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Partners call Microsoft program unusually responsive to channel concerns

Tech companies with less power than Microsoft are often accused of arrogance toward the channel; Microsoft says it looks out for them despite a few weaknesses in its partner program.

Tech giants' channel programs don't always win points for responsiveness.

Microsoft Corp., however, has won over at least some solutions providers and industry watchers who acknowledge the $44B company's willingness to address partner needs. As partners have evolved from product resellers to complex solution providers, Microsoft for the most part has evolved with them.

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Microsoft's Partner Program consists of three levels, with ascending levels of benefits and participation requirements (see sidebar). The entry-level Registered Member classification includes partners of any degree of experience in Microsoft technologies. The upper reaches of the program -- Certified and Gold Certified -- require partners to earn qualifying points through such activities as earning a Microsoft Competency. The 13 competencies, partner specializations essentially, run the gamut from advanced infrastructure to security.

For their troubles, partners can avail themselves of such program elements as a hands-on online technology lab, marketing training and presales technical support.

Channel perks are all well and good, but partners also prize attentiveness. And on that score, Microsoft appears to be delivering.

Bill Piwonka, vice president of product management for Centennial Software, said he joined the firm in January and needed to update his profile on the Microsoft Partner Program Web site (he had previously been employed with another Microsoft partner). Shortly after revising his profile, Piwonka said a Microsoft representative contacted him to gauge his satisfaction with the partner Web site and whether he was able to find what he needed.

"The thing that struck me was how quickly they followed up with me," he said.

In general, Centennial Software, a Gold Certified partner in Portland, Ore., can call upon a Microsoft partner program representative for help on any issues the company may be having, Piwonka said. At large organizations such as Microsoft, a partner needs "access to people who can cut through the complexity to get the job done," he added.

Anya Ciecierski, marketing manager at Microsoft Gold partner CAL Business Solutions Inc., said her company's ability to call on a local cadre of Microsoft partner representatives is a major advantage. That team provides pitches in on sales calls, provides funding for marketing, and runs product demonstrations.

"We feel we have a close relationship with the local team," she said.

Inside sales personnel at the local Microsoft office also provide leads. "The large majority of leads come from them," she said.

Gold Certified partners get more personal attention, partner executives said. But Microsoft is working to bring more program benefits to midtier partners. For example, the company now provides leads to Certified partners as well as Gold Certified partners.

Janet Schijns, president and chief executive officer of channel consultancy JS Group, said that extension is a major benefit for partners that might have been overlooked in the past. She also lauded Microsoft for having "some of the best technical certification tracks in the industry."

A 2006 International Data Corp. study ranks Microsoft's partner program second among ISVs. Microsoft trailed only IBM in the IDC assessment, which assigned scores based on marketing resources, sales resources, and technical resources.

Microsoft's channel momentum

Microsoft does need to strengthen its program in a couple of areas if it's going to keep that ranking and its momentum in the channel, however, Schijns said.

First, as a follow-on to broadening its lead outreach, Microsoft could help partners create business plans and go-to-market strategies to capitalize on the leads provided, Schijns suggested. Under the current program, a partner might receive hundreds of leads but will struggle to generate hundreds of sales without an effective business plan, she warned.

Microsoft could also offer C-level training to channel-business owners as a part of its certification programs that focus on sales and technical training, Schijn said.

For its part, Microsoft says it is already assisting resellers with go-to-market plans.

Read part two of this story on Microsoft's market-leading channel program.

Company name:

Microsoft Corp.

Headquarters:

Redmond , Wash.

Founded:

1975

Partner Web site:

Microsoft Partners

Phone:

(800) 642-7676

Technologies developed:

platform products (OSes), application development, business solutions, and entertainment products.

Tiered program name:

Microsoft Partner Program

Tiers:

Registered, Certified, Gold Certified

Number of partners:

More than 600,000 worldwide: 370,000 in the Microsoft Partner Program. 10,000 Gold Certified; 20,000 Certified; 340,000 Registered.

Percent sold through channel:

More than 96%

Senior channel exec's name:

Allison Watson

Title:

corporate vice president, Worldwide Partner Group

Number of years at company:

14

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