By Ron Grattopp…..We’re well into baseball season now, so I thought a baseball metaphor title might be reasonable Smile.  I presented a Microsoft all-up cloud story breakout session and helped man our vendor fair booth at a major Distributor’s semi-annual partner conference this past week and, as you can imagine, cloud conversations dominated the scene.  Also, I’m finding, as we’ve been expecting, that some of the distributors are also experiencing a significant uptick in cloud transactions, in this case I’m talking about VAR partners signing up to resell online services (via MOSPA) and associating with a Distribution partner in the process (which has benefits that we’ve pointed out in previous posts).  Of course, BPOS has been and is our current online solution, but I’m specifically delaying the posting of this until after April 18th so I can also announce that Office 365 is in public (unlimited) beta.  I suspect my teammates will be doing multiple posts around that*, so I won’t detail that here, other than to encourage you to read their posts, which will give you more information around how to get ready for that.   What I want to focus on for this post is the conversation you will have with your SMB customers around the cloud opportunity and how it’ll work for them.  To that end, I ran across a CRN post a week or so back that I thought was a good overview and highlighted some of the key selling points of cloud technology, as well as partner strategy, in the SMB customer space.  The article was 5 Ways MSPs Can Win SMB Cloud Computing Services Deals, and I didn’t see a specific author credited or I’d mention him/her.  The article’s title implies that it’s specific to MSPs, but I believe the key findings are applicable to all VARs who sell to SMB customers.  So let me review the key findings for you with my own commentary.

Right up front on page 1, their source SME (subject matter expert) is quoted as saying “MSPs who understand what cloud services are in demand by SMBs and can tailor their offerings to satisfy these demands will ultimately be the most successful.”  Well, that would seem self-evident to me, but the point I would raise here is more around continuing to remind you that cloud is a different ball-game (love those baseball metaphors), meaning it’s less (or not) about traditional hardware and software margins and infrastructure support but about the add-on services such as integration, migration, and business process consulting that set you up as trusted advisor to the business, not just the hired-gun IT pro, that will be the key to long-term success in this new game.  The article goes on to mention 5 things that you should leverage in the customer conversation to insure a win on that cloud computing services deal.  I’ll highlight and briefly cover each one in the following paragraphs.

“Talk Cost Savings” – nobody knows better than my SMB VAR audience how cost sensitive the SMB market is.  The good news is that in many cases (I won’t say all) a cloud solution will bring potentially significant cost savings both short- and long-term.  It will do this, in one way, by essentially eliminating the up-front cost of any on-premise infrastructure that might otherwise have been required.  Case: depending on the customer, a unified messaging or communication solution (highly integrated voice mail, email, collaboration, IM, and audio/video conferencing), especially as delivered by BPOS/Office 365 with deep integration with Office, could bring enterprise-level capabilities for saving money on travel by leveraging conferencing as well as even more “soft” savings around better information distribution and content control with enhanced collaboration tools that many SMBs aren’t currently leveraging, all without a single $ spent for up-front cost of on-prem servers and infrastructure build up.  Of course there is a cost to this, but it’s around the integration, migration, and consulting services, not hardware and support – which, last I knew, is a way better value and revenue proposition for the VAR.

“Get Integrated” – the article points the pitfalls of trying to implement a cloud offering that “frankensteins” together products from multiple vendors.  Couldn’t have said it better myself, and of course, what I’m going to point out here is that with the Microsoft cloud stack you have most of that integration built in (except with 3rd-party products and solutions of course).   BPOS/Office 365 will work with existing Exchange, SharePoint, and UC solutions easier and better than any other online services solution that I’m aware of.  Note, I did not say that no integration was needed, but that the integration a VAR will need to do will likely be way more efficient (also note that I didn’t' the VAR had to charge less, they’ll just provide the same integration value with less effort reducing cost of sale).  Case:  Microsoft Online Services can be synchronized with on-premise Active Directory and we have documentation that will lead your through that process.  Not to mention that our platform also supports AD “federation” which means you can have not only synch but single-sign on as well, and of course we provide documentation for that too.  Another key piece of the integration pie is that our business productivity platform (Exchange, SharePoint, OCS/Lync), whether on-prem or online, works seamlessly with our Office productivity suites and there’s lots of built in integration from those apps with SharePoint, Exchange, and UC.  And here’s a link to the MOS Deployment home page where you can find more info on migration and integration.

“Make it Simple” – well, again, this would seem to be self-evident to me, but if you read the article, the point here is really around insuring your solution can be “centralized and organized through a simple-to-use and easy-to-access interface”.    Of course, I couldn’t agree more, and without going into unnecessary detail here, I would simply say that Microsoft is, and has been, a leader in this area for a long time.  Case:  Among other things, I would point you to the this link where you can see some demos of our new Windows Intune client management online offering.

“Guarantee performance, SLAs” – What can I say, hopefully by now you’re familiar with the fact that all Microsoft Online solutions have a 99.9% (3 9’s) financially-backed SLA.  I know for sure that other major public cloud players have the same 3 9’s guarantee but they don’t back them financially.   One other note, I would make here, is that I constantly get the input from SMB partners who say their customers are concerned about the security of the “cloud”.   Well, I normally point out to them that the level of reliability and security built into Microsoft datacenters is so far above what the SMB customer, and even the partner, could provide for themselves, and that it would be interesting to find out why customers think their existing infrastructure would be more trustworthy in the case of a disaster or hack attempt.  I think many of these questions are more about either not thinking this through logically or as a result of FUD.  Case: We’re in tornado season in the midwest (where I’m based), how many of your SMB customers could continue to operate immediately after a serious (pick your own potential natural disaster to insert here) or survive the kind of hacking activity that you know is going on against Microsoft every day?  (check this out: 57% Of SMBs Have No Disaster Recovery Plan, this alone could be a rationale for use of online services)

“Service, Support are Key” – Well again, this would seem to be pretty obvious, as the article points out, ”SMBs demand strong support and support with swift response times”.  Of course, depending on your level of engagement with Microsoft you may, or may not, have access to Premium support services to help you support the customer.  But we do have, I believe, the largest and most knowledgeable ecosystem of partners who should be able to provide that desired level of support to their/our customers.  Resources like our blogs and forums, and the vast repository of knowledge provided through TechNet and MSDN, and even premium support instances built into the “competency-level” MPN partner program should help our partner base deliver on this key customer need.  I don’t know, but would be surprised, if other major online services vendors have resources comparable to TechNet for instance that’s available to their entire partner base for free, but if they do, good for them, and good for you.

So the whole point of this was to cover, with a bit of Microsoft-centric spin, some of the key value propositions that you should be bringing up in your cloud conversations with your customers, to insure you “win the deal” by hopefully leveraging the advantages of Microsoft platform based online solutions.  Hope this was helpful.

BTW, before I close, let me remind you that we have many customer testimonials on our customer evidence site that may also help you identify the benefits that have accrued to other customers who have already adopted Microsoft cloud-based solutions which also might be applicable to a specific customer of yours and the would add additional support to your customer conversations.

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And also be sure and check my cohort, JJ Antequino’s blogs on *How to Sell Office 365 to SMB Customers where he highlights specific Office 365 VAR training, and his associated blog on Competing in the Cloud: Microsoft vs Google – Why It Matters to Your SMB Business where he gives you links for training on that as well.

Cheers, Ron