As a newly minted Microsoft managed partner in the southeastern United States, IT solution provider eGroup is starting a new chapter in its relationship with the company. That relationship can be very valuable for Microsoft channel partners, but it takes work and requires a progressive approach to their role within the channel.
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"We've been selling Microsoft for years but becoming managed partner, now it's real," said Rich Young, manager of marketing and corporate communications at the $25 million solution provider, which is based in Mount Pleasant, S.C. "Companies often sign an agreement and think they can make 15 points on selling this widget and give it to their salespeople, and that's not going to work in the long run."
Microsoft, like many large vendors, has a medal tiering program for about 25 competency areas such as business intelligence, customer relationship management (CRM), and collaboration and content, said Darren Bibby, program vice president for Channels and Alliances Research at IDC, who was also a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner in the 1990s. There's subjectivity to who gets chosen to be a managed partner, he said, "but they're going to make decisions based on a very objective list of partners based on their tier levels and accomplishments.
"Many partners see it as a badge of honor to be a 'managed partner,' often more so than a gold or silver partner," added Bibby. That's because managed partners are entitled to field managers, while other types of partners get phone management and help through the vendor's self-service portal. "Microsoft talks about having 640,000 partners, and trust me, very few are fully managed," he said.
Darren Bibbyprogram vice president for Channels and Alliances Research, IDC
Among the perks of being field-managed? "You've got a warm body inside Microsoft whose job it is to help you, and that's one of the biggest things you can have," if a partner needs something of a technical or sales-related nature, Bibby said.
Being a Microsoft managed partner means having "a deeper level of engagement with Microsoft," said Karl Noakes, general manager for Worldwide Partner Strategy and Programs at Microsoft. Members of the Microsoft Partner Network are selected and invited to become managed at the subsidiary level, he said, and they have:
- Proved their expertise, as demonstrated through competency attainment, including a history of high customer satisfaction.
- Committed to working with their local team to set and work toward shared business goals. This often includes making marketing and sales commitments that align to local and global priorities.
- Aligned with Microsoft global and local strategic priorities.
The benefit of being a Microsoft managed partner is receiving a set of core benefits that can help them save time and money while they strengthen their capabilities, better serve their customers, and build connections to reach their full business potential, Noakes said. He said Microsoft does not release figures on how many managed partners it has.
All partners receive approximately $320,000 in value from Microsoft Partner Network benefits, according to a 2012 report by IDC. These benefits include tools and resources to help them build their business more effectively, generate demand, increase sales and retain customers. "This value is based on a 50-person Microsoft partner organization with approximately $5 [million] to $10 million in revenue and two to five competencies,'' Noakes said. "Partners smaller in organizational size or revenue generation may find their value to be less, while partners with more staff, more competencies and more revenue may realize significantly higher value."
What it takes to become a managed partner
IMason, a knowledge management solutions partner based in Toronto, is a Microsoft gold partner that has attained managed partner status. The company started working with Microsoft in 1999, said Vicki Thomson, managing partner for Alliances & Talent at iMason.
"We're very lucky to have managed partner status, and it's definitely a popularity contest, for sure," she said.
To become a managed partner "you have to connect with them directly and work on certifications to get your team trained on technologies they provide and demonstrate some level of competency," Thomson said. Firms can do that through customer references, by working with Microsoft's sales team to deliver solutions to customers "or by starting to work with your customers and getting recognized by Microsoft as adding value to their business," she said.
Because iMason does technology deployments, it has been designated as a systems integrator partner, Thomson said, and "we get the status of 'managed' based on revenue as we work with customers and talk about new solutions for them." As Microsoft recognizes that firms are influencing license purchases in a larger volume, it starts to assign a direct account manager to them, she said, adding that she doesn't know what the revenue amount is. She has monthly meetings with her Microsoft account manager so she can receive the newest information "before I have to search for it."
Her account manager also works with iMason on whatever projects the company has in the pipeline and any that it's looking to close by a certain date. Everyone on Thomson's team has taken Microsoft exams and has demonstrated competencies in certain areas, she said. IMason staff also attend Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference every summer.
Attaining managed partner status can be precarious, though. Thomson said that while Microsoft doesn't require iMason to meet revenue quotas per se, the vendor is becoming "more prescriptive about that" and "it's possible we won't be managed in another six months to a year."
Keeping the customer at the forefront
Right now eGroup is basking in its new status. After it sealed the deal with Microsoft last July 1, one step eGroup took was to send people to the company's Worldwide Partner Conference, as well as to a sales and engineering conference to get its business ready.
As eGroup nurtures its new relationship with Microsoft, Young said past experience has shown that regardless of great pricing options, attractive rebates and shorter sales cycles, eGroup needs to remember to "think in the best interest of the customer."
At the outset of the Microsoft partnership -- as with any vendors -- he said it's important to come to some sort of consensus and set expectations that will be mutually beneficial. "It sounds cliché, but it comes down to communication." The vendor contact who is managing the partner-VAR-reseller relationship may have expectations that are not aligned with what the partner has in mind, he noted.
"It's critical to have a good connection between the vendor and partner," agreed IDC's Bibby.
That's something Young has already discovered in past relationships with channel account managers. "If they are just aligned to sell more stuff and in that initial engagement they don't sit down and frankly communicate and put it down on paper in some formal agreement, then it's going to turn into finger-pointing,'' he said. "And I see that a lot."
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