In-Depth

Power to the Partners

Microsoft's Partner Advisory Councils (PACs) provide a chance for partners to be seen and heard-and even to change Microsoft.

More than a few people think Microsoft is so big that it doesn't listen to any advice from the outside-not even from its partners. The only opinions that matter, goes the reasoning, come from within Redmond's walls because Microsofties know so much more than mere mortals.

Microsoft Partner Advisory Councils, or PACs, explode that myth. Microsoft established PACs specifically to get feedback-both positive and, perhaps more often, negative-from its partner community. The initiative has succeeded in a variety of tangible ways.

Take, for instance, the fact that Exchange Server 2007 is a 64-bit product only. When Microsoft was considering a 32-bit version, the company used its infrastructure PAC, or IPAC, as it's known-as a sounding board. "The infrastructure PAC really pushed the 64-bit version," says IPAC member Per Werngren, CEO of IDE Network Consultants, a Gold Certified Partner headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden. IPAC members agreed that "by the time Exchange Server 2007 came out, almost all new servers would be 64-bit," Werngren recalls. He says Microsoft officials told IPAC members that their input validated the company's decision against developing a 32-bit version of Exchange Server 2007.

A Two-Way Street
However, PACs are definitely a two-way street, says Pam Salzer, Microsoft's senior director for partner marketing. PACs "give partners an opportunity, in an open and honest forum, to give [Microsoft] feedback for short- and long-term efforts," she says. "We're anxious, as we build out programs, to get feedback from partners from incubation through mature products. And for partners, it's an incredible opportunity to hear from and talk to Microsoft; it's also a great opportunity to partner with other partners."

How to Start Your Own PAC

Partner Advisory Councils (PACs) certainly aren't unique to Microsoft. Many other companies use input from similar committees to improve their products and services. You may want to consider starting your own PAC (or possibly a Customer Advisory Panel, known as a CAP).

Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec Corp., a Gold Certified Partner, did just that in 2002. Symantec's PAC now has 18 partners, says Randy Cochran, Symantec's vice president of channel sales.

PAC members meet quarterly by telephone and once a year in person. Meetings typically consist of a four- or five-topic agenda that Cochran distributes in advance. Symantec requests a two-year commitment and members serve staggered terms, with six spots rotating every year. Cochran sums up the PAC's role this way: "We're not telling them [what the company's going to do], we're asking them. We're looking for advice and counsel." And Symantec gets plenty of that, he continues: "They're not shy. The partners tell you what's working and what's not working."

That feedback has generated positive results for Symantec. "We've gotten confirmation and directional correctness," Cochran says. "If you want to roll out a new program or offering, [a PAC is] a great test bed to say 'Here's what we think; what do you think?' We're putting out better programs because we're listening. We don't want to ever assume we're on the right track; we want to confirm [that we are]."

Cochran offers the following advice to companies looking to launch a PAC or CAP:

  • Start small. Don't begin with extravagant goals: "A lot of it's about listening and communication," Cochran says.
  • Clearly emphasize benefits. "Put in a contract what's required, what's expected, what [each side is] going to get out of this. If you're not careful, it can get very one-sided," Cochran warns. Your PAC members need to know that it's not all about you.
  • Find the right mix of members. Invite both small and large partners from a variety of geographic regions. But don't get so diverse that consensus is impossible, Cochran warns: "You want different sizes and different flavors, but you also want to avoid getting 32 different opinions."
  • Keep meetings on track. "That's the purpose of having an agenda," Cochran notes. If the group gets mired in talking about a situation unique to one partner, you can suggest taking that discussion offline and returning to the scheduled topics.
    "You don't want to stifle conversation, but remember, you're representing much broader interests" than one member's problems, he says.
  • Make follow-up a top priority. Let PAC members know how their feedback and suggestions have been implemented. Taking advice and then doing nothing about it can kill members' enthusiasm, making your PAC ineffective; it can even alienate your partners.
    But if you do the job right, both sides will benefit from involvement in the PAC. Ultimately, Cochran says, "what's good for the partner is good for the vendor."
--K.W.

Microsoft currently has 19 PACs that are divided into two rough categories: product PACs and strategy/program PACs (for more background, see "PAC Facts," p. 30). Microsoft is always thinking about adding new PACs, Salzer says: "We're always evaluating areas of business where we need open and candid feedback." Among the newest PACs is the Live PAC, covering Microsoft's burgeoning online offerings. (But current popularity isn't enough to justify formation of a dedicated PAC; among other criteria, the product or program must have a shelf life of at least five years.)

Not surprisingly, given the benefits, serving on a Microsoft PAC can be a highly desirable opportunity. Salzer lists five primary perks:

  • PACs offer partners the chance to give feedback on things that matter to them, especially in the marketplace.
  • Partner companies that have representatives on PACs are widely viewed as leaders.
  • PACs provide partners with exposure to other partners from which mutually beneficial relationships can develop.
  • PAC members increase their visibility inside Microsoft, especially within the teams working on products in their field.
  • PACs offer partners the chance to have some fun with colleagues. In one case, Salzer says, "the last time partners came in, we did some golfing and just had time to all cut loose together."

But as with an exclusive golf club, membership in a PAC isn't open to just anyone: There's a formal nomination process. For example, when the Live PAC was announced, Microsoft offered partners the opportunity to submit nominations.

Face Time
Membership definitely has its privileges. PAC members get an "inside look" into Microsoft's worldwide marketing organization, says Bill Breslin, director of sales and marketing for IT services firm Insource Technologies Corp., a Houston-based Gold Certified Partner. Breslin says his PAC participation provides access to Allison Watson, the Microsoft corporate vice president for the Worldwide Partner Group, three or four times a year. "I get a lot of interaction with people at Microsoft at all levels," says Breslin, who also heads the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners (IAMCP). He stays on the PAC to continue getting face time with high-level folks in Redmond: "These relationships do have value for me."

Breslin is in his fourth year on the Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) PAC. It's the only PAC that meets three times per year; the others meet twice. In the case of conference PACs there's a yearly deliverable: the conference itself, which, this year, will be held in Denver in July. "Our sessions go for two days nonstop, and the feedback is continuous; every logistical topic is covered," says Breslin. After that, he says, "Microsoft brings us into the room and throws ideas at us, like how they want to brand it. They want broad and varied input from the [PAC]."

And, like Werngren, he finds that Microsoft executives take that input seriously. "You wouldn't believe how much we've been able to change through partner feedback," Breslin says. "In a couple of areas, we were surprised our feedback was taken and changes made ... You think of Microsoft like a Goliath that doesn't take feedback, but they do."

Indeed, the WPC runs as it does largely because of PAC feedback. Several years ago, Breslin recalls, the group suggested that Microsoft needed to shift its overall WPC focus away from "saying how much money it was going to make from products, how Microsoft did last year and how [it will] do next year." Instead, PAC members told Redmond that they wanted a stronger emphasis on partners. "We said that a necessary component of every session had to be, 'How is this going to help partners?'" Breslin says. "That was a dramatic shift from how Microsoft did it."

John Payes agrees that Microsoft takes negative feedback seriously. "Microsoft is one of the most self-critical companies you'll ever come across," says Payes, director of the Microsoft Global Alliance for Nakisa Inc., a Montreal-based Gold Certified Partner and ISV that makes enterprise-level human resources software.

Constructive Criticism
Payes sits on both the WPC PAC and the Small and Midmarket Solutions & Partners PAC, a strategy council. Thanks to his involvement in two different PACs, Payes has seen first-hand the slings and arrows thrown Microsoft's way during PAC meetings: "One of the main purposes of a PAC is to give brutal feedback.

Not everything is perfect; that's why you have teams coming together-it makes the partner program better for partners. "

However, partners do pay for the privilege of giving Microsoft such unvarnished feedback. Participants foot the bill for their own expenses-airfare, hotel, meals-for the two-day sessions. That requirement is especially burdensome for participants like Werngren, who come from overseas. But he says that it's money well spent: "The networking is very, very good. We network with Microsoft and also network with fellow PAC members ... I can teach them and learn from them." PAC participants also learn from Microsoft, including gaining insight into ongoing development efforts. Historically, partners got involved with products only in the last months before a launch, Werngren says, but Microsoft has more recently realized the benefits of partner feedback early on. Werngren says IPAC lead Bob Kelly, Microsoft's general manager of infrastructure server marketing, "knows that in order to make the IPAC of high value, it's good if partners are involved very, very early before a product launch." So early, says Werngren, that his PAC has been "talking about 'Longhorn' server for two years. We're talking now about the next [server] product and a little bit on the product after that."

That kind of mini-crystal ball also gives partner companies an edge when advising customers. Without breaking the strict nondisclosure agreement that binds all PAC members, partners can give customers general guidance on issues related to future products.

Partners Helping Partners
PAC-based feedback has also proven beneficial for the Microsoft Partner Program.

PAC Facts

Number of Microsoft Partner Advisory Councils (PACs):

There's no set number; PACs are added or deleted as Microsoft deems necessary.

Type of PACs (2):

There are product PACs (such as the Mobility PAC, which focuses on mobility solutions) and strategy/program PACs (such as the Worldwide Partner Conference PAC).

Member Selection: By nomination.

Microsoft puts out calls for new PAC members whenever it establishes a new council.

Member Commitment: 1 to 2 years.

That's the usual tenure, although members on some councils serve longer terms.

Financial Commitment:

Partners pay their own meeting-related travel and lodging expenses. Partners on the WPC PAC receive free admission to the annual conference.

Meetings:

Generally, PACs hold two intensive two-day meetings per year in Redmond. The WPC PAC meets three times annually. PAC members receive agendas beforehand, but there's little pre-meeting preparation; participants usually aren't expected to arrive with presentations or other advance work. --K.W.

As one example, there's Partner Skills Plus, a massive new training initiative (for details see, "Seeking Solutions for the Skills Shortage," Channel Report, January 2007). "Partner Skills Plus came out of having lunch with 10 partners at a PAC meeting," says Salzer. "It came out of the need for partners to get and retain employees. They were too busy and turning away business [because of staff shortages]." That discussion led to the initiative, launched last year with the goal of training and certifying 38,000 people to increase the number of skilled IT professionals worldwide. "It was a $30 million cost to Microsoft, and it came out of a PAC meeting," Salzer says. Another example: the Partner Channel Builder program, which helps Microsoft partners find other partners.

PAC membership rotates on a semi-regular basis. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules about when members join and leave, Salzer says Microsoft usually requests a one- or two-year commitment. Some, like Breslin, stay on longer. But no matter what a PAC member's tenure, partners say, his or her ideas are as welcome as those of more senior participants.

That was Payes' experience during his first year on the WPC PAC. Payes recently participated in MS101, a weeklong training program designed to help partners learn about Microsoft and how to navigate the company. Because he got so much out of the program, he recommended making it a component of the WPC. In July 2006, nearly 1,000 partners attended MS101 at the WPC in Boston. Today, Payes is almost giddy when discussing the topic: "Talk about making an impact! For me, that was great. It illustrates the fact that all ideas are welcome, whether you're a longtime partner or new."

In the end, the greatest benefit of the Microsoft PACs is the two-way communication that involvement promotes. For Microsoft, PACs are so important because they provide "in-depth, candidly honest [feedback] about what we can improve and what's needed," Salzer says.

Meanwhile, partners benefit from seeing their ideas come to fruition. "They know we're listening, and they want to be part of the listening," Salzer says. "Those that join take a leadership role, knowing they have the opportunity to shape, guide and give feedback on what we can be doing collectively to solve problems in the marketplace."