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In-Depth

Microsoft Has Nerfed Its P-Seller Program. Now What?

Will a revised Partner Seller Program with less access and fewer resources be worth the trouble of enrolling?

The Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) is borrowing a technique from its colleagues in the Microsoft gaming division. It's called "Nerfing." In a game, especially a multiplayer game, sometimes a weapon or a character can be so powerful that it ruins the balance of the game. In order to preserve the overall experience for everybody, game managers will ratchet down the strength of a particular weapon or in-game persona. As it relates to Nerfing, think of a real sword with sharp metal edges being turned into a foam stick. Or a gun firing foam darts instead of real bullets.

In a move that took effect in late March, Microsoft Nerfed its Partner Seller or P-Seller Program. The program, which was an open secret among Microsoft's closest and most engaged partners, is losing many of the attributes that made it incredibly appealing to partner participants. Will the new program be worth the trouble of staying enrolled?

P-Sellers Overview
Partner Sellers are among Microsoft's closest partners, and they help Microsoft drive significant revenue through co-selling engagements. In the United States, the invitation-only program includes 1,139 individuals from 289 managed partner organizations. Those individuals carry the P-SSP (Partner Solution Sales Professional) or P-TSP (Partner Technology Solutions Professional) designations.

Microsoft described the program as follows in a PowerPoint deck describing the changes that was sent to U.S. P-Sellers in February and obtained by RCP:

"The Microsoft P-Seller designation is a special status for the top sellers at our managed partners who drive a strong co-sell motion with Microsoft. Becoming a P-Seller gives an individual access to exclusive content and deep engagement with Microsoft teams. You and your fellow P-Sellers get unique access to Microsoft Full Time Employee (FTE) enablement and the Microsoft-endorsed Partner Seller credential."

Not just any partner employee can get into the program. For starters, the partner organization must be a managed partner. Beyond that, the partner organization must have a gold competency in one of five specific areas: Cloud Customer Relationship Management, Cloud Platform, Cloud Productivity, Enterprise Mobility Management, or Small and Midmarket Cloud Solutions. Finally, P-Sellers must be nominated by a Microsoft sponsor.

Up until late March 2017, the benefits of being a P-Seller were inarguably valuable for Microsoft partners. Some of the key past benefits included:

  • Deep engagement with Microsoft teams. The overarching goal of the P-Seller program was special treatment by Microsoft employees. Because P-Sellers are engaged in high-profile deals alongside Microsoft, and have a trusted status as Microsoft experts, the whole program was designed to foster strong communication between Microsoft employees and the enrolled partners.

  • Access to the Microsoft corporate network. To facilitate engagement, and to give P-Seller partners the ability to locate resources that even their full-time Microsoft contacts might not know about, P-Sellers had access to Microsoft's corporate network. Among the specific resources P-Sellers often used on the network were:

    • Microsoft Calendar: Access to the calendar meant P-Sellers could schedule meetings with Microsoft employees and for themselves and Microsoft employees with customers without the usual lengthy e-mail chains.

    • Microsoft Global Address List: Being able to find names for appropriate contacts within Microsoft allowed partners to escalate issues or quickly locate the correct person to handle an issue or contribute to a solution.

    • Azure Calculator: Many P-Seller partners use Microsoft's internal Azure pricing tool to navigate the complex pricing of Microsoft's flagship and multifaceted cloud service.

    • Microsoft Dogfood Site: Within the Microsoft corporate network, partners could access the same pre-release software that Microsoft employees have access to, rather than relying only on the finished products distributed through Internal Use Rights in the MPN.

    • NDA Content: Some of the specific types of items that Microsoft partners would find on the network, items that their internal Microsoft contacts might not know about, included battle cards, slide decks and positioning statements that could help with specific sales.

    • Microsoft Glossary: The internal list of terms and definitions has been a go-to resource for P-Sellers.

    • A "b-dash" E-mail: P-Sellers have enjoyed a so-called "b-dash e-mail ending with @microsoft.com (b-scottb@microsoft.com, for example). The Microsoft domain confers a level of credibility on partners that backs up any claims they make with customers indicating that they're very close to Microsoft.

    • Distribution Lists: Along with the b-dash e-mail, P-Sellers had access to internal Microsoft e-mail distribution lists, another source of insider information that could be very helpful in ensuring that they were up-to-date on Microsoft initiatives.

  • Physical Access Chips. P-Sellers had ID badges with a chip included that literally opened doors in Microsoft buildings, allowing them to get into areas of the facilities without needing a Microsoft escort.

  • MTC Scheduling. The P-Seller partners had the ability to schedule sessions at Microsoft Technology Centers (MTCs), the special facilities where customers get to demo enterprise solutions.

  • Microsoft Social Selling Program. Related to the LinkedIn acquisition, Microsoft gave P-Sellers access to an internal Microsoft Social Selling Program. The program included the LinkedIn Sales Navigator, a Premium sales tool with greater visibility an d access into the LinkedIn professional network. The Microsoft program also included access to a full-time social selling coach and to sales and marketing content tailored to social media.

The Great Nerfing
On Feb. 20, Microsoft gave its U.S. P-Seller community 28 days' notice that many of the most valued program benefits would be going away. In repeated conference calls that week, P-Sellers got the news that they'd be shut out of the corporate network, lose the b-dash e-mails and the chip in their P-Seller badges that allowed building access.

"We will no longer provide P-Sellers with access to Microsoft's corporate network. Our goal is to provide assets to our P-Sellers [in] a timely manner, in conjunction with our methods for deploying assets to our Microsoft Sales Teams," read a slide in the partner deck. "The MPN P-Seller Resource Portal will act as the 'one-stop shop' for Microsoft P-Sellers, and will drive simplicity and convenience for P-Sellers to help them quickly locate assets, training, learning paths via Partner University, enablement, sales and marketing, entitlements, support, level branding and competency attainment and other benefits. All information is through a single source and will have content specifically geared for P-Sellers. We've built a designated readiness portal that will be exclusive to P-Sellers and populated with Microsoft field-facing content."

In short, the deep engagement is supposed to remain, but any special resources will be inside the walled garden of the Microsoft Partner Portal. It will be an exclusive section of the portal, but it will be on the portal nonetheless, not the Microsoft corporate network. There will still be a P-Seller badge, but it won't have a chip, and Microsoft has also added a new logo that P-Sellers can use on their business cards. On the calls, Microsoft also promised to preserve access to the Microsoft Social Selling tools, but it was not immediately clear how partners would access them once they were blocked from the corporate network.

Through a spokesperson, Microsoft declined several requests for telephone and e-mail interviews, providing only a short e-mailed statement. "We're making changes and investments to optimize the Microsoft P-Seller Program, including a new one-stop resource portal, to help ensure these partners have everything needed to realize stronger mutual customer relationships and sales goals," the spokesperson said.

Partners Stunned
Ending P-Seller access to Microsoft's corporate network, eliminating their @microsoft.com e-mail addresses, removing the access chips from their purple badges and the short notice of the change were the steps that seemed most concerning to several partners, who discussed the changes with RCP but asked not to be identified in order to protect their Microsoft relationships.

One partner who sat in on Microsoft's February P-Seller call said Microsoft's desire to lock down its own information was understandable, but called the changes "super problematic" for partners.

"Having the ability to go in and pull everyone's calendar to set up meetings, to go find content out in their network that may help move a deal along or get you connected to what's actually happening, is a big deal for all partners. It was literally a game-changer," the partner said. Of the new curated site, the partner added, "The moving stuff over, it always takes longer when there's another step. Some of the selling tools that are for Microsoft employees, they would open up access for P-Sellers. Now there will have to be a decision."

Microsoft did note in a slide that P-Sellers will be able to request to have assets added to the new P-Seller Resource Portal, but as the partner noted, it will become a process that adds time to sales cycles. Further, some savvy partners have been working with Microsoft for years. They had been able to root around to find resources that their internal contacts, who might be new to the company or new to a specific role, didn't even know existed.

Another partner suggested the move is short-sighted on Microsoft's part. "It was a surprise to see this program cut so drastically. The P-Seller program allowed the best of the best to have access behind Microsoft's firewall. That way they could find content quickly when needed [and] have access to Microsoft offices to truly collaborate and b-dash Microsoft e-mail addresses where they could expand the sales force for Microsoft. I know the program was costly for Microsoft, especially as they were trying to tighten log-in security. However, I'm sure that they don't appreciate the hundreds of thousands of man hours that were put into the program by the P-Sellers in order to help the Microsoft field and customers," the partner said. "My expectation was that Microsoft would have doubled down here versus their actual action of killing the best parts of the program."

The short turnaround time of 28 days from announcement to closing of access also struck several partners as too short. The cutoff is similar in abruptness to some of Microsoft's other recent partner moves, such as changes to FastTrack or to Partner of Record compensation models.

Drivers of Change
Microsoft's official materials list four main reasons for the change -- simplicity, security, scalability and administrative streamlining.

In theory, it's easy to understand how Microsoft would view the simplicity of having all the resources in one place as a good thing because it makes it easier to manage the process for partners. It's easy also to understand how Microsoft's top partners see that simplicity as a bad thing because it bleeds the program of its usefulness -- the ability to access resources more quickly and not have to wait for partner executives to realize a piece of collateral is valuable.

Security is also clearly an issue. It's understandable that Microsoft would want to limit the number of non-employees galloping freely through its network. In some ways, it's surprising the program was ever allowed at all.

The security angle is especially relevant because the P-Seller numbers may be about to increase. It's unclear how many P-Sellers there are worldwide, but one part of the slide deck hints that there may be many more soon: "In order to scale this program globally, we must shift to digital experience that is curated specifically for P-Sellers on MPN. Building on top of MPN as our partner enablement resource, we are driving parity across P-Seller roles and subs to have the same experience."

Microsoft is also committing to faster approvals for new P-Sellers, to eliminating annoying password resets and to more streamlined support, according to the deck. The program, which only recently lifted a freeze on new onboardings in the United States, will now aim to onboard new members in three to five days.

Is It Still Worth It?
Once they're over the immediate sting of being kicked out of the corporate network and from their relatively unfettered access to buildings, will partners still find the new program valuable? That will depend on how quickly important resources hit the new MPN P-Seller Resource Portal, how thorough those resources are and how aggressively Microsoft makes new resources available to partners.

Microsoft may find that anticipating what its sharpest and most competent partners need to drive their sales is more difficult than it bargained for and less effective than letting those partners find the resources themselves. Those partners were picked because they drove sales for Microsoft. If Microsoft messes the program up, the company won't just hurt those partners. It will hurt itself.