. However, you can only win once per category. (At press time, Microsoft hadn't released the 2007 details, but you can review the 2006 results and categories.)

Citrix, a longtime Gold Certified Partner, takes the award program seriously. Since 2003, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based company has either placed or ranked as a finalist four times; its latest distinction was the 2005 Office System Deployment Partner ofthe Year.

Winner Profile
Apptix Inc.
Line of Business: On-demand messaging and collaboration solutions for small and midsize businesses
Founded: 1997
Employees: 180
Partner Level: Gold Certified
Winning or related solutions for 2006 awards: Hosted Exchange, Hosted SharePoint, Mobile Messaging, and Archiving and Compliance
Global Partner Awards: 2006 Sales and Marketing of Advanced Infrastructure Solutions
Lessons/Insights: "Make sure you have someone who can take technology responses and articulate them in a business perspective on the application," advises Jackie Funk, marketing director. "Also, you need someone who can chase down the information internally." Other tips from Funk: Companies with Microsoft Partner Account Managers (PAMs) should let those contacts know that they've applied -- there's a chance that plugged-in PAMs may be able to put in a good word on your behalf.

Because Citrix could qualify for multiple awards (it has won the Global ISV Partner Award twice, and its solutions support core Microsoft platforms including Office and Windows Server), the company allows sufficient time for managers to figure out which ones to target. In 2006, Olah says, Citrix focused on the Information Worker category to align with the release of Office 2007.

That's a smart strategy, according to Curt Wheadon, global vice president of operating environments and messaging at South Africa-based Dimension Data Holdings plc, a triple winner in 2006 (for Advanced Infrastructure Technology Innovation, Custom Development Smart Client Development and Global Winning Customer). "Know where Microsoft is making its bets and what its priorities are, and make sure your submissions are aligned," recommends Wheadon, who works out of his company's Bellevue, Wash., office.

Jackie Funk, director of marketing for Herndon, Va.-based Apptix Inc., spearheaded her company's first application for the awards last year. While some partners appreciate the online application, in her view it wasn't easy to share the multi-section application and its questions with team members. She spent roughly 20 hours over a few weeks completing the application, including substantial time studying the criteria. On top of that came the time-consuming tasks of validating technical answers with the development team and reviewing business questions with executives. "It was challenging to get it done," she says, recalling some tricky scenario questions around customer benefits. "Make sure to allow time for an internal review." Ultimately, though, the effort was worth it: Apptix was named 2006 Advanced Infrastructure Solutions Sales and Marketing Partner of the Year.

Bottom line: The application process can be overwhelming, so it's never too early to start preparing -- even if you've applied before. Olah says he started thinking about the 2007 awards in fall 2006.

2. Develop an application strategy
Take the time to think strategically about how your company will apply for the awards, including how you'll differentiate yourself from the competition. Treat the application process the same way that you would a project for a client: Assign a project manager to oversee the effort. This person should collect information from stakeholders, write or coordinate the writing of the application, obtain executive reviews and input, and facilitate the process of getting quotes and other supporting information from customers. "Don't rely on your technical teams for driving the award submission process," warns Wheadon. "Involve them, but have your best marketing people own the overall submission."

Winner Profile

Citrix Systems Inc.
Line of Business: On-demand access infrastructure solutions
Founded: 1989
Employees: 3,200
Partner Level: Gold Certified
Winning or related solutions for 2006 awards: Citrix Access Suite,(tm) based on Citrix Presentation Server(tm) and Microsoft Windows Server(tm)
Global Partner Awards, including finalist placements: 2003 Global ISV of the Year, 2004 Finalist Global ISV of the Year, 2005 Global ISV of the Year, 2006 Office System Deployment Partner of the Year
Lessons/Insights: "We weren't upset when we lost the global ISV award [in 2004], because the business gets improved by the process," says Garry Olah, senior director of Citrix's global relationship with Microsoft. "We have more interaction with our customers and Microsoft during [the process]. These awards help us analyze our relationship with Microsoft and where to go and innovate next."

Citrix has the awards process down to a science. Virtual teams of cross-functional employees (marketing, sales, product development, engineering) work on the applications, sometimes repurposing information from past attempts. Citrix also developed an external Web site designed specifically for the awards that provides detail about its Microsoft relationship, and included links to that site throughout its applications.

Toronto-based Gold Certified Partner iMason Inc. hired a public-relations expert to write its application. That move reflects another entry imperative: While you need to call upon product developers and engineers to help answer the technical questions, the final outcome should be a riveting business story. "Using an outside writer helps you crystallize the message and provides an outside perspective," says Andrew Steane, director of marketing with iMason, a finalist for the 2006 Custom Development Solutions Technology Innovation category and winner of a 2006 regional Customer Experience award. Too often, partners simply don't provide enough detail to generate interest and excitement, Salzer says, adding: "Using PR is a fabulous idea."

Customers can also help you tell your story better. Steane asked the business customers that iMason featured in the applications -- the city site and a large Canadian financial institution -- to provide feedback on the solution's business value, an exercise that he calls extremely useful. (iMason also won a Microsoft Canada award in 2006 for the project: the IMPACT Custom Development Solution of the Year.)

Winner Profile
C2C Systems Ltd.
Line of Business: Message archiving and management solutions
Founded: 1992
Employees: 30
Partner Level: Gold Certified
Winning or related solutions for 2006 awards: "Archive One" based on Microsoft Exchange and developed with Microsoft Visual C++ and MAPI
Global Partner Awards: 2006 Global Customer Experience Award
Lessons/Insights: "Senior management needs to commit to the application process," says Dan Langille, manager of channel programs. "In our case, for example, the project on which we based our submission was a true team effort between sales, partner management and product development." Other advice: "Microsoft likes it if you can show that you're making their customers happier."

Ultimately, you must determine the best way to highlight your organization's strengths and package the information. To help solidify its message, Apptix, which provides hosted Exchange and SharePoint solutions, repeated one theme -- the scalability and robustness of its service management platform -- throughout its application. Funk recalls: "I talked about how our platform infrastructure allowed us to service and support and scale [to] our customer despite the fact that we were rapidly growing."

3. Use your most compelling customer story
Due to the sheer volume of applicants, Microsoft can't accommodate source code or screenshots, says Geoff Saunders, project manager for the Global Partner Awards program. So your best supporting documentation is probably your best customer story. And while some awards don't require a customer case, you must still, at minimum, demonstrate quantifiable customer ROI and benefits.

C2C Systems Ltd., a Gold Certified Partner based in Reading, England, provides Microsoft Exchange-based e-mail archiving solutions for midsize and small enterprise customers worldwide. Because of compliance issues and the growing volume and complexity of corporate messaging, the company's offerings address a clear customer pain point. C2C won the 2006 Customer Experience award for the implementation of its "Archive One" solution for the Tyler Independent School District in Texas, which needed to quickly show compliance with a rigorous state regulation.

Dan Langille, manager of channel programs for C2C Systems, believes that time-to-market was a critical factor in his company's award. Counting from the date of the first contact with its school district, C2C Systems launched the solution in just two weeks. During that time, the company even coordinated its efforts with a hardware vendor and systems integrator.

What also worked in C2C's favor, he says, was the partner ecosystem model of the implementation -- which Microsoft likes to see. But ultimately, they knew that the school district would be a good reference. "The most important thing for us [in terms of differentiation] is that the customer has to be blown away by what we have done," remarks Langille, who works from an office in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Winner Profile
iMason Inc.
Line of Business: Consulting services, focused on e-commerce, content and site design, and online community
Founded: 1999
Employees: 35
Partner Level: Gold Certified
Winning or related solutions for 2006 awards: .NET and Visual Studio 2005-based infrastructure for large Web community; SharePoint-based policy and procedure library for financial institutions
Global Partner Awards: 2006 Custom Development Solutions Technology Innovation finalist, 2006 Regional (Canada) Customer Experience Winner
Lessons/Insights: "If you're expecting to just spend a couple of hours [on the application], you're not giving yourself a chance to win," says Andrew Steane, director of marketing. Other advice: In the application, balance information on the role of the Microsoft product in your solution with the customer perspective.

"We look for a good story, but also a case that goes across several Citrix and Microsoft products," says Olah. His company's 2006 award was for a data-centralization project for Beverly Enterprises, a large health care services provider at which data and IT management was decentralized across 400 locations. Since the implementation of stricter confidentiality and record-keeping requirements in laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act [HIPAA] and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, "you can't have files sitting out on laptops," Olah observes. The Web-based information access solution, Citrix Access Suite, lowered the company's IT operating budget by $10 million over five years.

But be careful how you write up your customer story. Partners tend to talk too much about the products and not enough about the solution or the customer, Salzer laments. Steane adds this reminder: Don't forget that the customer story should be more about the customer than your company and its role.

4. Put on your Microsoft goggles
A successful application will hammer home how your organization and solution drives Microsoft goals and sales. "Our business has grown significantly in the last year, so that is important for our credibility plus Microsoft revenues," Funk explains. Additionally, think about how you can align with areas that are most important to Microsoft from a competitive or product-release standpoint.

Because the competition's 350 judges come from many disciplines and geographical regions, you'll need to showcase how your solution is applicable for customers in different countries and industries. Some other factors you may wish to highlight are innovative use of technology and good customer care.

"The early adopters we love to see," Salzer says. Microsoft craves strong customer stories for case studies, particularly when the customer is using a new technology. (iMason, for instance, used a beta version of Visual Studio 2005 in its winning solution for

Microsoft provides official criteria for the entries, each of which is independently reviewed by three judges. Factors considered include time-to-market, customer productivity and marketplace impact, among others.

Winner Profile
Dimension Data Holdings plc
Line of business: Security, operating environments, storage and contact center technologies; IT consulting and services
Founded: 1983
Employees: 8,600
Partner Level: Gold Certified
Winning or related solutions for 2006 awards: Compliance Management, Dynamic Desktop Deployment (Microsoft Windows and Office)
Global Partner Awards: 2006 Advanced Infrastructure Technology Innovation, Custom Development Smart Client Development, and Global Winning Customer; 2005 Sales and Marketing Partner of the Year for Security Solutions
Lessons/Insights: "Customer endorsement is extremely important," says Curt Wheadon, global vice president, operating environments and messaging. "The more your clients become raving fans and are willing to state so, the better."

In developing the criteria, Microsoft tries to not be overly prescriptive, according to Salzer. That approach might be frustrating for partners trying to determine exactly what it is that Microsoft wants, but from Redmond's perspective the end result is a richer set of solutions from which to choose. "We want the partners to come in without a lot of filters or guidance," Salzer says. "We're always delighted to see how much creativity there is out there."

5. Remember, it's not just about the award
It's good to find one more reason to dust off the old adage: "It's not about whether you win or lose -- it's how you play the game." Like the leadership team at the mother ship in Redmond, executives at Microsoft partner companies are hardwired to compete and win. But if winning is your only goal, and visions of the award stage dance like sugar plums in your head, you're missing the point. Going through the application process itself is a learning experience that can contribute in a meaningful way to your marketing efforts -- and even to your business strategy.

Steane, of iMason, sums up his take on the process this way: "It helped force us to do something we should be doing anyway -- documenting our successes." Too often, team members don't understand the full value of the submissions, he says, and it's easy for people to lose hope if the company doesn't win the first, second or third time around. But, he continues, "it's not constructive to look at it as a one-time thing or [as if] it's all about winning." (iMason, which has entered the competition annually since 2004, has won regional awards but not yet a global one.)

"It's not just about the award process, but the relationship you've built with Microsoft," adds Olah. "We take pride in being a finalist in any category."

More Information

What Makes a Winner?
Following are some criteria and questions that judges consider in selecting Microsoft Partner Award winners:

  • Repeatability. Can this solution be deployed multiple times across the partner’s customer base, and adapted to a variety of customers?
  • Innovation. Did the partner package multiple Microsoft and third-party products in an innovative way (or creatively use a single product) to develop this solution?
  • Impact in the Marketplace. How big an impact did the partner’s solution have on the end user’s business and in the marketplace?
  • Improved Customer Productivity. Did the partner’s solution result in a demonstrable increase in efficiency for the end user?
  • Return on Investment. Did the partner’s use of Microsoft products in this solution result in above-average ROI for both the partner and the end user?
  • Time to Market. Did the use of Microsoft products by the partner in this solution result in expedient development and delivery of the solution to the end user?
  • Leverage of Campaigns. Did the partner creatively leverage Microsoft’s Customer Campaigns (formerly Go-to-Market) materials and activities to create and deliver this solution?


Source: Pam Salzer, Microsoft’s worldwide director of partner marketing.