Minding Your Microsoft Manners

RCP's experts answer five tricky etiquette questions and provide pointers on what to do -- and what not to do -- when meeting with Microsoft.

It's not always easy to get noticed in Redmond. Microsoft, after all, has more than 300,000 partners in its Worldwide Partner Program. Sure, the big guys -- the global systems integrators and huge independent software vendors, for instance -- get plenty of access to Microsoft executives and lots of support from the company. But, for small and midsize partners, a meeting with Microsoft folks can provide a golden -- and, in most cases, rare -- opportunity to get into the software giant's good graces. And getting into Microsoft's good graces can produce all sorts of fringe benefits, from increased marketing support to access to more and better sales leads.

That's why partners should be prepared for their meetings with Microsoft, whether they take place on the Redmond campus or in a field sales office -- or even over the Internet. But being prepared means more than just having some PowerPoint slides ready and memorizing your company's pitch. It also means knowing what to do -- and what not to do -- in order to fit into Microsoft's culture and make a positive impression. After all, with so many companies competing for Microsoft's attention, partners need people in Redmond to remember them for the right reasons -- not the wrong ones.

Still, people in the know say that it's surprising how many partners make simple, seemingly easily avoidable gaffes when meeting with people from Microsoft.

"Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners."
--Etiquette maven and author Emily Post

"You literally roll your eyes [and] cringe at what the partner does or doesn't do in front of Microsoft," says Albert Bitton, president of Partnerwise, a Montréal-based consulting firm that advises companies on partnering with Microsoft. So, to help eliminate eye-rolling in partners' meetings with Microsoft and help them get the most of out of the experience, RCP has put together a concise question-and-answer guide to meeting with Microsoft. Follow it and you'll be a lot more likely to walk out of your next Microsoft meeting having left the right impression with the right people.

Q: Are there any gaffes that I should absolutely avoid when meeting with people from Microsoft?
A: Yes. Don't run Lotus Notes as your e-mail client. Don't talk about the music you listened to on your iPod on the trip to Redmond or to a field office. Don't schedule online meetings on WebEx or call people from Microsoft on Skype. And, above all, don't "Google."

You get the point by now: It might sound trite, but showing a commitment to Microsoft products and technologies is critical when meeting with Microsoft people. And steering clear of using -- or even casually talking about using -- competitors' wares is imperative.

It's especially important to avoid anything involving Google Inc. Although it has become natural for many people to do it, don't use "Google" as a verb -- and, if possible, don't say the word at all, says Mike Harvath, president of Revenue Rocket Consulting Group, a Bloomington, Minn.-based company that consults with partners on working with Microsoft.

"Clearly, Google's the evil empire right now [in Redmond]," Harvath says. "Google anything is bad, really bad. That is an absolutely off-limits topic."

Showing a commitment to Microsoft and avoiding competitive products is especially important for smaller partners, says Deanne Handron, former global director of Microsoft business for worldwide consulting giant Capgemini, who made a presentation on Microsoft etiquette at a Microsoft Partner 101 event -- a conference for selected partners on how to work with Microsoft -- in Redmond in December 2006.

"Those visible faux pas like running Notes on your desktop -- those are things that identify you as somebody who doesn't understand what's important to Microsoft," Handron says. "The best thing [small partner companies] can do is dedicate themselves completely to Microsoft and look as loyal as possible to the Microsoft platform. I've seen Microsoft partner with 100-percent-loyal partners that don't have a very good product [more readily] than they would with a bigger partner that also has a relationship with a Microsoft competitor."

Partners should even be careful when mentioning other vendors while talking about customer wins. Microsoft folks like to hear about all-Microsoft deals, says Rich Freeman, a freelance writer and frequent Redmond Channel Partner contributor who worked in various partner-facing positions at Microsoft over a span of almost nine years. Many partners have left meetings in Redmond wondering why their Microsoft counterparts weren't more impressed with wins that also involved technologies from companies that compete with Microsoft, he says.

"Partners would be really scratching their heads," Freeman says. "It's got to be frustrating for the partner because they know how hard it was to get the win."

Q: How should I structure my presentation for a Microsoft meeting?
A: First of all, to paraphrase President John F. Kennedy: Ask not what Microsoft can do for your company, but show what your company can do for Microsoft. A common mistake is spending too much time asking for something and too little talking about how you can deliver value for Microsoft.

"This happens way too often: It's all about, 'How can you get us into your accounts, Microsoft?' It's not about, 'How can we drive more license sales for your accounts?'" Bitton says. Many partner-company executives don't naturally gravitate to the second approach, but "once they try to build a relationship and nothing happens, they tend to switch gears and ask better questions," he says. "Microsoft is a software company with a partner program that has one objective -- to drive revenue for Microsoft. Absolutely every partner that's part of the program is there to accomplish that objective."

It's important, though, not to over-commit and under-deliver. While that concept might seem simple, Handron says that it's very tempting for smaller partners to assume that a company as large as Microsoft won't notice if they don't generate the amounts of revenue that they've promised. However, while the company as a whole may not notice, the person at Microsoft with whom the partner is working almost certainly will.

"We can all be victims of hyperbole," Handron says. "We get so excited about our product and its potential. You get a little overexcited and over-commit, and that's bad. You just look at how big Microsoft is and you say, 'What's the big deal if we don't get it done?' [Microsoft] holds each person accountable. It is a big deal for the guy who's signing that contract. You're never signing a deal with that big Microsoft in the sky; you're signing a contract with that individual person."

Strategically, then, it's important to communicate your value and make sure that you can deliver it. Tactically, it's important to get that message out first thing when meeting with people from Microsoft. Folks in Redmond come to meetings prepared, observers say, and don't usually have a lot of time to spend with any individual partner. It's best, then, not to waste a lot of time up front making overly detailed introductions or repeating information that's already available on the company Web site. Just go straight to the bottom line.

"The very first [PowerPoint] slide you present has to tell them: 'Here's what I'm going to tell you, here's why it's important to you and here's what I want you to decide at the end of the meeting,'" says Freeman. "Microsoft people are so numbers-driven. If you're the kind of partner that meanders around and speaks in generalities, that's going to make a bad impression."

Q: I'm the CEO of a midsize partner company. Should I expect access to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer or someone close to his level?
A: No. Far too many partners, observers say, don't understand that Microsoft is a global enterprise with hundreds of thousands of partners and that very, very few heads of partner companies ever meet with Ballmer or other top executives.

"One of the things that partners forget is that they are one of many," Freeman says. "People will sometimes demand access to Ballmer and big executives and think, 'I'm a CEO; he's a CEO. We should be talking every month.' That kind of pushiness doesn't go over well. [Partner CEOs] are masters of their universe. In this other arena, you're a smaller fish in a bigger pond."

Furthermore, partners shouldn't necessarily expect -- or even want -- to meet with someone in or from Redmond, Bitton says. Microsoft has strong local organizations for a reason, he adds.

"Partners assume that Microsoft is just like every other company, where you talk to somebody and partner with them at Redmond," Bitton says. "You waste all your time trying to meet executives at Redmond when all that's going to do is have Redmond point you back to the local people." That shuffling-around process can waste six to nine months, he says.

While they shouldn't expect an audience with Ballmer, partners should send their own top decision-makers to meetings. Anybody who meets with someone from Microsoft needs to be able to make permanent decisions on the spot, right in the meeting, Bitton says. Sending a lieutenant to get information and report it back to the home office will rankle people in Redmond.

"Microsoft gets ticked off because you sent the business development manager to a meeting where the business development manager only takes information and goes back and gives information to the CEO," Bitton says. "If you continually have meetings with Microsoft and the CEO doesn't show up, that sends a message to Microsoft. This type of partner will be shunned, and it happens way too often."

Q: How should I behave during a meeting with Microsoft people, and how should I expect them to behave?
A: As always, basic rules of etiquette apply. The No. 1 rule is be on time -- observers say that Microsoft employees generally have multiple meetings scheduled with no breaks, so they don't have time to wait around for partners who are late.

Beyond that, busy Microsoft people are known for bringing laptops and other mobile devices to meetings -- and using them, sometimes a lot. Partners should bring their laptops and be prepared to send their Microsoft counterparts information electronically rather than communicating it some other way.

"When I would go into a meeting, usually everybody would bring PCs," Handron says. "They're taking notes on their PCs. They're less of a 'let-me-draw-this-on-a-whiteboard' type company."

Harvath agrees: "Make sure you bring your laptop to every meeting because everybody else will have theirs and will be doing e-mails during the meeting. They want you to send information to them in the meeting. Being able to use the technology in emphasizing your point makes sense."

But Microsoft folks won't just be reading your e-mails during your meeting. They'll probably be reading and responding to outside e-mails, too, "unless you say, 'we want everyone to turn off all their technology for the next hour.' [In that case,] they'll look at you sideways, but most people will do it," Harvath says, adding that only partners who have an established relationship with Microsoft should try that move.

Still, Handron says, it's wise for partners to not to follow the leads of their Microsoft counterparts and start reading outside e-mails and checking mobile devices during meetings. As partners move up Redmond's food chain, she says, Microsoft people will pay more attention to them. But at the outset, partners will just have to contend with distractions.

"It's just a pet peeve of mine when people treat my time like it's not worth as much as theirs," Handron says. "Microsoft people do it. More senior [Microsoft] people don't do it. It's my personal opinion that it's not smart for a partner to do it. Be prepared for Microsoft people to do it. You're not meeting with the senior people until you've been doing this for a long time."

On that note, Harvath actually recommends holding Microsoft meetings outside of Microsoft offices. He says that Microsoft people are more likely to give partners their undivided attention in a neutral setting such as a coffee shop -- or even in partners' own offices.

"I try to meet with Microsoft away from the Microsoft office. [Microsoft employees] tend to have a lot of distractions," says Harvath, adding that partners have told him they've had their most productive Microsoft meetings outside of the company's offices, too.

Q: Are there any other little tips I should know before I go into my meeting?
A: There are probably hundreds of them, but Harvath offers a few simple ones that might help partners differentiate themselves.

"Microsoft is the land of the three-letter acronym," he says. "Make sure you use plenty of three-letter acronyms. Make up some as you go along and see what they say. The problem with Microsoft-speak is that unless you're on the inside every day, even the partners don't understand it. To be able to do that a little bit back and poke a little fun at these guys helps create an environment where they respect a partner as a peer."

Harvath also says that it's important to talk up Microsoft products -- which, of course, partners should be using -- as much as possible. "[Microsoft people] just believe that their products are far superior to everything else in the market. That culture has permeated every employee in the company," he says.

"Mention Vista," he continues, referring to the operating system that Microsoft released earlier this year. "Say [you're] running it and what a productivity boost it is." Harvath notes that bad feedback about Vista has filtered back to Microsoft through corporate accounts and the channel, so a positive review of it from a partner could be a key to making a good impression.

The same goes for Windows Live, he says, especially Microsoft's much-maligned Live search engine, which has struggled in the face of competition from Google and others: "Sprinkle the word 'live' liberally into all Microsoft-related communications; they'll love you for it."

Microsoft partners might not be looking for love in their meetings with people from the software giant -- but they are looking, at the very least, for recognition. And knowing the answers to the tricky questions presented here should help partners get noticed for all the right reasons.