Thursday, July 24, 2008

Grading the Microsoft Relationship

If you look back at my posts for 2008, you'll see there's quite a bit on vendor relationships. The biggest vendor relationship we have is with Microsoft.

And it's a complicated one.

Recently, I looked at one recent development from MS. See

- Microsoft's Emergency Room Reform Policy
- Dear Microsoft: What Does Partner Relationship Mean To You?
- Microsoft Sticks to Call-Back Only

I tried to look beyond immediate issue and onto the relationship. Here's the deal: Vendors are fickle and will do whatever they decide at any given time. Sometimes that's good for you; sometimes that's bad for you. This includes Microsoft.

If you build a great business, you are impervious to anything that your vendors or competitors do.

The Microsoft relationship is very complex. There are great programs (such as SBSC), but no program is perfect. There are other programs that have problems, the vendors know what they are, and can't seem to make progress in getting them fixed.

Your Microsoft relationship doesn't have to be (and can't be) all or nothing.

Microsoft is different from other vendors because their company touches our company in many more places.

With 90% of our vendors, there's very little touch at all. There might be some co-marketing campaigns. Training. Buying/Selling. Spiff. NFR. Done.

Microsoft: Holy Smokes! Here are my proposed grades for Microsoft. Your mileage may vary.

(in some kind of alpha order)

  • Blogging. Outbound. Grade = A. Generally great, based on number of blogs and overall content.

  • Blogging. Inbound. Microsoft does a good job of tracking the blogosphere and responding to it. When there's a buzz, Buzzmetrics picks up on it. Whether the response is appropriate is another animal. Overall Grade = B.

  • Certification. Used to be Solid A. But now there are so many programs and chopped up, overlapping specialities. 98% of clients have never cared. Now even certified Pros don't care. Confusing. Unfocused. Not clear why we need to continue pursuing all these. There needs to be a certification program. It needs not be what we have now. Current Grade = C.

  • Certified Partner. Comes and goes. Greatly devalued by the "registered" partner program. Decimated by the SBSC program. Grade = C. Due to the fact that MSDN and TechNet are included, I could be talked into a B. But those are "gimme's" and not what the program is supposedly focused on.
    • Gold Certified Partner. Keep walking. Nothing to see here. No grade.

  • Channel Friendly Vendor. Microsoft has had a growing direct-to-user segment. It started in the home and is spreading to the business world. Traditionally, I'd say MS gets an A-/B+ on Channel Friendliness. But the Software-plus-Service program and the Office Live program are a clear Grade F in terms of Channel Friendliness. I'm reminded of the best line in The Maltese Falcon: "When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it." Overall grade is now a B. If things go as Microsoft plans, grade will be C next year and D the year after.

  • Licensing: For the most part, licensing isn't that difficult. Right now Microsoft needs to figure out rational licensing for virtual machines. OVS is great. Needs a bit of fine-tuning, but it is the future. Desktop O.S. needs to allow new machines. Office needs to be much cheaper. Overall, it's a good program. Microsoft needs to do better evangelizing about the fact that it's not that difficult to understand. Other than that, Grade = A.

  • License sales tracking. Microsoft is essentially incapable of tracking who sold which licenses. Rather than keying this information to a unique identifier like Partner ID (think relational database), they tie it to your company name. For example:
    kP Enterprises
    KP Enterprises
    KP Enterprises Business Consutling

    and so forth. There are a million ways to get this wrong. There are also 100,000 partners who have never received credit for the licenses they've sold.

    Having said that, people who focus on licenses as their main or only business eventually get this fixed. For them it's probably an A.

    For most partner, Grade = F.

  • Marketing. Complicated.
    • Marketing materials are normally over-produced and off track. But they are spectacular fodder for building your own stuff. Overall Grade is A, based on quantity and quality.

    • Same with powerpoint slides.

    • Connections / Microsoft Across America. Great idea. Unfortunately, the Connections events are not separated from TS2 and MSDN events. As a result, Microsoft has completely lost the ability to get decision-making end-users into the room. Connections: grade for usefulness to partners = D. Used to be A.

      As for "the Bus" / Microsoft Across America, this is a phenomenal resource that falls into the category of "You get out of it what you put into it." If you have a plan, and you work the plan, this is a very impressive benefit to partnership. If you use it properly, Grade = A.

    • Go-to-Market campaigns. Amazing. I wish we had the bandwidth to do more of these. Truly great programs. Well designed and well executed. Combine education, sales component, marketing, an offer, and a reward. Need a lesson in marketing? Do this! Grade = A.

  • MSDN. Great, amazing program. Worth every penny -- no matter what level you buy in at. Certified Partners: If you just throw these DVDs on the shelf, you are throwing away money. STOP IT. Use this amazing resource now. Grade = A+.

  • MVP Program. This is an interesting one. The first MVP I ever met told me how he "flips" NFR copies of software for his clients. The second one I met was getting free books from Microsoft for his user group and selling them to the general public. Since then I've met dozens of MVPs who are approximately the greatest group of partners one could ask for. I'd list names, but you've heard them all and I'd miss someone. Overall, this program seems like an A, but there are a few lay-abouts who just need to go. I'll say grade = A.

  • OEM / System Builder. We still belong because of the odd machine we end up putting together. But, to be honest, we don't "build" machines except to buy HP equipment and load it up with the occasional OEM system. This is a good program, but for the small system builder, it would be nice if Microsoft offered a desktop operating system via Licensing. The OEM Office program is nice, but rationally priced Licensing could make that irrelevant as well. For the small VAR: Grade = A, but I wish the whole program were replaced by a better licensing program.

  • PAL - I am embarrassed to say, I don't know what these letters stand for. But I know what a PAL is: The PAL program recognizes and thanks outstanding SBSC partners for their work in the community and their willingness to help other partners. I'm not sure why these people aren't all MVPs except that there are too many community minded people in the SMB space, so you can't flood the MVP program. Anyway, we haven't seen much after the announcement, but I expect great things from this program and these people. The list of PALs is amazing and spectacular. A truly great group of people. Grade for now is A. Let's see what develops.

  • PAM - Partner Account Managers. Some are good; some are great. A handful are so-so. The program as a whole keeps shifting. For non-Gold partners the PAM and T-PAM and C-PAM (tele-PAM and Community PAM) programs are good at filtering out a few things you can focus on for success. They are not your hand-holding guide to personal success. As long as you keep that in perspective, the grade is A or A-, depending on your PAM.

  • "Partner" program overall. This one is difficult. Where you stand depends on where you sit.

    If you're at the bottom of Vlad's Food Chain, the Partner program is 100% spectacular. You get amazing resources for almost nothing. No effort, a tiny bit of money, no skill, no experience, no relationship, no commitment, etc.

    If you get yourself certified and join the SBSC, you also get an even more amazing amount of return. Again, without putting out an amazing amount in money or effort.

    When you really make a commitment, shell out the big money, jump through the hoops, make the sales, hire the people, get the training, and join the Certified Partner program, the balance tilts. You can look at the SBSC program and legitimately ask what you're getting for your money.

    As for Gold? You're told that you're the most important company on earth. That encouragement, a couple of extra internal use licenses, and the gold lapel pin consist of your entire "benefit" for being Gold Certified. I see people spelling out the benefits, but I haven't talked to a single Gold Partner in the last three years who doesn't think the Certified, Registered, and SBSC programs are devaluing the Gold Program.

    I know Microsoft is trying to figure out how to restructure this. The current program is probably graded as follows: Registered = A+ / SBSC = A / Certified = B / Gold = B-.

  • Partner Program Research Panel. I've only been in this a year. Not sure where this info goes. I guess Grade = A. It's interesting to speculate about what is being planned based on the questions being asked.

  • People. Overall, the most valuable asset at Microsoft is their people. With very few exceptions, I find Microsoft employees to be honest, hard working, dedicated, committed, friendly, smart, talented, and helpful. Sounds like gushing, I know. But think about the people you've met. I can name exactly four people I've dealt with in the last thirteen years who are jerks, losers, morons, or just plain a-holes. One of these disappeared very quickly after a bizarre public display of arrogance and stupidity. Very unusual.

    But the other 1,000 Microsoft employees I've worked with are spectacular. I've met people at almost all levels of the organization, in countries all over the globe. They're all nice, talented people. This does not happen by accident. You get honesty, dedication, motivation, and all the rest because of a great hiring process, proper motivation, and a culture of excellence. I have friends at Microsoft who are some of the nicest people I've ever met.

    One of the criteria our company has for clients is that we only work with nice people. So it's good to have this with vendors as well. Solid A+.

  • Products. They push products. What can you say? They have the occasional "Bob" or "Me" product. Some products have no real use in the real world and simply fade away. But that's what you need to do in order to build the best, most consistently high quality software on earth. Solid A+.

  • Product Delivery. I believe Microsoft's move to delivering their products online is the beginning of the end of their dominance on the desktop. They have fallen into their competition's trap. As for Channel distribution and licensing, see Channel and Licensing grades. As for direct-to-my-client distribution, I'm giving them an Grade F. First, they're not doing a good job with it. Second, they shouldn't be doing it. And, third, from the perspective of a partner, this program is not in my best interest.

  • Product Pricing. As a purchaser of Microsoft products, I consider SBS underpriced (sbs2008 is more in line), Server is priced right, Windows desktop is overpriced, and office is hugely overpriced. Overall, I'd say Grade = B+. Most products are pretty well priced.

  • SBSC is spectacular. Grade A three years in a row. I could go into detail, but it's A for this, A for that, A for the other thing, etc.

  • SBSC advisory panel. Great feedback mechanism. Needs to meet more frequently. Presenters need to either follow up or don't offer to follow up. Grade A-.

  • Support is complicated.
    • Online and DVD support includes MSDN (see separate grade), TechNet (see separate grade), Knowledge Base, blogging (see separate grade), and general "help" files. Overall, Microsoft has the most thoroughly documented, thoroughly supported software that has ever existed. In addition to the Microsoft official support sites, there are thousands (tens of thousands) of unofficial sites that support this stuff. Plus the PAL and MVP programs. and more. Grade A+.

    • Phone support. Oops. I mean, "Enter your problem online and wait for us to call you" support. No grade at this time. We'll have to see how it works out. My guess is: Great for people who do hosting; great for people who support large enterprises; disaster for small businesses and the technicians who support them.

    • Phone support / PSS through July 2008. This one's got three components. First, everyone knows that the US-based support for each product is amazing and spectacular. A+ by all accounts.

      Second, getting to that support has been spotty at best. We stopped using the horrible first-line support for SBS because the people we talked to were untrained, unprofessional, unwilling to take direction, and it cost us more money that it will ever be worth to have them "help" us. A support structure built around "partners" figure out a way to get escalated ASAP is a total failure. Solid F. F for effort. F for performance. F for not caring about partners.

      Third, there's the issue of privacy. The person in charge of this program is not aware of the privacy policies he is supposed to be enforcing. If he doesn't even know what they are, or where to find them, then he can't be doing much to enforce them. We had a completely unacceptable breach of privacy. It was not met with any concern remotely related to privacy. 100% of the concern was over avoiding a lawsuit. Failure at it's worst. F for effort. F for not enforcing policies. F for not caring about the partner or the relationship.

      So, even though the top-level support is A+, the fact that you have zero expectation of privacy and you have to go through seven rings of hell to get to a competent technician, PSS gets a big fat F.

      We'll see if the Don't Call Us, We'll Call You support is an improvement.

  • TechNet. Perhaps my favorite resource. I'm very sad that I can't beat my technicians over the head and make them use the CDs instead of the online piece of crap search engine. If you use the CDs/DVDs, this resource is spectacular and amazing. If you use the online search tool, you will grow old and die (or go to In either case, you won't get the rich, useful, amazing resources available on the DVDs. DVD version: Grade = A+. Online version: Drop the class and move to Google before you get an D for the semester.

  • Training. Free training, and the $100 and $200 training offerings have always been spectacular. Amazing track record. In 12 years I've never attended a Microsoft training that was less than Great. Solid A for in-class training. Solid A for Partner University. Solid A for self-paced training. Solid A for books.

    The week-long training-center training is very good, but not quite so spectacular. I know why it's priced as it's priced. And I know why it's run as it's run. But overall, I have to give it a B+ for value.

  • TS2. There's a lot more to TS2 than the shows at the movie theater or the hotel. Overall, this program is great because it is extremely well focused. Training for techies about the stuff techies need to know. NOT delivered by hired gun/drones, but by techies! Delivered by people who love to show you their new phone, or their 16GB Micro SD chip. Techno-heaven for Techies. Pure and simple. Grade A all the way.

  • Vendor overall. This grade is based 90% on the basic functions of providing good products, getting through them the channel, and getting them installed. Solid A.

    But life's not that simple, is it?

Side note: And Microsoft has a lot to teach us about focusing on the almighty dollar. They do all this in a never-ending effort to make more money. And they do.


Believe it or not, I may have missed something.

How do you grade Microsoft?


  1. Wow, you've done it again, distilled my thoughts in a single blog post! How do you do this?

    I just wanted to say something about the PALs Program from my perspective as one of the UK PALs. The first year was interesting, I'm not sure anyone really knew what we should be doing. There was a huge amount of feedback to Microsoft from us all. What we can't say is how much of our discussions impacted Microsoft's overall decision making because we weren't the only ones pushing Microsoft. Each PAL sent an update as what they had achieved during the year to Andrea Russell and it was an amazing list, unfortunately it's not been made public and not every PAL has a blog and is writing about what they are doing. I make all my discussions/PAL stuff openly available on my blog.

    This year will be a focus on a revamping of the SBSC Programme and of course support around SBS/EBS, new certifications etc, which the PALs along with others will play role in. At the end of the day it's all about building better businesses.

  2. Thanks for the comments and the update on the PALs Programme.

    I hope I added enough extraneous letters there. Prooggrramme.

  3. Anonymous2:44 AM

    Great post Karl, I love your score card, A++

    Being a UK Partner Area Lead with Vijay, my PAL work focuses on bridging the SBSC team at Microsoft with the UK Community (not just a particular Microsoft product like an MVP) which creates a brilliant ‘reality check’ and feedback loop between the SBSC and Microsoft – and I’ve seen Microsoft respond to some of the challenges thrown up in the UK.

    In mu opinion the SBS programme has provided an awesome resource that is one of the key differentiators on the route to success in our space. There have also been some great success stories in the UK with partners working with other SBSC members to deliver more value.

    In mu opinion, no other part of the Microsoft Partner Programme delivers this level of sustained interworking of passionate people. But like all initiatives, it is up to us as partners to connect with Microsoft to ensure the value is recognised, the UK programme has recently recruited Emily Lambert to lead within Microsoft – expect to hear more news real soon!

    Regards, Gareth

  4. Really interesting post. I agree with most of this, but would give higher grades in a few areas and definitely a LOWER grade on the "Go To Market" campaigns. They seem mostly useless to me. Being a fellow Robin Robins customer, I feel the GTM campaigns don't give the recipient adequate reason to take action. It is nice that they offer help in marketing - too bad it's not GOOD marketing. Great blog in general - thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks, Gareth.

    Technoid: Here's what we do with GTM and RR.

    We try to coordinate three go to market campaigns at once.

    We send Robin Robins letter, GTM postcard, GTM postcard, GTM postcard, RR Letter, RR Letter.

    This works great if you can find the occasional GTM campaign where certified partners get free mailings.

    We also do this with HP literature. The HP Partner site allows you to order boxes full of slick literature and send it out with your marketing stuff.

    Leverage those resources!

  6. Hello Karl,
    I'm a SBSC PAL for CEE region. Actually focused on Slovenia.
    In my opinion the PAL program is not comparable to the MVP. PALs are not necessarily technical guys, more kind of business techy... We are trying to build a channel of communication between our SBSC communities and Microsoft.
    During the process we discover trends, problems and opportunities and that becomes feedback for SBSC members and Microsoft.
    The result: We are setting up the conditions for SBSC partners to communicate better therefore to increase their chances of catching opportunities.


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