A toolset being released free to Microsoft Corp. partners this week highlights the value not so much of sales automation as the ability to ask the right questions during early meetings with a customer.
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The Microsoft Business and Technology Assessment Toolkit -- which is actually the integrated version of a menu of more narrowly focused kits -- is designed to walk an integrator or value-added reseller (VAR) through the process of assessing the business and technology needs of a new customer.
"It's basically a script," according to Steven VanRoekel, director of Microsoft's Windows Server Solutions Group, which put together and is releasing the tool through a special partner site that provides other tools, plus partner success stories and best practices.
"Based on the answers to a series of questions, there are key words inside the toolkit, that can help assess pain points. Then you can go in and say a great solution for a problem like that is Microsoft Operations Manager and SharePoint and Microsoft Systems Center."
It's not anything revolutionary, and it doesn't force the VAR to focus on Microsoft products, according to Dave Sobel, president of Fairfax, Va.-based VAR Evolve Technologies, Inc., who credits the tool and the process behind it with increasing his deal close rate by 20 percent.
"We've always done assessments of the customer as part of our process," Sobel said. "One of the nice things about the toolkit is that they had through of some of the things we hadn't and it meshed very neatly with what we had developed ourselves."
"We're asking better and broader questions about a customer's business than we used to," agreed Erik Thorsell, president of Success Computer Consulting, Inc. in Minneapolis.
For example, Evolve -- which offers prospective customers a free assessment of their business and technology situation, as well as an online do-it-yourself assessment quiz – would perform an in-depth interview on how the client made money, what processes it used, what technology it had in place, and what the pain points were in both business process and technology infrastructure.
"Everybody should have that process, but I'm not convinced everybody does," Sobel said. "And even if you do, did you have a team of engineers that helped put it together? Microsoft did. They thought of things we hadn't."
VARs are hungry for any help they can get, especially at consultative selling, which includes both the customer's business drivers and technical needs, according to Jeff Kaplan, president of consultancy ThinkStrategies, Inc.
"You'd almost take it for granted, but there are a lot of people, a lot of VARs, who are still technology centered and don't consider the business drivers," Kaplan said. Microsoft does deserve credit for making these kinds of tools to support their own products and other products in the field.
Asking in detail about business-processes raises questions Thorsell and his crew tended not to ask. "We're mainly focused on infrastructure, so we weren't focused on those questions," Thorsell said. "Those questions sometimes generate business we can throw to other Microsoft partners that we bring in at that point."
The toolkit itself is divided into more than two dozen segments, each of which focuses on one stage of the assessment or one Microsoft technology. It's designed to allow VARs to put together just the modules they need, however.
It's not even the questions that are the biggest benefit, Soebel said. Just having an orderly, complete process in place that gives the VAR a detailed picture of the customer's needs and shows the customer that the VAR's approach is professional and comprehensive.
Sobel does the assessment and presents the result to a customer before even talking about products or contracts.
Thorsell charges for the assessment, so it expands the deal even while helping to map it out, he said.
"Just using a toolkit isn't getting you in front of customers more," Sobel said. "But once you're in front of customers, you're winning all the time because you look more like an expert than everybody else. Plus I understand a customers' business, his risks, his pain points, and I can tailor that proposal very tightly to his needs."
Proposals put together after a thorough assessment are worth about 40% more than those without, Thorsell said. Those deals also lead to longer-term relationships, and a shorter lead time for future sales.
"It results in larger sales and even the initial sales cycle is shorter," Thorsell said. "We expected it would really drag things out, but it has the opposite effect."
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