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In-Depth

Microsoft FastTrack: Partner Friend or Foe?

As Microsoft expands the reach of FastTrack quarter-by-quarter with little guidance on what's coming next, partners struggle to stay ahead of the program with higher-value services.

FastTrack elicits strong feelings in partners. At one end are those that recognize Microsoft's need to move customers to the cloud and see opportunity building practices on higher-value services. At the other end are those that see a slippery slope as Microsoft wedges itself between customers and partners with a widening catalog of services.

Concern over the lack of transparency into a rapidly evolving direct-to-customer service model is common among partners. Even more troubling, though, is whether the lack of visibility into the FastTrack roadmap may indicate that Microsoft hasn't fully decided whether to route those customers through partners or to try to address those customers' needs themselves.

A Fast-Tracking Timeline
September 2014
Introduced as Office 365 FastTrack Onboarding Center, services included provisioning and configuration of Office 365 workloads -- Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, Office 365 Pro Plus and Yammer. It was offered as a licensing benefit to customers purchasing 150 seats or more and Microsoft's announcement was accompanied by a limited-time Office 365 Adoption Offer, which subsidized customers' investment in additional deployment services delivered through partners, including e-mail and document migration.

July 2015
The program name changed to Microsoft FastTrack, added Enterprise Mobility Suite (EMS) and e-mail data migration to e-mail migration services. The Office Adoption Offers were expanded to include partner services delivered to support cloud migrations for SharePoint, OneDrive for Business, Skype for Business, Yammer, Office ProPlus, Project Online and Visio. At its 2015 Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC), Microsoft confirmed to partners it would stick to working with customers purchasing 150 seats and more.

October 2015
FastTrack services expanded from a one-time benefit to an ongoing benefit, meaning that customers could request support onboarding new users and capabilities over the life of the Office 365 subscription. Services offered were expanded, as well, to include customized support plus resources across envisioning, onboarding and driving business value. Azure Active Directory Premium, Intune and Azure Rights Management were added to the products supported by FastTrack services.

February 2016
The minimum number of users was dropped to include customers with 50 to 149 seats of Office 365 enterprise and small business plans. In the same blog post, Microsoft announced expansion of the FY16 Adoption Offer to include Office 365 small business plans making Microsoft partners eligible for a payout of $25 per seat for cloud adoption services delivered to support 50 to 149 seat engagements.

July 2016
During WPC presentations to partners, Microsoft stated that 350-plus engineers were engaged in delivering FastTrack services. In addition to Active Directory remediation, setup guidance and deployment architecture, FastTrack services available to customers included remote-adoption planning workshops, end-user communication templates and persona-based productivity scenarios. More than 20,000 FastTrack Success Plans had been created and more than 4,000 new tenants were being onboarded each month.

October 2016
The launch of the SharePoint 2013 Migration Offer was intended to incentivize customers to move data to Office 365. A limited-time offer, expiring March 31, 2017, the Microsoft FastTrack team could be engaged to move on-premises SharePoint 2013 content to SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business. Included in the announcement was that FastTrack had served more than 22,000 customers and migrated 2.45PB of data. Worldwide, 800 FastTrack engineers were taking on more than 4,000 new customers every month.

January 2017
Microsoft announced the previews of FastTrack for Windows 10 and FastTrack for Dynamics 365. In addition, online resources and remote guidance for onboarding and end-user adoption for Microsoft Teams are now provided through FastTrack for Office 365. Localization support was expanded by achieving compliance with international technology security standard ISO27001 and covered in the Microsoft HIPAA Business Associate Agreement. "FastTrack serves more than 4,000 new Office 365 and EMS customers every month, and with our expansion into Windows 10 and Dynamics 365, as well as the roll out of new offerings for Office 365, we expect to see that number rise even higher."

Eliminating Cloud Obstacles
When Microsoft conceived of FastTrack, it may well have been viewed as a temporary program to give partners a push into the cloud. Clearly, the program has delivered more than expected, so Microsoft continues to test and push the limits. Microsoft made no secret from the first mention of FastTrack that partners were not moving customers to the cloud quickly enough. The entire point was to take away the challenges, real and imagined, for customers considering moving to the cloud.

"As partners were talking with customers about Office 365, they would say, 'Here's the licensing. Here's what that's going to cost, and, oh, by the way, here's what it's going to cost you to get there. Migrating from your existing hosted Exchange. Gmail, wherever you are, getting you migrated is going to cost X,'" says Steve Mordue, CEO of Forceworks, a Dynamics 365 partner.

"For Microsoft, that X stands between that customer's interest and that customer's license purchase. It's like a hill that customer has to climb over in order to buy the licenses, because Microsoft doesn't make any money if that customer won't climb that hill. So I think Microsoft has seen lots of partners out there that have made that hill maybe a little too high or certainly higher than they would like to meet their goals. I think that's what really has driven FastTrack, we know we've got compression in the market around migration costs," says Mordue.

"So the only lever Microsoft has right now to try and increase the number of subscriptions is to reduce that hill for that customer. Unfortunately, the partner's the one who's building the hill," Mordue says. "You can't blame Microsoft. I mean, they're doing what they have to do to grow the business in these times."

Partner Opportunity in FastTrack
Fundamentally, FastTrack services are a benefit included in the Office 365 license agreement, including free engineering, architecture and migration services. But FastTrack also serves as the hub to introduce customers (and partners) to the wide range of resources Microsoft offers to support cloud onboarding.

The first step for customers is to register a Success Plan to guide their journey through FastTrack. Customers can register themselves, but Microsoft encourages partners to lead the engagement by executing the process on their behalf. According to Microsoft, about 51 percent of partners are attached to Success Plans.

The remaining 49 percent of FastTrack accounts who have no deployment partner attached might provide opportunity. Asked how partners can tap into the opportunity, a Microsoft spokesperson recommends, "The customer typically would work with their Microsoft account team to identify the right partner depending on their scenario or specific needs. Additionally, FastTrack proactively works with customers seeking additional assistance by identifying and connecting a qualified partner to provide local support." (Microsoft declined requests for an interview for this article, but provided an e-mail response to submitted questions.)

In 2016 WPC presentations, Microsoft suggested active engagement with the Microsoft account managers, solution sales specialists and technical account managers in your region or industry is the best way to get introduced to these customers. In a January 2017 blog post, Niamh Coleman, director of Partner Business Strategy, intimated that partners would be more involved in Windows 10 FastTrack projects: "FastTrack for Windows 10 provides a single digital destination for all the tools, resources, and guidance needed for a successful roll-out of the most secure version of Windows ever. Unique to this service is that deployment planning and service delivery is provided through partners. We are also making it easier for customers to find great partners to assist in their deployment directly through the FastTrack portal."

Asked for further details on developing partner programs, a Microsoft spokesperson said there would be announcements in July at Inspire, the new conference name for the WPC.

While the potential to work proactively with Microsoft seems elusive for most partners, there's the FastTrack resource repository that partners can tap to support change management and user education services to augment FastTrack. Microsoft has invested heavily in developing resources that both customers and partners can use to benefit their business.

The FastTrack site houses a massive library of videos, checklists, presentations and other documents under Resources and in the Productivity Library. Broken out under each product (Office 365, Windows, EMS and Dynamics 365), resources support each of the phases of FastTrack services -- Envision, Onboard and Drive Value. Examples of resources available include:

  • Under the Envision tabs for each product are checklists to identify key stakeholders, listings of training resources, plus business scenario review checklists.

  • The Onboard tab includes the setup and deployment guides, plus links to migration wizards.

  • Under the Drive Value tab of Office 365 there are adoption guides, user satisfaction surveys and links to support communities.

  • The Productivity Library holds another collection of tools, including educational videos, e-mail templates to promote user adoption, case studies, learning paths and more. A growing number of the entries in the Productivity Library are industry-specific, perhaps providing a hint of FastTrack's direction.

Partners could leverage all of these resources to provide the foundation for their own services to customers. Just sorting through the documents to call out the best ones to clients would be a valuable time-saving service. For those partners investing in customer success managers, FastTrack resources are a gold mine of material.

Higher-Value Services
As Microsoft has expanded the FastTrack program, it has been careful to promote the message of accompanying opportunity for partners. The company is quick to point out that the license benefit only applies to customers with 50 seats or more, leaving a large swath of small to midsize business (SMB) customers to partners. And for those customers beyond the 50-seat threshold, Microsoft suggests partners focus on higher-value services while FastTrack engineers are working in the background.

Some partners agree. "Let's not forget that this is a licensing benefit for customers. It's an entitlement. Being an entitlement, it comes with parameters. It's incumbent on me as a partner to understand what those parameters are so I can fill in the gaps on where the services pieces are," says Ric Opal, senior director at SWC Technology Partners.

"I like to think about it in the context of the electric company," Opal says. "I can be in the business of installing electric meters -- a one-time activity. Or I can be in the business of doing all the really interesting things that a homeowner might want once the electric meter is installed -- ceiling fans, canned lighting, air conditioners, breaker panels, landscape-lighting scenarios, you name it. We have made a choice not to install electric meters. We have made a choice, as Microsoft suggested, to go after the high-value, high-margin services that exist after the electric meter is installed."

Microsoft appears to agree with that analogy. In its 2016 WPC presentation to partners, it promised, "Every customer engagement has an inflection point where 'boots on the ground' support and employee behavioral changes are the only way to drive last-mile adoption and usage."

For partners, Microsoft's position at the beginning of the customer relationship means partners need to take a longer-term view of their opportunity with customers. Opal, like many other partners, sees no shortage of opportunity in the Microsoft ecosystem.

"Your strategy has to be agile. You have to be accountable for results, and you have to be willing to fail fast and adjust. Your business plan always needs to be reevaluated on a quarterly basis and calibrated," Opal says. "For example, there's only going to be more data in the world, and people are only going to try to mess with it in the context of a security breach. If I was a partner, I'd be trying to figure out what can I do with data that's compelling to my customer, where am I unquestionably adding business value? What programs or packages or strategies might I have to protect that data? That business is never going away. There will only be more devices. There will only be more Internet access. There will only be more hacks. There will be more big data sets. That innovation is continuing. I better have a business that's doing something positive with data and securing it, rather than being worried about installing electric meters."

The Slippery Slope
One partner, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes FastTrack is on a slippery slope. "When you go to Microsoft's partner conference, they proclaim that they are channel-led. If that is the case, why are they building up this services bench to work directly with customers?"

Concerned by the expansion of FastTrack, the partner says, "It started off with basic Office 365. Now they are doing Azure. When's it going to stop? Maybe they'll start doing some small development work -- the easy development. It's just a slippery slope. Eventually I think Microsoft is going to turn FastTrack into a managed service. I think they're going to tell customers, 'You know what? We'll take over the management of Office 365 for you and instead of paying the channel an extra $4 per mailbox, pay us.'"

This partner, whose business serves the enterprise space with architecture, design and cloud-readiness services, invested heavily over the past couple of years in developing adoption services -- with Microsoft's encouragement and assurance of the market opportunity. "Now, they are offering the services that they told us to focus on two years ago. There is no clear roadmap," the partner says. "I don't think they share the strategy well."

Concern over the lack of transparency into the roadmap is exacerbated by Microsoft's pride in the success and growth of the FastTrack program. Microsoft claimed 800 FastTrack engineers in its January 2017 posts, up from "350-plus" at WPC in July 2016. That's a mighty big leap in six months, pointing to an aggressive staffing strategy or, perhaps, an effort to quell partner fears by presenting vague numbers to a critical audience.

When asked if the company could provide additional insight into the FastTrack roadmap, a Microsoft representative wrote, "We are always taking partner and customer feedback, but have nothing to share at this point."

Industry Change Keeps Coming
Because the industry is closer to the beginning of the cloud journey than to the end, or even any sort of steady state, there are surely more changes coming to partner business models. For the Microsoft channel, specifically, the question is where partners fit in the long-term.

"I think partners are moving from a necessity over to a necessary evil, and the next evolution is more of a convenience," says Forcework's Mordue. "I think we're fast reaching a point where Microsoft is not necessarily going to need partners, it just will allow them to work within the space, but the leverage is shifting significantly, and the cloud has done that."

"Microsoft still needs partners, but I think that we'll see a lot of partner value for Microsoft move from deployment and the technical side to more on the sale side," Mordue adds. "Partners are going to be Microsoft's sales army."

Partners, regardless of their view on where Microsoft's FastTrack services are headed, need to be paying close attention so they adjust their own course. As SWC Technology Partners' Opal says, "I'm watching through the windshield all the time, and not only what offerings and services Microsoft is bringing to the table. I'm watching what their competition is bringing to the table. I'm watching what my competition is bringing to the table. I'm watching everybody, and I'm making adjustments, but I think I also accept the fact that this is the business that I've chosen to work in. There are aspects of it I can control. There are many I cannot."

FastTrack has quickly grown beyond its early function as a springboard to the cloud. For its part, Microsoft wants to ensure that Office 365 customers get every employee on board quickly so that every seat paid for is used -- leading to more license sales. In the context of a benevolent, partner-led organization, those customers simply present more service opportunities to partners. However, that context, and Microsoft's true intention, seems to be far from clear for some partners.

Once again, the lack of consistent, forward-looking communication from Microsoft causes needless anxiety that there could be more at stake. It's hard for partners not to imagine we could be headed for a time when the lure of service dollars outweighs the interests of the channel. Is Microsoft helping partners move customers to the cloud, or is it slowly removing partners from the process? And does Microsoft even know which approach it wants to take?