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Consultants: Partners' New Front Line for Sales

The traditional partner sales model has been turned upside down. In a world where technology is like electricity, sales opportunities won't continue to come in the form of implementations and upgrades.

Partners need to find new ways to identify and solve the business problems for their plugged-into-the-cloud customers. Consultants and engineers need to transition from technology fixers to business problem solvers -- and always be on the lookout for new problems to solve.

In the days when a technology sale was defined by an implementation project, there was a clear line where sales handed off the client to the consulting team. Engineers and consultants applied their knowledge of the latest version of SharePoint or Exchange and moved on. The process repeated as sales engaged with the client from time to time to talk about upgrades and look for additional opportunities to expand the relationship.

The cloud changes those customer relationships, in some ways making them closer and in some ways more distant. While partners may be connected to clients through managed services for ongoing support and training, there's less need for interaction with sales. Since support and consulting teams have the most interaction with clients in a cloud relationship, it makes sense that many partners are looking to them to uncover opportunities.

A New Role for Engineers and Consultants
"Deployment engineers or consultants truly need to be identifying potential opportunities rather than waiting for the sales team. Engineers are in the best position to know what the customer needs," said Paul Powell, Microsoft Practice Lead at Bishop Technologies Inc. "Thus, engineers need to be trained in soft sales tactics and become advocates for the partner products they implement to become a main source of new business opportunities."

Helping consultants and engineers expand their skills beyond technology is a challenge many partners are experiencing. "Our consultants need to understand business processes and how IT is managed," said Powell. "It's no longer just how many Microsoft certifications you have. Even as an engineer, you need a business degree or ITIL training. I think those are going to be even more important five years, 10 years from now."

To help guide the transition for Bishop's consulting team, consultants are trained to listen to clients and understand the underlying business need. Client assessments are built around business needs and problems instead of starting with the technology. Daily procedures are also designed to keep business opportunities top of mind.

"We ask our engineers to send out an e-mail at the end of each day as they are working on a project," explained Powell. "The e-mail has four basic categories. What have I done today? What do I need to do tomorrow? What do I need from the client to get my job done? And internally, to the salespeople and the rest of the project team, what opportunities have I identified and what are the pain points for the clients?"

The Challenge of Remote Service Delivery
Since consultants are able to deliver more and more services remotely, there's often less face time with clients. Bishop is working to include more on-site time during customer engagements to gain first-hand insights into client challenges that could lead to service opportunities.   

"When you're talking to somebody in person, you're sitting in the same room, you're working with them directly. You overhear conversations from other people who walk in the room. You get a much better picture of the environment," said Powell. "We're trying to get our consultants on site as much as possible -- for project kickoffs and close-out meetings, at the very least. And we are building more face-to-face interaction with the client into both project work and managed service offerings."

Define and Educate on Core Capabilities
In order for engineers and consultants to know what to listen for -- what constitutes opportunity -- partners need to clearly define their core services and educate internally. When all employees understand the partner's strength and focus, everyone becomes an advocate. While the consulting team may be the new front line of sales, every employee should be listening to clients with the firm's core capabilities in mind.

"When I reach out to customers for testimonials and success stories, I'm always listening to their pain points and their issues, trying to recognize an opportunity," said Tina Sieben, Bishop's vice president of marketing. "That just happened last week. I was talking to somebody and I could tell they were really struggling with user support for Office 365. As a result, I set up a call for the account manager and he's putting a quote out there now for support services."

The cloud is changing the nature of relationships partners have with their customers. Technology is moving to the background and partners must make an effort to stay in front of customers. There is no shortage of business problems that need to be solved, so partners need to get proactive in seeking them out. Consultants and engineers, as well as every other employee in the organization, who are trained to listen and ready with solutions can bridge the gap for partners.

How are you training employees to uncover opportunities? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.     

Posted by Barb Levisay on October 12, 2016 at 1:29 PM0 comments

Is There Partner Opportunity in a DIY Data Management World?

Every business today is accumulating massive amounts of unstructured data, from e-mails to documents to images. As the competition between Microsoft, Amazon and Google continues to drive down cost of data storage, it's tempting for those businesses to take a do-it-yourself approach.

But promises of easy administration that don't hold true provide an opportunity for partners to solve their customers' growing data management problems.

There are definitely two sides to big data. There's the sexy side, where partners can wow business owners by applying machine learning to ERP data and magically predict their customers' next purchases.

And then there is unstructured data -- the proposals that no one will ever look at again., the group list e-mails that are duplicated in every employee's .PST file. Not sexy, but most of it is sitting on servers that businesses would like to get rid of.

"Unstructured data is a lot like cleaning the attic. You know it's a big mess up there, and there's treasures, and there's some icky things," said Geoff Bourgeois CEO of HubStor. "But then nothing really happens. The problem gets kicked down the road to worry about later."

"But I think what's interesting from a partner angle is that the light bulb really seems to have gone on for businesses. That cloud is a smarter place to store the data that's not being used and is taking up space on hardware that's expensive to maintain," continued Bourgeois. "But when customers dig into it, the 'gotchas' come into play."

The "gotchas," according to Bourgeois, include the details that most cloud storage providers gloss over. Details like migrating data from legacy systems to the cloud, maintaining security through and after the migration, finding data once it's in the cloud and, finally, getting your data out of the cloud.

"Instead of finding it easy, customers are often surprised by the complexity. They look at Amazon Glacier and come out completely disillusioned," said Bourgeois. "They expect a nice turnkey Software as a Service solution, and what they are bumping into is infrastructure and platform. You've got to roll up your sleeves, learn the tools, connect them and maybe even do some development work to get everything really singing and dancing. I think that's where partners can add value -- understand the customer's use case and bring cloud solutions together in a way that's meaningful for your customer."

The common expectations that HubStor sees from customers include the ability to delete duplicate content, apply security policies and audit access to sensitive data. In the case of legal or regulatory issues, businesses need to be able to search data, which can be surprising difficult, if not impossible, through many cloud storage services.

"We see a lot of customers that just don't want to have to think about it. They want to have a partner involved as the virtual administrator, provide updates on the high points and perhaps an executive briefing on how things are going," said Bourgeois. "The customer is more outcome-oriented and doesn't want to get stuck down in the weeds of how to make it happen."

Focusing on the concept that customers want simplicity, HubStor offers its Microsoft Azure-based archiving and discovery solutions through unique pricing models, which have been well-received by its customers and channel partners. Unlike most cloud storage providers, HubStor reflects the Azure pay-for-what-you-use pricing model. Customers pay on usage, month to month, with no upfront costs.

"We make pricing totally transparent to our customers, the Azure costs plus our markup," explained Bourgeois. "This model really resonates with companies because they love the fact that it's transparent, they're paying only for what they use, without the large upfront costs."

Additionally, HubStor does not require long-term commitments to lock in customers. "We want customers using our solution because they're getting value out of it, not because we forced them into it technically or contractually," said Bourgeois. "I love that model because it sends the right kind of signals out in the marketplace. It also helps to diffuse people's concerns about the cloud when they can see zero lock-in."

Unstructured data management may not be the sexiest part of the Big Data play, but it's a service that businesses need. Through Azure, partners have a platform that provides tremendous potential to simplify data management for customers. And you never know what treasures you'll find helping them clean out their attics.

How are you approaching Big Data? Add a comment below or send me an e-mail and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on October 05, 2016 at 8:47 AM0 comments

How an ISV Revamped Its Partner Program To Strengthen Its Channel

As more VARs, MSPs and SIs build their intellectual property and expand into the realm of ISV, they're seeing potential in working through partners to resell their solutions.

Building a channel, even if you only work with a handful of select partners, requires thought, planning and follow-through. Based on the experience of one ISV gaining momentum with Microsoft partners, a clear program with two-way expectations provides the foundation for strong channel partnerships.

After joining Episerver in 2015, Karen Chastain, director of strategic alliances and global partners, was tasked with revamping Episerver's partner program, as well as strengthening its strategic relationship with Microsoft. Chastain sees that dual role as an important factor in the program's success.

"On the technology side, a tighter relationship with Microsoft is beneficial because our solution, built on Azure, helps our partners go to market quicker," said Chastain. "Azure helps them sell against the competition, giving them an easier platform to develop on -- more efficient and more cost-effective for their customers."

"And from a marketing perspective, it's a shared responsibility for lead generation," added Chastain. "Episerver does lead generation, our partners do lead generation, and we expect Microsoft to help us do lead generation, as well. Sometimes that could be through joint marketing efforts, and also it could be through helping us with brand awareness."

In an effective channel partner relationship, each tier of provider can leverage the different relationships it builds within customers and prospects to the benefit of all. Microsoft, ISVs and service providers generally work with different roles inside organizations, so cross-pollination opportunities flow up and down the partner chain. 

Resources for Different Levels of Partner Relationships
While Episerver -- an ISV that provides a single platform for managing digital content, commerce and marketing in the cloud -- has approximately 800 partners worldwide, the depth of those partnerships varies.

"We build deeper relationships with very active partners," said Chastain. "For example, we have about 20 to 30 U.S. partners that we're working with on a very, very frequent basis, and 50 that are coming to us with something every year."

Like most ISVs, where something like the 80-20 rule holds, partner relationships are not all created equal. Partner programs need to be designed to support active partners who include the ISV's solution in every proposal, as well as those partners who stumble on opportunities from time to time.

"It's important that we put in place a lot of the tools and resources to help our partners be self-sufficient so that we could touch a broader community," said Chastain. "For example, putting together a partner portal, with tools like a marketing plan to help them from a marketing perspective. We show them how to tailor and customize it for themselves."

To rise to the top as partners choose their ISV partners, simplicity is the differentiator. "If you're not easy to work with, if you don't communicate, if you don't help them ... it's very basic things but if you don't make it easy for them to work with, they're not going to work with you," cautioned Chastain. "They're going to the path of least resistance, the path of 'Where I can get my revenue the quickest.'"

To build out an effective partner channel program, Chastain recommends that ISVs take a systematic approach, including:

  • Build a solid partner program framework. Partners want to know that everyone is operating under the same requirements with the same benefits. Establish goals and milestones for partners to achieve to move through levels of benefits. It may take a couple of revisions to get the program right, but you need a well-defined framework.

  • Communication is key. You have to be open and honest with partners and keep communication flowing. Episerver sends monthly newsletters to partners and holds quarterly webinars to keep partners in the loop. A partner advisory board keeps provides direct input from their channel to support two-way communication. 

  • Share your partners' success and leverage their expertise. Partners can submit their case studies for posting on Episerver's Web site. "We post it as a reference under their profile so it's attributed to the partner," said Chastain. "We'll also post it elsewhere on the Web site and may use the case study for blogs." Episerver also promotes the industry expertise of partners through joint marketing programs.

Chastain recommends that ISVs look at how Microsoft supports its channel for ideas on how to build their own partner programs. "Microsoft is a great resource for me. I've worked with them for a long time and they're a huge company but they do have a great partner program. I modeled a lot of what I wanted in my partner program from what Microsoft offers," said Chastain. "For example, you go onto their partner portal, you see all the sales and marketing resources that they have available. Obviously, we don't have the money to create all those marketing resources but it's a great source of ideas and ways that I can provide additional benefit to my partners."

As more service providers package their intellectual property to create ISV solutions, the natural path is to allow other partners to sell those solutions. For partners ready to tap the potential of a reselling channel, clear expectations and established rewards set the stage for mutually beneficial relationships. As Episerver has found, a strong partner program can deliver exceptional results.

How are you supporting your reselling partners? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.    

Posted by Barb Levisay on September 21, 2016 at 8:43 AM0 comments

Are Veterans an Overlooked Talent Pool for Partners?

Based on the record turnout and positive atmosphere of last month's Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC), times are good for partners.

When partners talk about their challenges, hiring usually tops the list -- a good sign, but still a roadblock to continued growth. Interestingly, it seemed that more time was spent on the talent gap at past WPCs. Two years ago, there was a significant effort to focus attention on the potential of veterans to help. Which leads to the question: Is the channel overlooking a source of well-qualified candidates?

A prime reason that partners may want to revisit the potential of veterans is that the nature of the talent gap appears to have changed. Instead of looking for knowledge of the latest applications, most partners say that people skills and business acumen have become the qualities they need in new hires -- and are having trouble finding.

Based on their changing needs, partners may find that veterans could help bridge the gap. Veterans taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill get financial assistance to return to college or retrain for new careers. For New Horizons Computer Learning Centers, career development for veterans has boomed over the past five years.

"One of our largest customer groups today are transitioning veterans. People who are retiring out of the military or have served their contractual obligation," says Jamie Fiely, president of 22 New Horizons franchise locations. "We have a unique opportunity to support growing partners with very talented, capable people."

"We have worked with veterans who shot artillery, were commissioned officers and everything in between," adds Fiely. "A lot of these folks, especially those who have worked in technical roles, come out of the military with a clear understanding of the latest innovations and how technology is deployed."

For many of the veterans taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, especially those who have been in the service for 20 years, looking for a job in today's market is a big challenge. "Our career development business has had to augment the kinds of services we provide -- it's much more than just technical aptitude," Fiely says. "We are providing job readiness, which includes everything from conducting an interview to writing a resume to branding themselves using CareerBuilder and LinkedIn. We really have entered the job readiness training field."

Fiely believes that achieving certifications is a good indicator of the potential of veterans coming through the New Horizons programs. "One of the best ways for someone to demonstrate that they are a quick learner is to achieve certification," Fiely says. "For a person to go through a program in four to eight months and gain multiple certifications shows a desire and willingness to learn and ability to adapt quickly."

To take advantage of what a veteran could bring to your business, Fiely suggests taking a more strategic approach to your workforce. "If you need specific technical expertise, invest in training someone who already works for you and then backfill with a less experienced person. Like an apprenticeship model, you can help someone fit into the culture while teaching them specific skills. That approach builds morale in your current team and supports junior-level hiring. That's a true workforce strategy."

For partners struggling to fill the roles that require people skills and a capacity to learn, veterans could provide the answer. As a place to start, connect with New Horizons or one of the other learning partners in the channel. There are veterans earning technical certifications that have life and organizational experiences that can bring tremendous value to you and your customers.

How are you filling the talent gap in your organization? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on August 17, 2016 at 9:00 AM0 comments

Microsoft's 2016 WPC Was the First for Millennials

  • See our full WPC 2016 coverage here.

Setting the tone for what may be a new generation of Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conferences (WPCs), Ariela Suster, founder of Sequence, opened last week's WPC with her powerful story of a childhood besieged by violence in El Salvador. With remarkable stage presence, Suster described her mission to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth to break the cycle of crime and violence. The underlying message -- and recurring theme throughout the conference -- was that Microsoft enables people and partners to make a difference in the world.  

With a new generation of entrepreneurs and workers looking for meaning in the work they do, Microsoft seemed to be phasing out the tech-talk to focus on partners as agents of change. Keynotes at past WPCs have always included heart-tugging videos with partners helping nonprofit organizations use technology to make a bigger impact, but at WPC 2016 last week, the theme of purpose was pervasive. 

Nadella's Keynote Set the Tone
There seemed to be universal agreement among partners that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's 2016 keynote was his best WPC address yet. He set the theme of purpose early on: "It's not about celebrating any one of our technologies, products or services; it is about celebrating what our customers are able to do with technology, how they are transforming their own business, achieving their own success and having their own impact." Each of his keynote segments focused on the outcomes that businesses are achieving, rather than just the technology.

Nadella's onstage interview with GE CEO Jeff Immelt was a refreshing acknowledgment that it's not only the under-30 startup crowd that understands digital transformation in business. While there was a pitch for the GE-Microsoft Predix analytics partnership, the bulk of the conversation between Nadella and Immelt focused on how companies need to adapt to the digital economy. The discussion played well to the partner role in leading change for customers.

Judson Althoff Caught Off-Guard
Judson Althoff's North America briefing, which will be his last as he moves into his new position as executive vice president of Microsoft's Worldwide Commercial Business, started out with customer/partner demos delivered with a twist of humor -- standard fare, though the lighter approach was appreciated by the audience. In the last segment, Lianna McDonald, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, surprised Althoff with a heartfelt tribute to Microsoft's impact on the effectiveness of missingkids.ca. There wasn't a dry eye in the house after her portrayal of how children's lives are being saved by the digital connections supported through Azure.

McDonald was a tough act to follow and Althoff struggled to regain his composure as he closed the session. As this was his final presentation to the North American partner audience before taking his new role, he clearly wanted to thank partners. The emotion of the moment won out -- Althoff had to make do with a wave -- but the crowd responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation. It was the human side of Microsoft executives we don't often get to see at WPC.

Mixed Reactions
Not everyone seemed to appreciate the humanization of WPC. There were grumblings in the press room that there wasn't enough substance. There were no device demos during the keynotes, no big product release announcements. Software was in the background, with partners and purpose taking center stage.

The partners I spoke to did like the change. Partners were there to learn how to improve their own businesses, rather than to learn about the latest technology. There were some complaints about a lack of detail around Dynamics 365, but session reviews were positive for the most part. They particularly liked the high percentage of sessions that featured partners sharing best practices and lessons learned.

Most said their meetings with field sales and product teams were very productive, with a renewed focus on going to market together. As usual, networking with peers was a primary reason to attend WPC, and with 16,000 attendees, there was plenty of opportunity.

Support for Gavriella Schuster's appointment as channel chief seemed unanimous from both partners and Microsoft employees. Schuster is highly regarded for her understanding of the challenges partners face in dealing with Microsoft, and there is trust that she will make a positive impact and improve programs, as well as relationships.  

WPC 2016 was different, designed for a new generation of partners. Since Microsoft needs to convince upcoming entrepreneurs that the channel is a good place to be, it's good for them to start practicing that message. Millennials want purpose, and Microsoft let customers and partners make a strong case for how meaningful this work can be. Instead of the showing us the latest form factor, WPC 2016 reminded us of the positive human impact from the technology we deliver.  

Posted by Barb Levisay on July 18, 2016 at 1:03 PM0 comments

Partners: Follow the CIO with Packaged Services

Two recent reports, taken together, provide valuable insight for those partners searching for their "angle" to focus their business and create packaged services.

A 2016 survey of CIOs confirmed the growing strategic role for IT leaders in their organizations. Those findings, combined with the latest release of the Modern Partner Series, which makes a strong case for packaged services, could guide partners as they choose where to specialize.

The call for partners to specialize is nothing new, but the drumbeat is getting louder. "Differentiate to Stand Out" is the second of the Modern Partner Series from IDC and Microsoft, and makes a convincing argument based on actual partner experience. For most partners, the challenge has always been in how to narrow in on the specialization that will deliver rewards quickly enough to justify the investment of time and resources.

While industry solutions used to be the primary path to specialization, partners are finding success with functional packaged services, as well. The "Differentiate to Stand Out" report recognizes the viability of building a service offering based on a business function. Partners can use their deep understanding of Microsoft technology and roadmaps to help customers improve the processes that will build strategic advantage. Improving customer service systems, building team collaboration sites, and centralizing business intelligence are just a few examples.

Since CIOs have long been the primary connector between partners and their customers, insight into their current challenges and priorities can help guide the choice and positioning of packaged services. To that end, "The Creative CIO" survey recently released by Harvey Nash and KPMG provides a banquet of food for thought.

Some of the top findings and how they could drive the selection and design of a packaged service offering include:

  • 57 percent of CIOs now sit on the executive board or senior leadership committee: Packaged service offerings need to be easy for non-technical decision makers to understand. Define the value of technology improvements in business-value terms to help the CIO explain it to the rest of the leadership team.

  • 67 percent of CIOs expect the strategic influence of the CIO role to grow in 2016: Packaged service offerings need to serve a strategic objective. The business-process improvements delivered should be linked to driving revenue, breaking into new markets or cutting costs.

  • 87 percent of companies are pursuing digital strategies: With insight into the Microsoft digital roadmaps, help your CIO clients plan for the future. Become the technical expert that the CIO depends on to figure out how to pursue their digital strategy.

  • The top three CIO priorities are increasing operational efficiency, improving business processes, and delivering consistent and stable IT performance to the business: By delivering packaged services with a clear connection to top priorities, it's much easier to make the business case to the CIO.

  • 50 percent of CIOs will increase investment in outsourcing this year, up 9 percent from 2015: There is no time to lose. Create packaged services based on the best possible information but don't over-analyze. You can adjust as you go.

Choosing a specialization is a big decision -- so big that too many partners simply avoid it. For those partners ready to narrow their focus, the CIO survey can be a starting place for conversations with your leadership team. The Modern Partner Series includes three more reports on marketing, operations and customer lifetime value that provide practical guidance on execution once you have made the decision. With these two sources in hand, and the summer months ahead, it seems like the perfect time to take on differentiating your business.

How have you approached specialization and packaged services? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on June 22, 2016 at 10:51 AM0 comments

Microsoft Partner Opportunities in SharePoint 2016

Last week's "Future of SharePoint" event held by Microsoft in San Francisco earned high praise from the SharePoint community. The importance of SharePoint in the Microsoft ecosystem was reconfirmed, which seemed to reignite energy in the SharePoint community.

To help those of us who don't live and breathe SharePoint understand the impact of the 2016 release on partners, I spoke to Naomi Moneypenny, chief technology officer at ManyWorlds Inc.

"From the visionary standpoint, SharePoint 2016 and Office 365 will deliver the intelligent Internet, which surrounds employees with the conversations, the content and the apps they need to get their work done," said Moneypenny, an MVP for Office Servers and Services. "Intelligence built into SharePoint is one of the building blocks that will really make a difference for customers and service providers."

For the two core groups of SharePoint service providers, system integrators (SIs) and ISVs, Moneypenny highlighted the top opportunities as she sees them.

Top Opportunities for System Integrators
Moneypenny sees the role of SI as "the architect of change readiness." As partners have already experienced, the cadence of releases -- from versions to feature packs -- is increasing. Updates with new tools and new functionality will be coming out continuously.

"As an SI, you need to look at the framework you can deploy to help your clients' internal IT teams manage that level of change," said Moneypenny. "It's not just the SharePoint installation that we are all familiar with; the readiness aspect has become critical."

A second major opportunity exists by helping those internal IT teams look at the interconnected pieces of the corporate SharePoint experience from a higher-level perspective. As enterprises implement across the stack with Office 365, Azure Active Directory, SQL Server 2012 and SharePoint, they need guidance to optimize their overall architecture and use of SharePoint. 

Search is another big opportunity opened in SharePoint 2016 through extended functionality. "One of the wonderful things with SharePoint 2016 is the ability to search from a cloud or hybrid version and extend it back into previous versions of SharePoint," explained Moneypenny. "That allows you to treat your on-premises content the same as the content contained in SharePoint 2016."

Since clients won't need to spend their budgets on massive migration projects, this ease of content accessibility has the potential to free up funds for more productive service projects.   

Next up is the governance opportunity emerging from the announcement that many of the security and compliance tools that are a part of Office 365 will now be shared with SharePoint. "The whole area of governance -- helping clients design their architecture to best support their security, compliance and reporting requirements," noted Moneypenny. "And also the aspect of governance inside of the organization -- defining who can do what through authoring capabilities. The new functionality of SharePoint 2016 makes governance a big opportunity from a consulting perspective."

And finally, Moneypenny recommends that SI partners work proactively with their clients to take full advantage of the enhanced compatibility in the SharePoint 2016 development framework. "If you have customers currently building Web parts for SharePoint 2013, looking at the functional compatibility is important," she said. "You want to make sure what you are building now for the customer will work now and port into the future."  

Top Opportunities for ISVs
For those partners building custom applications on SharePoint, the new model framework supports a much wider range of development tools. "With support of client-side object models, developers can incorporate newer technologies into SharePoint 2016," said Moneypenny. "The new framework supports more standard Web technology, so it opens up opportunity for a lot of development folks."

While a separate product from SharePoint 2016, Moneypenny sees Microsoft Flow as a game changer. "Amazing potential is being unleashed with native support of Microsoft Flow in SharePoint 2016," she said. "Microsoft Flow is sort of the enterprise version equivalent of IFTTT [If This, Then That], bringing disparate data streams together. For example, you could mine data out of Dynamics and Twitter and put them together as a list in SharePoint. Combining workflow with the data pulled through Microsoft Flow is powerful stuff." 

Last, but not least, the graphing APIs available through Office Graph allows developers to personalize applications for the user. "From the SharePoint perspective, whether you are delivering content to specific employees or a team site, you can mold the experience to the individual or group," said Moneypenny.

Given this huge challenge to pare a list down to the top opportunities for partners, Moneypenny pointed out that there is much more that she didn't cover that partners should consider. "In the end, there is huge opportunity for every type of partner," she said. "SharePoint 2016 is making the platform -- which we always said we had -- a reality for both delivering data, as well as consuming data. That data can come from anywhere inside your business or beyond."

Microsoft's Web site describes the current state of SharePoint this way: "More than 200,000 organizations use SharePoint today and an extraordinary community of more than 50,000 partners and 1 million developers make up a $10 billion solutions ecosystem around SharePoint." With a renewed sense of future, SharePoint partners will be doubling down, continuing to build that ecosystem. The best may be yet to come.

How are you going to capitalize on the SharePoint 2016 opportunities? Add a comment below or drop me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on May 11, 2016 at 2:01 PM0 comments

Partners Look to the Future of Microsoft Envision

The next Microsoft Envision event is already scheduled to kick off on Feb. 27, 2017 in Los Angeles, Calif. Hopefully, following the advice of partners, Microsoft has already begun planning, building on the strengths and learning from mistakes of the first Envision held in New Orleans earlier this month.

One of the most common observations from both customers and partners about the first Envision was confusion about who should attend the event. Clarifying the roles, along with the corresponding value proposition for each, should be a pretty straightforward exercise for Microsoft. This year's sessions were aimed at business, finance, IT, marketing and sales leaders.

In terms of content, attendees I spoke to approved of the direction of sessions, which focused on industry trends and business challenges. "The key is not to try to serve everyone. Stick to the formula that appeals to executives, not all the bits and bytes of tech talk," said Nils Rasmussen, CEO of Solver, a Silver Sponsor. "The content should be a blend of ideas to be implemented today and tomorrow. Have the vision that is exciting, but at the same time deliver the practical value that they can take home to implement immediately."

Several customers I spoke to agree with Rasmussen's perspective on the importance of attendees bringing practical ideas in addition to visions for the future. "Executives need to be able to justify their time and expense," said Rasmussen. "When attendees come back with specific ideas that bring immediate value to the business, it defends the investment, builds momentum and provides the reason to return."

Providing guidance on products that businesses already own was another topic that was high on customers' lists. Several I spoke to had come with the specific goal of seeing how other companies were using solutions like Dynamics CRM and Power BI. The popular customer panels of Convergence events were missing -- probably the biggest single weakness of Envision content.  

"I like where Envision is headed with decision makers, but those people want specifics on how to leverage their existing investment in whatever products they have purchased," said Linda Rose, CEO and president of RoseASP Inc., a hosting partner. "Sessions I went to were so general that I didn't leave with anything tangible. I was really hoping for more content from people outside of Microsoft, but with the late planning for this conference, I am sure they ran out of time to seek such people out." 

Attracting more customers to next year's Envision is obviously good for everyone involved. To achieve the full potential, Microsoft should actively enlist partner help as it did for Convergence, putting marketing materials -- from blog posts to e-mail invitation templates -- in the hands of partners early to support a grass-roots attendance push.    

Many Dynamics partners invested heavily in promoting Convergence to their customers and then "hosting" them during the event. Special events and personalized experiences for attending customers deepened relationships and drove significant service opportunities for those partners. In contrast, an Envision attendee who participated in a Microsoft customer feedback session reported multiple customers complaining that their partners were more of an impediment than a help in their relationship with Microsoft. Those customers wanted to have a more direct relationship with Microsoft. As disturbing as that perspective is, it's a good reminder that Microsoft is continually challenged to find the right balance in its relationships with partners and customers.

Envision has the potential to provide the connection that business decision makers would like to have with Microsoft. Partners can either be threatened by that or use it to their advantage. With proactive engagement, partners can build the value of Envision for customers and reap the rewards.

For Microsoft and partners alike, planning for Envision 2017 should be underway. The opportunity to meet face to face with customers, guide them in their technology choices and be a part of their business planning is priceless. It deserves our full attention.

How do you plan to use Envision to build customer connections? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share the knowledge.     

Posted by Barb Levisay on April 13, 2016 at 12:36 PM0 comments

A Bumpy Ride at Microsoft's First Envision Conference

Fair or not, almost every conversation at the first Microsoft Envision conference, which took place earlier this week in New Orleans, began with a comparison to Convergence, the discontinued Microsoft Dynamics event.

Loyalty to the Convergence legacy borders on fanatic, but the event is a tough act to follow by any measure. The Convergence team had become a well-oiled machine that consistently delivered great content and smooth operations.

The most puzzling part of the whole Envision experience is why Microsoft seemed so set on reinventing the wheel instead of building on the strengths of Convergence. Unfortunately, it made for a bumpy ride.

Beginning with its astonishingly late announcement in January, confusion was an underlying theme for Envision. Session lists weren't posted when the initial announcement was made, so that ISVs and customers already registered couldn't make an educated decision about whether or not they should attend.

Even though a number of longtime Convergence exhibitors stayed away, the expo hall still felt full of familiar ISVs. Molly Van Kampen, director of sales for Greenshades, a tax and payroll solutions ISV, agreed that the late notice was challenging. "We start planning for next year's Convergence as soon this year's is over, so a change of direction makes a big impact," Van Kampen said.

Greenshades decided to continue with its plans, bringing six employees to staff the booth.

"We've done business with Microsoft for 20 years," said Van Kampen. "We can understand why they wanted to expand the focus from just Dynamics. Change is hard, but we want to participate in this new direction. We see the event as an investment in the community."

Another longtime Convergence exhibitor, Solver, chose to maintain its Silver-level sponsorship after the switch to Envision. "Like most ISVs, I was skeptical when they made the announcement," said Nils Rasmussen, CEO of the business intelligence ISV. "Convergence has been our biggest sources of leads. In the end, it will all come back to the ROI. While this year may not match Convergence, we have had many good partner meetups and a fair amount of traffic."

Even if there weren't as many people visiting the booths as vendors (and Microsoft) hoped for, exhibitors universally reported that they were having high-quality conversations with attendees. Eric Jensen, account executive with Cutwater, an inventory management solution ISV, said, "We are seeing a high percentage of business decision makers instead of IT folks. They are the right people for the conversations that we want to have."

Guessing the actual attendance was a favorite topic at the conference. During the opening keynote, Chris Capossela, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Microsoft, declared that there were 6,000 attendees -- a number that was viewed with a high degree of skepticism.

In terms of content, both customers and partners seemed to feel Microsoft was headed in the right direction. There was a clear focus on changing the conversations from the functional to business outcomes. One customer provided good reviews to a session that focused on controlling business risk instead of simply addressing IT security.  

Partners and customers alike reported a mixed bag on the quality of sessions. "State of the Industry" sessions featuring panels of experts were widely praised. The number of presentations that included outside experts instead of Microsoft employees was a promising development. On the other hand, there were not nearly enough customers included in panels and presentations -- which may simply be a reflection of the late planning of content. 

In addition, quality control on partner-led sessions seemed to be lacking. Many were little more than a sales pitch without any discernable educational content.

Multiple people reported errors in the schedule, including roadmap sessions that most thought were canceled and weren't. The highly trained staff of Convergence past may have set a high bar, but the Envision staffers were woefully underprepared, providing consistent misdirection delivered with a lackadaisical attitude.

To his credit, Capossela was a visible presence, attending events and mingling with crowds -- clearly observing and listening. Hopefully, his engagement will be reflected in a more consistent experience at next year's Envision, already announced for Feb. 27 in Los Angeles.  

Overall, Envision wasn't the disaster that some expected but it wasn't as good as it could have been. The session content was reasonably good, customers had a full expo hall to seek out solutions, and vendors had conversations with well-qualified prospects. The disappointment of Envision was that someone at Microsoft apparently made a decision to create something new instead of building on the longtime success of Convergence. That decision was a disservice to every vendor and attendee. 

What was your Envision experience? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on April 07, 2016 at 12:37 PM0 comments

Microsoft Partner Taps Power BI for SMB Market and Beyond

Microsoft's Power BI Partner Showcase is a testament to the success of partners helping their clients, from enterprises to SMBs, realize the potential of data through analytics and visualization. For most SMB partners, however, experience and resource challenges put building a Power BI practice beyond their reach. 

But one of the showcase partners, RoseBud Technologies, has set its sights on taking Power BI to the SMB market -- and helping other partners do the same.

While RoseBud, a 10-person IT service provider based in Atlanta, may seem an unlikely Power BI advocate, it has deep roots in data. "A large part of the success of any partner is a result of the background their people bring to the equation," said Joe Treanor, president of RoseBud. "I spent time in banking when metrics and analytics were becoming the drivers in the industry. It gave me an understanding of the importance of making data useful."

Beginning with the self-service analytics released with Excel 2010, Treanor was intrigued with the practical application for RoseBud clients, predominantly small and midsize businesses. In 2013, RoseBud was an early adopter of Power BI, seeing the opportunity to support business intelligence (BI) without big infrastructure investment. 

Since that time, Treanor has seen a reluctance in partners to pursue the BI opportunity. "SMB partners face two major hurdles," Treanor explained. "The first is the experiential comfort with managing and directing business intelligence work. The second is where to find the people who can speak to clients and deliver the services." 

To solve the second challenge, RoseBud has established a relationship with Kennesaw State University's Coles College of Business. The college has a strong program that focuses on the practical business applications of quantitative analytics. KSU also offers a master's degree in applied statistics and more recently launched a Ph.D. program in Analytics and data science.

"Kennesaw is very much aligned with what we are doing," Treanor said. "They are training people who are comfortable holding a conversation about business and data analysis. They are developing data scientists for business, not just academia."

Just like most partners who are searching for their value-add in a cloud world, Treanor sees BI as a specialty that RoseBud can build on for the future. "It's a changing game. There is only so much business you can do with migrations," Treanor said. "We looked at what we could do with analytics. Microsoft is making very sophisticated enterprise-level capabilities available to the smallest businesses through subscriptions and tools. So we are helping our customers take advantage of Power BI, and we think it is just the beginning of a very big wave."

With Microsoft's heavy promotion of Power BI, RoseBud is seeing more proactive interest from customers. "There is more awareness through Office 365 and the infrastructure barriers are gone," Treanor said. "Many of the clients we talk to, even small business owners, understand the value of predictive and prescriptive analytics. They are looking beyond reporting to solving specific business challenges by using data."

Additional potential -- helping other partners who don't have the experience or resources to offer Power BI on their own -- is also developing for RoseBud. "A single partner can't be a generalist anymore," said Greg Treanor, vice president of RoseBud. "We're applying our experience and resources, becoming a go-to partner for Power BI. Partners can focus on their niche, work with us for Power BI and offer even more value to customers. They don't have to build the practice for themselves."

Microsoft's Power BI is clearly fertile ground for the service opportunity attached to Office 365. For those partners who can overcome the knowledge and resource barriers, the future of BI is very promising. And even for those partners who don't want to jump in the deep end, partnering allows you to fill the expectations of your customers. BI is finally going mainstream to help every one of your clients realize the potential of their data.

How are you taking Power BI to your clients? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story. 

Posted by Barb Levisay on March 29, 2016 at 3:51 PM0 comments

IAMCP Women in Technology E3 Program: Deadline Extended

The Women in Technology (WIT) community of the International Association of Microsoft Channel Partners (IAMCP) has gained impressive momentum over the past two years. Well-attended webinars, popular regional meetings and standing-room-only Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) luncheons establish the value WIT brings to the channel.

Taking another step forward, the IAMCP WIT is sponsoring the Entrepreneurs, Executives and Excellence (E3) Program, an intensive entrepreneurship program for women in the channel. 

Through E3, 15 female entrepreneurs and executives will be selected to participate in a four-month educational program. Virtual training, delivered by subject-matter experts in finance, marketing, sales and corporate innovation, will help the participants scale their businesses and develop skills to run world-class companies. At completion of the program, participants will be able to showcase their businesses at WPC 2016 in Toronto.

Through an intensive four-week educational program, workshops and coaching, the E3 program will help selected participants refine financial strategies and business plans to grow their businesses. The program will be managed by Venture Hive, a leading entrepreneurship education company and Microsoft partner based in Miami.

"IAMCP WIT is thrilled to partner with Venture Hive to offer the E3 Program -- Entrepreneurs, Executives and Excellence. We believe that mentorship is a vital practice for women who want to elevate their businesses to new heights of success," said Jennifer Didier, international IAMCP WIT chair and CEO of Directions Training. "Engaging in productive relationships with people who have proven business skills and professional acumen can profoundly impact entrepreneurs and executives by equipping them with the tools they need to pursue fruitful careers, establish inspiring workplaces, and encourage the next generation of business leaders."

Didier has been the driving force behind WIT's latest initiative. After learning about the entrepreneurial training that Venture Hive provides, she saw the potential to make a real impact for women in the channel. Didier's pitch to fellow leaders in IAMCP WIT and the greater Microsoft ecosystem was well-received, leading to the launch of the E3 program and WPC 2016 showcase   

According to the program application form, preference will be given to women who are entrepreneurs, CEOs or executives leading companies with between $1 million and $10 million in annual revenues. Participants in the 15-week E3 program should expect five to seven contact hours per week, plus an additional 20 or more hours of preparation and assignments. The program is open to international participants.  

Additional details on the program are available at the E3 program site. To apply, access the application form here. The original closing date of March 11, as stated on the Web site, has been extended. Applications must be received by 11:59 p.m. EDT on Friday, March 18.

The IAMCP WIT community is making a difference in the Microsoft partner channel. Better-equipped business leaders who build strong technology companies add value to the entire ecosystem. Young women who see opportunity to take their place in a growing industry are more likely to join us as the next generation of developers, salespeople, system architects, consultants, data analysts, practice leads, product managers and CEOs.

How are you supporting diversity in the channel? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on March 09, 2016 at 12:03 PM0 comments

Study Finds 'Mixed-Up Approach' to SharePoint and Office 365

The results of a recently released survey of 1,000 SharePoint and Office 365 developers provide an interesting look into the business realities that Microsoft partners must balance.

The study, titled "The State of SharePoint and Office 365 Development," was conducted by Rencore, a SharePoint and Office 365 ISV, and can be accessed here with registration. It revealed "that many organisations have a mixed up approach to SharePoint and Office 365. Microsoft's vision of a cloud-first world just has not materialised yet. In fact, organisations regularly use a broad mix of Microsoft's most recent and legacy software."

The primary objective of the research was to answer the question, "What is the real state of SharePoint and Office 365 development in 2015?"

The study's 1,000 respondents included SharePoint and Office 365 architects, developers, IT professionals and project managers. Participants represent 10 countries, with 37 percent from the United States. The 24-page survey analysis breaks down the demographics of the respondents, providing some interesting insights from the start. Stand-outs include the gender gap, with women representing only 11 percent of the respondents, and the international representation of developers under age 30, with India way out front.

Rencore's analysis of the survey results focuses on four primary findings, including:

  • Microsoft wants a "mobile-first, cloud-first" world. This is currently far from the reality.

  • SharePoint customization is still a varied discipline.

  • Governance and day-to-day management is undervalued.

  • The Office 365 and SharePoint community is thriving.

While developers are using the cloud, with 58 percent hosting infrastructure service on Azure, 39 percent of respondents report that they are still entirely on-prem. With almost half of the SharePoint deployments on-prem, the results suggest the cloud adoption cycle has a long way to go. The report states, "Microsoft's vision of a cloud centred world appears distant to many organisations, who continue to use 'legacy' platforms for a variety of reasons."

An interview with Jeremy Thake, senior product marketing manager at Microsoft, extends the commentary on customization trends for SharePoint and Office 365. Microsoft has added more options for developers and shifted the focus to add-ins, but based on the survey results, developers still rely heavily on traditional methods.

Governance, which SharePoint professionals have long known plays a huge role in adoption and usage, still is not a high priority for businesses. Respondents revealed that well-documented and rigorous control processes are still the exception rather than the rule.

The unique unity and dedication of the SharePoint community is reflected in the survey results. Only 14 percent of the respondents said they were not active in the community. Almost three-quarters of the respondents said they participate in online forums, and over 60 percent attend conferences -- which is no surprise to anyone who knows many SharePoint professionals.

The report includes an interview with Tobias Zimmergren, Microsoft MVP and Rencore's Cloud Offerings Product Owner, that provides deeper interpretation of the results. Zimmergren closes with advice for those interested in learning SharePoint and getting more involved in the community.

Rencore clearly dedicated considerable time and energy to collect and present a research-based picture of the changes affecting SharePoint and Office 365 professionals. The report provides a valuable baseline to evaluate the pace of cloud adoption over the coming years. With most customers using some form of SharePoint or Office 365, Rencore's report should be of interest to most Microsoft partners.

What trends are you seeing in your SharePoint practice? Add a comment below or send me a note and let's share your story.

Posted by Barb Levisay on February 24, 2016 at 11:07 AM0 comments