The new Microsoft Partner Network promises to help top-tier Microsoft VARs differentiate themselves from the hoi-polloi. But many Microsoft Gold partners aren't buying that line.
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They say that the cost to achieve top-tier status in the new Microsoft Partner Network (MPN) is too high for too little in return.
As Microsoft revs up for its annual Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Washington D.C. next month, these partners all agree that Microsoft must help top-tier VARs strut their stuff, but many question whether the new MPN requirements and newly organized and renamed Microsoft competencies are worth time and money that could be better spent serving customers.
One of the big changes is Microsoft's decision to lose its traditional "Gold" certification and launch a new "Advanced" logo for its top partners.
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In the transition to the new MPN, one bone of contention is the increased use of customer satisfaction surveys, or CSATs, in Microsoft parlance.
To maintain top-tier status, partners have to get ten customers to complete CSAT surveys in the 12 months prior to re-enrolling. Then, to garner "Advanced" status, they must supply five additional reference accounts. Several VARs said that their customers have long tired of the surveys.
"We're getting pushback from clients who don't want to spend 15 to 20 minutes answering surveys from Microsoft. It's constant nagging and a fundamental distraction," said Kevin McDonald, executive vice president of Alvaka Networks Inc. in Irvine, Calif.
McDonald summed up the sentiment of several VARs speaking about vendor partner programs in general. "We're sick of jumping through hoops for vendors only to compete with other VARs that design their business to be vendor compliant." VARs are better off focusing on their own value add and services as opposed to carrying a given vendor's water, those VARs maintain.
Microsoft raises the ante for top partner status
One unstated focus of MPN seems to be to winnow out smaller VARs and reduce the number of top-tier partners, but that strategy could backfire. Some of the smallest partners are also the most deeply technical and talented in specific areas but may not have the budget or manpower to pursue the advanced-level designation.
The annual fee for the Advanced designation -- not including training and certification -- is now $4,000 compared to about $1,500 for Gold.
"The Microsoft partner program turned its back on specialized small partners with the new system. I personally know a number of small partners that are now former partners. They just didn't' see the value in [paying] the cost to be a partner," said the CEO of a California-based VAR.
"We are members of MPN via some form of grandfathering, but when Gold goes away, we're out," Powers told SearchITChannel.com.
He's no fan of CSATs either. "The problem is we've had to go back to customers with Microsoft-driven surveys already and asking 'do you still like us?' It's preposterous. It's a non-starter," he said.
Powers said Microsoft has never touted the Microsoft Gold designation as something to be valued and he doesn't see any reason it will start now. "There is no air support from Microsoft -- it's a navel-gazing exercise. What Microsoft should have done five, ten years ago was to explain to customers with big, expensive advertising that Gold partners are better than regular Microsoft partners -- that they have invested real time, energy and money getting this label."
The value of getting a vendor designation must outweigh the cost of attaining it, but McDonald and a half dozen other VARs said that doesn't always turn out to be the case. Alvaka may end up pursuing an Advanced competency, but that the real incentive is access to free Microsoft software. Admittedly, that is a pretty big incentive.
"We get $100,000 to $200,000 worth of free software -- one hundred Windows [licenses], 100 Office super-duper [licenses]. This is production use software, not dev use and it's a lot of software. We don't use it all," said Robert Shear, president of Boston-based Greystone Solutions Inc. Greystone will pursue advanced status in large part to reap perks like all those freebies, he said.
Emilie Hersh, CEO of Interknowlogy, a current Microsoft Gold partner based in Carlsbad, Calif. said the transition to MPN has been resource intensive. "We've had to put a lot more into the Microsoft program now than in the past and we've put someone internally [to manage it]…but we're finding we're getting a lot more out of it this year in terms of marketing funds, vouchers for certifications to get us up to speed etc."
Hersh agreed that the CSATs are a bit of a hassle but the responses are worth it.
True blue Microsoft VARs hang tight for MPN
Some other long-time Microsoft partners said they will also keep their certifications and designations at the top level.
Andy Vabulas, CEO of I.B.I.S. Inc., in Alpharetta, Ga., said that in MPN, Microsoft is doing just what many Gold partners wanted -- made it harder to become a top-tier player.
"We've told Microsoft for years that Microsoft Gold Certified didn't have value and now a major design plan for MPN is to finally differentiate the levels of the partner program -- even extending into industry certifications," he noted.
In short, Microsoft Gold didn't mean anything, but Microsoft Advanced will.
Another Gold VAR that plans to go for Advanced attributes the sniping to sour grapes. "I absolutely think the brand is worth something. The people who are complaining are those that don't have the marketing resources to pursue these levels. They are probably the managers or owners and they don't see that their leads are going to drop off and that people won't be able to find them from the Microsoft sites," said Carl Mazzanti, vice president of eMazzanti Technologies, in Hoboken, N.J.
In his view, a lot of the VAR feedback is from malcontents. He and a few other VARs said they are substituting the Microsoft CSAT surveys for their own customer feedback forms. The surveys contain a few Microsoft questions that they can augment with their own queries, and customer responses are available to them immediately.
The smartest partners will use vendor partner programs to their own advantage. They at least put a framework and deadlines around training and learning new skill sets.
Greystone's Shear said his company uses the MPN branding to its advantage but it really doesn't mean much in the field.
"Advanced or Gold doesn't make much difference, but if we had just gotten into the business and were trying to prove we were qualified, it can be helpful."
Most business customers don't ask and don't care about vendor badges and certifications. For most VARs, business grows out of customer referrals and the VARs own marketing and advertising efforts. Vendor-provided leads, if there are any, are often of very poor quality.
"No one ever asks if we're a Microsoft gold. Ever," said Alvaka's McDonald.