Pushing Partners to Plan for Success

To break into the enterprise sales segment, you first have to prove to Microsoft that you have the right stuff.

Microsoft is getting very serious about partners in the enterprise and, overall, that's a good thing. But it does mean that partners who want to team with Microsoft for enterprise sales will have to prove themselves like never before.

I'm talking about Partner Solution Plans (PSPs), which the company announced in 2005 and began using in 2006. They've morphed into a fairly rigorous planning process for enterprise partners going forward.

Segmentation and Selection
In this process, Microsoft looks at all of its enterprise partners each spring and picks those it specifically wants to work with during its next fiscal year (which begins on July 1). Microsoft calls this step "segmentation and selection." It's segmentation because each Microsoft subsidiary runs its own process, and it's selection because the subsidiary selects the partners it wants to work with in the coming fiscal year. Once that's done, Microsoft assigns a partner account manager to each selected partner in each subsidiary. The selected partners first put together their Partner Business Plans (which have been around for years) and then do their PSPs, which map out how Microsoft and each partner will work together, the solutions they'll push and where they'll push them. PSPs can be very narrow -- Microsoft cites the case of one partner that specialized in search optimization for government departments in Israel-or quite broad, such as a PSP for a solution that can be sold in dozens of subsidiaries.

PSPs are loaded with metrics. They define how many customers the partner and Microsoft expect to win, how much money they'll make from the wins, milestone dates and other important information.

Sharp Focus
This is a rigorous and purposeful process and it shows Microsoft at its best. When this company gets serious about something, it focuses sharply on building efficient processes and setting goals for winning. This aspect of Microsoft doesn't always get the credit it deserves -- too often, industry watchers focus solely on product ship dates or features. While those factors are important, a solid plan for execution in the field and high goals with teeth in them can overcome feature mediocrity. Inversely, poor sales execution and unclear goals can damn a fine product. One reason is that most customers don't spend all day reading the computer press. They're running businesses, and when someone comes through the door with a good, relevant pitch, they'll listen-without always conducting exhaustive comparative research.

(I'm not saying that Microsoft products are second rate, either. The point is that computer professionals can debate technical merits all night while ignoring non-technical issues that can end up making the biggest difference.)

The new process for selecting enterprise partners and defining mutual goals offers many advantages for both Microsoft and partners.

Microsoft's enterprise sales team gets a clearer view of its sales pipeline, spends its time with serious partners who have planned to win, and benefits enormously from partners' knowledge about their own customers. Those "wins" in the plan aren't plucked out of the air: Often, a partner knows in advance where the real opportunities are.

Partners, in turn, get accountability from Microsoft. The company may have ignored partner business plans in the past, but specific Microsoft and partner staffers put their names on each PSP. If a PSP fails to meet its objectives, everyone knows where to point fingers. Partners also get commitments from Microsoft for resources such as business incentive funds, Microsoft consulting hours, training and customer seminars.

Importance of Performance
What it means, in the end, is that partners shouldn't take their partnerships with Microsoft casually, especially at the high end. Inside the company, there's more emphasis than ever on performance, and Microsoft is going to expect the same from its closest partners. Partners that don't meet the bar will probably find that their contacts at Microsoft are too busy working with partners they feel are making real commitments to sales performance to spend time with those who haven't shown a similar level of effort.

About the Author

Paul DeGroot is principle consultant with Pica Communications, which provides consulting services for customers with complex Microsoft licensing issues.