Lessons from Microsoft's NSI Partners

Few partners can achieve Microsoft National Systems Integrator status, but that doesn't mean their success isn't repeatable for other Microsoft partners. Here are the strategies NSIs used to get to the top.

  • See the full list of Microsoft NSI partners here.

Thirty-three partners have earned a special relationship with Microsoft, giving them dedicated partner managers and high-level relationships in Redmond. The U.S. National Systems Integrator (NSI) engagement model grants chosen partners with greater access to Microsoft resources than most partners can even imagine. We've written about the benefits to NSIs before (see "Microsoft Partners, Meet the NSIs"), but there's a deeper story as well.

What is the value of the NSI engagement model to the channel? What can the rest of the channel learn from NSIs?

Important to understanding the value of the NSIs to the channel is to establish what they are not. They're not global companies like Accenture, built on massive accounting or consulting corporations. Nothing against Accenture, but it's hard for a partner with 25 employees to put into practice any lessons learned from the consulting behemoths.

NSIs, for the most part, are partners who started out small and made it work. Many NSIs were 25 strong not very many years ago. Their journey and accomplishments are achievable for any partner ... and full of valuable lessons.

Early Adopters
When you think about it from a practical standpoint, it's pretty hard to justify gearing up your team to support Windows 8 when most of your clients are running Office 2003 on Windows XP. But that's what NSIs do.

One of the many reasons NSIs earn the title is that they work with Microsoft to help clients adopt technology early in the cycle. Partners with proven delivery best practices are more likely to overcome the inevitable challenges of projects that test the functionality and limits of new technologies.

NSIs have been at the forefront of Microsoft's cloud rollout. "NSI partners are embracing the cloud," notes Microsoft Vice President, U.S. Partner Group, Jenni Flinders. "NSIs are taking the lead in how they're positioning themselves to their customers and developing solutions to help customers easily make the transition to the cloud."

Tampa, Fla.-based Tribridge is a good example of that cloud adoption. Tribridge's private-label Concerto Cloud Services represents significant investment and commitment to the cloud. Greg Pierce, cloud strategy officer for Tribridge, says, "We engaged early in the cloud and built out our own private cloud infrastructure. We provide many of the same software packages that we've deployed on-premises over the years. But now we use the cloud as an operating model and our customers love it. We've gone further into the cloud than other partners."

As an NSI, Tribridge is unique in delivering Microsoft Dynamics solutions as well as the platform. "We don't have the hard, fast lines between Dynamics and platform," Pierce says. "When we look to engage with a customer we're implementing technologies that span both platform and Dynamics. The lines blur. We're a good canary in the coal mine to see how both sides work as a whole."

"The Microsoft relationship has to be a result of what you're doing, not a goal in itself."

Jay Lendl, Marketing and Partner Management Director, RBA Consulting

Go Deep: Specialize
A common observation from NSIs is that specialization is critical to building deeper relationships with Microsoft. While many partners still take the opportunistic approach to sales and marketing, never meeting a project they won't take on, NSIs focus.

"Focus on doing one thing really well," Jay Lendl, marketing and partner management director at RBA Consulting, advises partners who would like to build deeper relationships with Microsoft. "Find that one thing you can do really well and turn that into a story to build relationships with Microsoft. Because once you do one thing really well, then you can do something else in Microsoft's eyes."

As Lendl points out, the relationship with your clients and employees is where the process starts. Focusing on excellence in service delivery to clients builds your reputation in a specific solution. Microsoft field teams keep an eye out for the partners that can consistently deliver solutions that make customers happy.

"At the end of the day you have to serve customers first. This relationship with Microsoft needs to evolve out of success with clients," Lendl adds. "Build your business goals. The goal isn't to be a great Microsoft partner -- the goal is to be profitable and want to have a great employee experience. The Microsoft relationship has to be a result of what you're doing, not a goal in itself."

Even for those partners looking for their entrance to the cloud, the need for focus comes through loud and clear. Slalom Consulting, with headquarters in Seattle, was an early adopter of the cloud.

"Figure out what you want to be the best at and go really deep. We learned what we were good at early on, and that's the framework we've built on for our current business. [That's even more important] when you look at cloud," observes Tom Chew, national general manager of Slalom. "Instead of looking at it as pivoting to cloud, think about what you're really good at and see if there's a cloud angle. There tends to be an opportunity to have a cloud component in all the practices."

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Full Microsoft Engagement
While some NSIs support solutions from other vendors, obviously Microsoft as a primary platform is a key factor in NSI selection. But NSIs see the commitment to Microsoft on a deeper level. The time required of NSIs to report pipeline and keep up with training and marketing programs is substantial, requiring a heavy time and cost commitment. But there don't seem to be any complaints.

"You can find other development partners that are larger, but we've focused on Microsoft from the very beginning," says Mike Ojile, vice president of sales for Minneapolis-headquartered Magenic Technologies, shedding light on their selection as an NSI. "When Microsoft teams with us they're confident that our focus is going to be achieving their goals and objectives on the Microsoft stack."

Another benefit often mentioned by NSIs is the centralized access to resources and information within Microsoft through their dedicated partner account manager (PAM) -- a perk that most partners would kill for. But there are lessons learned from NSIs to build relationships with Microsoft teams even without a devoted PAM.

NSIs make building relationships with Microsoft a priority. At the regional and national level, employees are encouraged to connect with Microsoft field sales and technical personnel to build individual and personal relationships. Not insincere relationships, but mutually beneficial connections between people who share the same professional interests.

At RBA Consulting, the dedication to building relationships with Microsoft starts at the top. "Our president has a passion and clarity of vision for what engagement with Microsoft should look like," says Lendl. "It's a commitment that we've made. He gets it -- he's very involved. Personally involved."

Identify Mutually Beneficial Relationships
The path to building those mutually beneficial relationships is one of the most often-asked questions at any meeting of Microsoft partners. How exactly can partners find the right connections to communicate their successes and earn the trust of Microsoft field teams? The end game, of course, is to be a go-to partner when a Microsoft employee needs to recommend a partner for a customer project.

"Microsoft is a unique organization in that you can ask employees what their goals are and how they're paid and they'll actually tell you. They'll tell you the three things that they're measured on," Lendl says. "Write those three things down, and if your organization does one, two or three things on that list, this is a person you should have a relationship with. Now you have a reason to have a relationship with that person, a mutually beneficial relationship."

This point reinforces the importance of specialization. When you move past the breadth teams, Microsoft team members in the field are focused on very specific product lines. For the most part, they do a good job engaging with the partner community within their specialization. User groups, partner training, technical sessions and launches are places where partners can connect with Microsoft specialists who align with their businesses.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
The cold, hard fact is that most IT folks were not drawn to the profession because of their communication skills. It's a continuing challenge for most partners to communicate well with their customers and Microsoft. To stand out from the masses, it's a requirement, and it's worth adding communication-skilled members to the team.

"Live up to your commitments and communicate back what you did," Lendl recommends. "Communicate what you're going to do and then what you did. Most partners don't tell teams what they did -- 'we helped drive this.'"

Microsoft has recently instituted a program to help partners communicate wins with the Victory Lap. Promoted as a way for partners to "celebrate success and tell the world how great your organization is," the Victory Lap uses social media to push out the message. This win-win program is a great opportunity for Microsoft partners to build credence and wave the Microsoft flag.

Guide Customers with a Clear View of the Roadmap
A benefit that customers receive from working with NSI partners is access to information that might be ahead of the curve, even ahead of most Microsoft partners. As Magenic's Ojile points out, "Organizations want to work with consultants sometimes just to learn and understand directionally where a technology or platform is going. If we can help them make better decisions and guide them down a path that will prevent them from rewriting an application, they get more from their investment and realize their objectives. We become a very valuable resource to that company. Having access to that information opens doors for us."

Some of that inside information comes through Microsoft Delta Force Ranger events. That training isn't limited to NSI participants, but NSIs are heavily represented at most weeklong immersive product sessions. Maurice Ramsey, Slalom Consulting practice area director for Seattle, has attended Office 365 Ranger training events.

"Our customers know that we're a source of information for them even if they can't find it on TechNet," says Ramsey. "We're able to help guide our customer through the project, or even before the project begins, so that in six or 12 months that customer is still in line with the direction that Microsoft is going."

It takes a big commitment from partners to support employees who achieve enough product knowledge to gain access to the Ranger training sessions or to earn a Most Valuable Professional (MVP) designation. Training costs and time away from billable work are sacrifices the partner and employee share. The return is customer trust that extends to including the partner in strategic planning.

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Share the Knowledge
Most NSIs encourage their product-expert employees to share their knowledge with the partner community and beyond. NSI specialists and MVPs share their knowledge through blogs and speaking engagements. For example, Ranger-trained Paul Reitmeyer, Dynamics CRM practice manager with Maryland-based Planet Technologies, regularly speaks at D.C. Chapter International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP) events.

One of the core values of Slalom Consulting is developing leaders, which plays well into sharing knowledge gained through being an NSI. "We absolutely encourage our folks to share with the community," Chew says. "We do it not only because it's important to share the knowledge with other partners, but it's also great exposure for the individual."

While NSIs share their talent through SharePoint Saturdays, cloud events and partner gatherings, they also add value back to the community and build channel leaders.

Having access to [Microsoft product roadmap] information opens doors for us.

Mike Ojile, Vice President of Sales, Magenic Technologies

An additional way for smaller partners to tap into the knowledge that NSIs gain from their close relationship with Microsoft is to partner with them. NSIs as a group seem to fully understand their role as leaders in a channel of independent but complementary service organizations.

Smaller partners are often hesitant to connect with NSIs (or any larger partner, for that matter) for fear that their client will be lost. However -- especially in the improved economic environment -- there's far more benefit to be gained by the larger partner by respecting and protecting client ownership. Repeat business delivered by a friendly partner is far more valuable than one stolen client and a bad reputation.

With specialization, a smaller partner can bring big value to an NSI. Lync specialists have been in great demand the past year, and those small partners with Lync knowledge and experience have had full schedules helping the big guys.

For independent software vendors (ISVs), the NSIs can be an avenue for both customer success and recognition from Microsoft. NSIs have reach within geographies and industries that few other partners can match. ISV solutions that help an NSI easily solve a common customer issue can become a regular component in customer proposals.

Focus and Engage
The message that started quietly a decade ago has become a drumbeat no partner can ignore. Microsoft rewards those partners that focus and excel in specific verticals or with specific products. The overriding message from NSIs is that focus and specialization work.

It's not just about garnering favor from Microsoft. Going deep with a solution, providing expertise to clients that no other partner can match, builds a stronger business. By focusing on clients first, NSIs build successful practices.

The 33 NSI partners do enjoy and appreciate a special engagement model with Microsoft. But the standards are high and ongoing. There's no resting on laurels. NSI status has to be earned each year through consistent innovation and execution.

Partners can learn a lot from the success of NSIs. The lessons are not revolutionary, but require leadership with commitment to excellence and follow-through. Specialization, consistent execution and ongoing communication are the fundamentals that NSIs have mastered, taking them from 25-employee partners to national players.

The best part is that those fundamentals are achievable for every partner.

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