I recently had the opportunity to chat with my teammate Sharon Collins, the U.S. Partner Team lead for the Microsoft Partner Network, about the new membership options and competencies that we launched on November 1. Over the past couple of years, leading up to the launch of the new Microsoft Partner Network, Sharon spent much of her time divided between working with the Worldwide Partner Group to understand their plans and advocate for U.S. partners, and leading several virtual teams in the U.S. subsidiary to communicate the expected changes and obtain feedback from Microsoft folks who work with partners regularly as well as directly from partners.

While the November 1 launch was a significant milestone, Sharon has always known that much of the real work for us would begin after that date, in the December to March timeframe, as so many of our previously Gold Certified and Certified Partners have re-enrollment dates during those months. It’s always busy during that time each year, but the new competency requirements that partners must meet add to the flurry of activity this go-round, and both internal Microsoft folks and partners are often still getting up to speed and educated. When I asked Sharon what her main concerns were as she and her MPN Experts team work with U.S. partners, she had three groups of partners on her mind:

  1. Partners who are not taking any action to prepare prior to their Partner Network renewal date.
  2. Partners who are waiting until October 2011 to achieve a gold or silver competency, given the benefits extension.
  3. Partners who are working to just attain a competency, instead of the competency that best aligns to their practice and meets their business needs.

I asked her to elaborate on each scenario and provide her recommendations. Below, you’ll find her guidance and links to resources to help you avoid these potential pitfalls in partner planning.



1. Prepare for Re-Enrollment Early.

How early? Sharon recommends partners start at least 90 days prior to their re-enrollment date, and if they plan to achieve a gold competency, they’ll need to participate in the Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) index, which may take more planning and time. To help U.S. partners plan, Sharon has trained a team of tele-based agents, the MPN Experts, to be well-versed in the new competencies. Not just the requirements and benefits, but assistance in helping partners determine the competency that best meets their Microsoft practice and business needs. Connecting with the MPN Experts and with self-help resources to prepare for re-enrollment is easy:

2. Don’t Wait Out the Benefits Extension.

Just prior to the November 1 launch of the Partner Network, Microsoft announced an extension of software and logo benefits through October 31, 2011 for Gold Certified and Certified Partners. Although it may be tempting to delay meeting the new requirements through the end of the extension, Sharon says partners should carefully read through the details of the extension, as it does not cover technical support benefits, or MSDN and TechNet subscription benefits, for example. “The purpose of the extension was to offer partners a bit of breathing room while they worked to recertify engineers to meet the tighter competency requirements,” says Sharon. “Extending partners’ brand and licensing benefits accommodates that, but they are just a fraction of the partner benefits.”

Being first to market with the new gold or silver competency branding is a competitive advantage. Right now, the number of partners who have earned one of the new competencies, particularly a gold competency, is fairly small. Partners who are “early adopters” in attaining a new competency will have an advantage when customers use Microsoft Pinpoint to locate a partner for a particular solution. We also expect that the old Certified/Gold Certified branding will quickly become obsolete in the marketplace, and moving to the new partner branding will better showcase your company’s skills and your investments in your staff.

3. Match Your Partner Network Competency to Your Business.

Based on both customer and partner feedback gathered over the past couple of years, the new competencies in the Partner Network align to how customers buy, mapping to Microsoft campaigns that drive customer awareness and address specific customer demands. The new Partner Network branding is customer-focused and friendly. Says Sharon, “It’s all about the way a partner shows up in the marketplace.” Unlike the general branding used in the previous program, where any partner meeting the requirements could call itself a Gold Certified Partner, the new branding is more specific, associating the area of expertise with the achievement of the competency, and putting the business solution area in the forefront.

In consultations with the MPN Experts, many partners who want to achieve a gold competency have expressed an interest in the Midmarket Solution Provider competency. In several cases, though, as the MPN Expert agent learns more about the partner’s business, it becomes clear that the expertise is clearly in a different, more specific business solution area. While the Midmarket competency may be appropriate for partners who consider themselves generalists, Sharon strongly suggests that partners approach their decision about which competency to attain by thinking about their brand and how they want to position themselves with customers. For example, an infrastructure partner with a focus on server that also has a virtualization and systems management practice might consider a gold competency in Server Platform with silver competencies in Systems Management and Virtualization. “That way, customers using Pinpoint can more clearly understand what value the partner brings, and the partner’s website that displays their Microsoft Partner Network logos also showcases their expertise,” says Sharon. “In today’s marketplace, differentiation is key, and the new competencies can help partners stand out.”

Also worth noting is that there are now benefits associated with specific competencies. The gold competency benefits for Identity and Security, Systems Management, and Virtualization include Solution Incentives, for example, and the more specialized competencies will probably be where those incremental benefits will reside.

I hope you find the above helpful in thinking about your own Microsoft practice and how to take best advantage of the new Microsoft Partner Network, as well as the resources we’ve put in place to support U.S. partners like you, such as the MPN Experts (tip: go to http://bit.ly/usprepare to see their contact information, right at the top of the page). I’ve asked Sharon to “come back” for a new blog post in January, so stay tuned.

Have a topic you’d like us to cover on our blog? We’d love to hear your suggestions and questions. Send an e-mail through this blog or to partnerQ@microsoft.com, or post it on Facebook, LinkedIn, or @msuspartner on Twitter.

Cheers,

Diane Golshan
Sr. Marketing Manager, U.S. Partner Team
Learn more about what I do at Microsoft.