In-Depth

Giving Customers What They Want

Partners who understand what customers are looking for (hint: not just low prices) are better equipped to find and keep them.

When it comes to customers, partners know what they want, and it's not just a checkbook.

For Chris Spears, owner of Atlanta-based Gold Certified Partner Arke Systems Inc., openness is critical. "What I'm really looking for in clients are ones that are willing to open up," Spears says. "If they're just coming at you saying, 'We know we have this problem; this is exactly what it is, and there's only one way to fix it,' that really doesn't do us any good. They've got to be willing to talk to us, to let that partner behind the covers of what's really going wrong before any partner's going to be able to find a cost-effective, good solution for the problem."

It turns out that customers often think the same way when looking for a partner: price isn't everything. At a time when every customer relationship is key, it's more important than ever to understand what customers want. That's a big part of why customer satisfaction data is such a critical part of the recently announced Microsoft Partner Network. Meanwhile, to satisfy customers, of course, you have to acquire them. Redmond Channel Partner talked to several customers and partners to find out first-hand how customers and partners linked up, and what the customers valued most in the partners that they chose.

Who's Looking for You?
Several customers reported that the process of finding a partner starts the way so many other searches do, with one simple Web site: Google. (Or, for folks who prefer it, Bing.)

"What I did was do a bunch of Internet research," says a manager of home entertainment at a television broadcasting company, who was searching for a partner to help with Web development. (She requested that she not be identified.)

Liz Simpson, software engineer for Spanx Inc., an Atlanta-based maker of women's body-shaping garments, happened upon Arke Systems in much the same way when searching for a partner for a SharePoint project. Her partner search "began in the usual way, researching local companies on Google," Simpson says. "It's kind of like a Yellow Pages thing. You start looking around, looking at [partners'] Web pages."

Chris Spears, left, and Eric Stoll, of Gold Certified Partner Arke Systems Inc., have been able to forge long-term relationships with customers by understanding their needs.

While some companies prefer to carry out formal requests for quotes (RFQs) or proposal processes, customers say that step isn't always necessary. Spanx, for instance, didn't conduct an RFQ but instead relied on the Web and word of mouth.

"We actually talked to people and tried to get an assessment of their technical skills," says Chuck Ryan, director of information services at Spanx.

Simple networking -- the old-fashioned, face-to-face kind -- is an effective method for matching customer and partner. Dwight Nishida, president of Honolulu-based Gold Certified Partner High Performance Systems Inc., says he gets most of his business through the grapevine. "Right now, it's mostly referrals," Nishida says. "Word of mouth is a lot of it nowadays. People we do work for, their employees go to another company [and] they bring us up."

Another source more often used for buying baseball tickets or used furniture worked for Fred Seifu, president of SmartScouter, an Atlanta-area company that makes a cellular surveillance system. Seifu went looking for a Web-development partner by placing an ad on Craigslist.

Partner searches that begin with search engines are extremely common, says Scott Braden, a Microsoft licensing and channel expert and senior vice president of Microsoft Services at consultancy NET(net) Inc., in Holland, Mich. Networking is a favorite, too.

Microsoft is often not the best place for customers to start looking for a partner, Braden explains: Microsoft will refer partners to customers, but often its recommendations are too limited. "The partners have a lot of hurdles to go through before Microsoft will recognize them as being competent in a given area," he says. "Just because a partner hasn't gone through those hoops doesn't mean it's not competent."

Then again, Braden notes, companies shouldn't ignore Microsoft's suggestions, either. "If Microsoft gives you two names, they're going to be solid," he says.

Still, Braden says, customers get angry at Microsoft because they "know there are 40 or 50 people who could do this project, but Microsoft will only give two names." Braden suggests that companies gather about 40 partners to consider before starting to narrow them down. Conducting too narrow a search for partners when starting a project can staunch innovation and lead to stale service, he says.

Knowing that customers don't generally collect the names of 40 to 50 partners of all types before settling on the best fit for a solution makes it all the more critical for partners to be listed in Microsoft directories, such as Microsoft Pinpoint, and to make sure their names are top-of-mind with the Microsoft field.

"[Customers] always go back to the same two or three or four [partners]," Braden says. "They consistently fail to cast a wide enough net. We always find that there are two or three players out there that are doing things differently enough to make a transformational change and not just do the same old thing."

The broadcasting manager agrees, saying that she doesn't automatically hire the same partner more than once, even though she tends to favor companies she knows. "I still have [familiar partners] bid -- I'll definitely have them included in the bid," she explains. "[But] I don't necessarily give the business to somebody just because they're a recurring vendor."

As for certification levels in the Microsoft Partner Program, Braden says that they can be esoteric and are not necessarily critical to finding the right partner. "I'm not sure [customers] really understand them," he says. "It would be incumbent on the partner in the marketing materials to say why Gold is better. I don't think it matters in the decision phase."

Nishida agrees: "Gold [certification] is not such a big deal," he says. "It gives you a place to start talking to customers. It's a way to bring up a conversation."

Get the Low Down
Beginning the search for a partner is fairly easy, thanks to the Web. Separating the contenders from the pretenders is much more difficult. That's another area in which customers often won't do enough due diligence, Braden says. "The most important things [to check for] are references and experience," when narrowing down partner choices, he says. "We see customers not checking enough. IT shops have just as much time pressure as anybody else, if not more."

References are critical, though, because companies will rarely give them: meaning a company that serves as a reference for a partner is usually satisfied with the partner's work. "It's one thing to be adequate, but adequate doesn't get you references," Braden notes. Partners with ready references definitely have a leg up with customers. Partners who do give out references must make sure their references have favorable answers to several questions that diligent customers will surely ask. Among those questions, Braden says, are: Did the partner meet estimates? Did the project management team deliver? The financial health of the partner and prior work experience in a specific field or with a specific technology are also important bits of information to glean, he says.

It's important for customers to have a solid idea of what they want to do before interviewing partners, but companies may also use the due diligence process to test partners' ingenuity. The better partner candidates will expand on a potential customer's plans and offer an innovative vision for the company's project.

"When you're interviewing these folks, the ideas are morphing right in front of all of us," says David Sample, a senior manager of associate learning and development at retailer Macy's Inc., which went shopping for a partner to work on computer-based training systems. "It's just like interviewing a candidate for a job. You begin to find out through the conversation what [the partner's] capabilities are."

Great partners will have deep technology expertise but will focus more on business than on technology. "[Arke Systems] had a lot of technical savvy and some business savvy as well," says Ryan, of Spanx. "They were able to quickly understand our needs as a business in a short period of time."

A partner's ability to understand a customer's business should appear early in the interviewing process -- and will pay off down the road. "Technical knowledge is almost a commodity," Seifu says. "Anyone can code, but understanding what you're coding and what business problem you're solving is another issue. [Our partner] is our IT arm. We call them for tech support, for development, for advice. In all these three branches, they support us."

It's Not All About the Money
Indeed, technology projects are really business projects, and while IT often influences the process of choosing a partner, it's critical to bring other parties into the process as well. "These things are really business-driven; they're not technology-driven projects," Braden says. "You've got to have the c-level decision maker understanding what [a partner] is doing and what the constraints are. We've seen too many projects go sideways because of simple lack of communication."

Information services manager Ryan says that his relationship of trust with his company's CEO helped ease the process of hiring a partner. "We didn't have a CFO, so I took on that role of looking at the financial obligation," Ryan says. "I worked directly with the CEO to get approval. It was relatively easy because she had basically charged me with ensuring that we were being fiscally responsible."

Conversely, a customer's IT department needs to keep a close watch on how other parts of the company deal with a partner. IT's influence was critical when Sample's branch of Macy's began its project. "I go ask for the money, and then it enters into the next phase, which is pulling in the folks who have greater expertise as well as a financial connection to the project," such as IT professionals, Sample says of his partner-choosing process. "The IT manager is in broader touch with what the company's needs are. He's a direct link back into the financial world."

As a partner, making sure the different departments of a customer's organization are informed and communicating can make projects go more smoothly and help the partner be perceived as more of a trusted advisor.

There's no escaping "the financial world" in any business decision, and cost is certainly a factor for customers in the process of choosing a Microsoft partner. But it isn't the only factor -- or even the most important, customers say. And cheaper is not always better, says Fran Schwartz, executive administrator at Boro Park OB/GYN, the largest obstetrics practice in the New York-New Jersey area.

Schwartz chose New York-based Gold Certified Partner Network Infrastructure Technologies Inc., also known as NITConnect, for a major electronic records-keeping project. "What I liked about them was their professionalism, their honesty and their knowledge of the field and of what our needs were," Schwartz says. NIT wasn't necessarily the cheapest option, although Schwartz says that the partner's estimate fit her budget. But she was wary of quotes that seemed too low.

"Other companies that I worked with, they were cutting too many corners," Schwartz says. "There were economies that I was utilizing when we were smaller that in the end cost me dearly. That's a lesson to be learned by every company that grows. You really need to not cut those corners -- you're going to pay for it double in the end."

Seifu says he chose competence over savings when he picked a partner. "They weren't the lowest [in price]," he says. "I always go back to one thing: There's a difference between a smart person and a smart person who's a problem solver. They could translate business needs to technology fairly rapidly and stuck with solutions that already existed; [they didn't] reinvent the wheel."

Confidence and Consistency
The search by a customer for a Microsoft partner in the best case is a search for a long-term business relationship. As is the case with personal relationships, committing to the wrong partner can be painful. But finding the right one can be rewarding -- and, as much as anything else, customers say that they based their final decisions on the types of relationships they believed partners would establish. Old-fashioned values such as honestly and reliability still matter.

"What especially is good about [NITconnect] is I have a lot of managers and a lot of offices, and you have to have responsiveness in regards to things that are happening," Schwartz says. "They're able to send over somebody or walk you through. When you really have a partner, I can pick up the phone and say, 'We're on Quicken; we should be on QuickBooks.' They say, 'We can handle that.' I want to go onto VoIP -- they say they have partners that can work with you. They don't leave me."

Sample, of Macy's, echoes those sentiments when talking about hiring the right partner: "There was just a connection," he says. "They were able to understand the problem, redefine the problem and then bring in the right resources to work in a solution. Intellectually they got the idea real fast. They were able to add value. There are some things you just can't quantify."