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Microsoft channel partner program changes coming at WPC 2009

As the Worldwide Partner Conference approaches, Microsoft names a new U.S. channel chief and plans to restructure its channel partner program.

Microsoft this week named a new U.S. channel chief and shuffled around other partner program executives, just days before the start of its Worldwide Partner Conference 2009.

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The changes come as Microsoft prepares to roll out significant changes to its channel partner program at the conference, which begins Monday in New Orleans.

Jenni Flinders is the new vice president for U.S. partner business development and sales. She has nine years of experience at Microsoft, including the last three as worldwide general manager for distributors and large-account resellers.

Flinders takes over for Robert Deshaies, who will be "focusing on a key strategic initiative" over the next few months, Microsoft said. Cindy Bates stays in place as vice president of partner sales marketing and programs for Microsoft's U.S.Partners.

Those personnel changes were outlined this week but analysts and VARs who have been briefed said a major restructuring of the overall Microsoft channel partner program will be unveiled at the Worldwide Partner Conference kicking off next week. The company will put new emphasis on certifications and focus more on vertical industries, said one West Coast partner who spoke on the condition of anonymity. With the Microsoft Dynamics AX and NAV ERP product lines, for example, partners that meet these new criteria will get the first shot at new deals, this partner said.

The focus will be on helping top partners execute on a strategy to build their business, but this will be a select few based on performance.

"You, as a partner, will have to really, really differentiate yourself," he added.

The vertical push has been going on for some time at Microsoft -- and at other vendors as well. What's new here is that Microsoft will designate "go-to-market" partners in certain technologies in specific geographies.

"Partners who have a business focus on these [verticals] will be put in a priority position for all major AX and NAV opportunities and will be supported by Microsoft," he said.

Microsoft will highlight partners with excellent execution in a given geographic area with a sort of "local hero" call out, he said. Oracle is doing something similar in its attempt to designate "go-to" partners in each region for technologies such as business intelligence, advanced integration, product life cycle management and ID management.

The Gold partner dilemma

Microsoft will also put new programs in place to help top partners grow their businesses, this partner said. This is particular pain point for Gold partners that reiterated a common complaint that the Gold designation has very little value. "Gold is the new Certified," quipped one Boston area Gold partner who said he sees very little benefit from that brand. There are simply too many Gold partners that end up competing with each other for deals, he and others said. In Microsoft parlance, Gold is an elite group of VARs. Certified is the next level down.

Paul Barter, vice president of strategy for Toronto-based T4G Limited, agreed. "Getting a Gold is now the cost of doing business."

Another East Coast partner said the new Microsoft partner program restructuring news is expected to be big. And an analyst said the changes will be more significant than the typical tweaks that Microsoft makes at every Worldwide Partner Conference.

"It will take quite a while to roll everything out," an analyst said.

Both he and the East Coast partner spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Other Microsoft channel executives taking on new roles include Allen Boone, who moves from the Server and Tools Business Group to lead the worldwide channel incentives team, and Karl Noakes, who is joining the Worldwide Partner Group's leadership team from its solution partner community.

One Microsoft partner program executive who's not going anywhere is worldwide channel chief Allison Watson, who is entering her seventh year in that role. One partner noted that in a Watson Q&A posted to Microsoft's website, Watson advised partners to build and launch low-cost services. "Gee, thanks, Allison," he said.

Looming over all of these program changes is Microsoft's move into cloud-based services, which many partners watch with interest although few see much opportunity there to make money. Microsoft, which is expected to disclose the pricing and sales model for these Azure services next week, has to compete with very low-cost but compelling cloud-based storage and other services from Amazon.com. Somehow, Microsoft has to leave room for partners to make money building atop them. That puts Microsoft in a bind, since partner margin will add to the end-user cost of services.

Barbara Darrow, Senior News Director, contributed to this report.

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