Partner programs grow like coral reefs on steroids, rapidly accreting new forms, morphing into shapes that bear no resemblance to the outcrop that provided its original bedrock. Microsoft’s program is such a reef, providing shelter and structure in a diverse ecosystem of partner types and business models. Every so often a program needs a refresh, a shock to take it to the next level and it hopes that changes announced last week at its Worldwide Partner Conference will do that. Microsoft cannot hope to broaden its partner base – it already has 640,000 businesses within the program – the majority of all companies serving other companies in information technology. The issue is quality not quantity. There are already 16,400 Gold partners, the highest level of achievement within the program. To differentiate within that level and the middle, Certified tier, Microsoft currently has 46 competencies corresponding to different sets of products or types of services and business models. It wants to raise the bar. Microsoft, like many other companies could create a higher, platinum tier, but that would further complicate the program. The company has as one of its aims to simplify as well as purify the program.
Partners want certainty. Anytime a program changes, whether or not it will, in the end, benefit the partner, stresses a partner’s business. Every new benefit proposed by a vendor always comes with a price tag, either explicit, or implicit in time, focus and energy.
Customers want certainty. A vendor’s seal of approval should be a good indication of future partner performance. When a partner’s program changes those changes need to be communicated and embedded in customer minds.
And vendors want certainty that their interests and the end user’s interests are in balance and being well served.
The first change the company announced was a rename of the program itself, from the Microsoft Partner Program to the Microsoft Partner Network, a more partner focussed sounding phrase. Partner to Partner networking is a benefit of most partner ecosystems. As Microsoft put it, “We want to create passionate communities where partners share best practices, spark innovation, and discover opportunities to serve customers better.”
The second change is that, by November, Gold partners must have participated in the Microsoft Customer Satisfaction Index (CSAT). The index (or indices as it is a composite of scores) is flawed. It is purely quantitative and relies on getting respondent details third hand. Four times a year, a request to participate in the survey is sent to contact email addresses provided by partners wishing to participate in the CSAT program. Firstly, because Microsoft does not know who the significant influencers are in most of its end customers, it must rely on partners to supply those names. Because partners perceive they have a vested interest in getting high CSAT scores, and because Microsoft has a vested interest in viewing individual partner scores, partners are more likely to provide details of satisfied customers. Within partners, usually only the salesperson knows who the supporters (and detractors) are. Salespeople are likely to be asked to provide contact names. As individuals they have a vested interest in providing only the details of happy campers. Plus account managers are likely to “assist” a customer to fill out the survey. Secondly, gauging satisfaction and loyalty in a changing business is complex. It is in no way as straightforward as it is with individual consumers. Relying on quantitative indices alone is foolhardy. Raising the competence bar is a much better way of ensuring that customers are being served well.
To signal that the bar is being raised, Microsoft is changing the name of the two higher tiers, from Gold Certified to Advanced Competency and Certified to Regular Competency. One question every vendor should ask before changing a program is this, “Will this change deliver more value to end customers?” Because end users are used to the Gold Certified and Certified labels, the new names deliver less value in the short run. If the competence of partners rises substantially in step with the name change, then in the long run, it may be a good thing. The jury is out on this one.
Microsoft is also reducing the number of specializations from 46 to 30 and (thankfully) simplifying how they are known. For example, “Custom Development Solutions competency with Application Infrastructure Development specialization” becomes “Software Development”. The five specializations under Microsoft Business Solutions competency (e.g. “Microsoft Dynamics AX specialization”) become “Enterprise Resource Planning.” Throughout the program, Microsoft has adopted the same principle of simplification and translating into a language that is meaningful to customers. That is common sense and a signal that Microsoft is getting more in tune with its end customers.
But is Microsoft raising the partner quality bar, or is this just window dressing? Beyond compulsory participation in a customer satisfaction system that can so easily gamed, and language, how are these changes going to deliver more value to the end user? At first glance, most of the competency requirements – technology exams and customer references – do not appear to have changed. There are lessons here for any vendor building end customer value through partner routes to market.