Microsoft Emphasizes The 'Special' in 'Small Business Specialist'

Seeking to boost enrollment in its Small Business Specialist Community (SBSC), Microsoft announced its first-ever SBSC brand-awareness campaign and other program enhancements during the fifth annual SMB Nation conference recently.

"From Microsoft's perspective, the [SBSC] program is immensely successful," Arnie Mondloch, director of marketing and relationship engines in Microsoft's U.S. partner group, told Small Business Specialists at the event, which attracted more than 650 people to Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus in late September. "We want more of you."

A privately run event, SMB Nation caters to the mostly smaller resellers and solutions providers that serve small and midsize businesses (SMBs). Microsoft's SBSC targets the same people. Introduced in July 2005, the SBSC confers exclusive benefits on Microsoft partners with small business expertise. Any Microsoft Partner Program member company can join the community as long as at least one employee passes a marketing and sales assessment test and either of two technical exams.

The new SBSC branding effort responds to frequent complaints from Small Business Specialists that Microsoft doesn't promote them loudly enough. Built around the theme of "we've got a guy," the campaign pokes fun at the unskilled amateurs that many small businesses still turn to for technology help, using online ads and a wave of press releases to position Small Business Specialists as a more dependable alternative (visit for details).

Microsoft also used SMB Nation to launch a new contest that will award a Grand Canyon rafting trip to the Small Business Specialist that provides the most compelling sales case study, as well as a program enabling SBSC members to display streaming content from Microsoft's forthcoming Small Business Summit on their Web sites. Both offers are open only to U.S. Small Business Specialists (visit for details).

Warm Reception
Many conference attendees greeted Microsoft's spate of announcements warmly. "It puts some meat behind the SBSC program," says Greg Sartz, president of General Networks Inc., an IT services provider and Registered Member in Loveland, Colo. Such feedback is good news for Microsoft, which has had trouble hitting its aggressive SBSC enrollment goals.

Elsewhere at the event, Microsoft talked up a variety of SMB-friendly products, including Response Point, its new software for small-business phone systems, and Windows Vista. Claiming strong momentum for Vista, Sean Kapoor, a group marketing manager in Microsoft's Windows product group, noted that Microsoft shipped 60 million copies of the new operating system in its first six months.

However, Kapoor also acknowledged that early software and hardware compatibility issues may have dampened initial demand for Vista. "The numbers are looking impressive, but we have a lot of work to do," he said. Most of the several dozen people in Kapoor's audience probably agreed. When asked how many had landed a Vista deployment services deal to date, not one raised a hand.

In a separate presentation, Microsoft urged partners to keep pushing Small Business Server (SBS), its back-office suite for companies with up to 75 employees. According to analyst firm IDC, only 26 percent of U.S. small businesses own a server. "That's a lot of new opportunity for those of us in this room," observes Chad Caudle, a marketing manager in Microsoft's OEM partner group. Looking ahead, Caudle said the next version of SBS, code-named "Cougar," will reach market two to three months after the release of Windows Server 2008, currently scheduled for February 2008.

Managed Services
The conference's hottest topic, though, was managed services. Last year's SMB Nation included a heavily-attended session for partners thinking about entering the managed-services fray. This year, Sartz noted: "Everyone is already in managed services." These days, partners are seeking practical advice on pricing and marketing their offerings. That shift had attendees flocking to presentations from purveyors of managed services automation systems. But many partners reported disappointing experiences with such products. General Networks, for example, is on its third system in four years, and weighing a move to a fourth.

More worrisome to many attendees was the looming entry of Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and other industry giants into managed services. "They don't care about the SMB on-site stuff, but they want the SMB managed services," explains presenter Arnie Bellini, CEO of Tampa, Fla.-based ConnectWise Inc., a Gold Certified Partner, solutions provider and maker of professional-services automation software. "Unfortunately, that's the only place we ever get to make any money."

Bellini advises partners to make themselves indispensable to customers by providing more services. He also encourages them to counter the big vendors' bid for SMB market share with a move of their own into the enterprise. Watch out, he warns large vendors: "We're pushing back."

About the Author

Rich Freeman is a Seattle, Wash.-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology.