The problem with Partners

As a ‘partner’ in the ‘channel’ (just imagine the air quotes), I’m going to stand on my soapbox and have a little chat about the role that we play in making software & hardware companies successful. Yeah, that totally sounded conceited, but follow along with me here.

There are so many facets to this chat that this post won’t be published in its original form. It’s going to take time to organise these thoughts into a logical sequence that flows, because the partner relationship is not a simple conversation.

Let’s start with this: One of the biggest barriers I see to customers in the SMB space adopting Microsoft Cloud solutions is the belief that they need an IT guy (partner) to implement them and manage them. And yes, I’m talking about the smaller Ss in SMB, generally, especially the ones who are used to doing their own IT in house.

Society has grown up with a belief that Microsoft equals complicated and requires a computer nerd and that Google is easy and is all about self service. How many small businesses Googled (pun intended) “Google IT guy” to come and set up gmail accounts, Google Drive or even Google Apps for Business? Now with the last one, yes maybe –  depending on your organisation’s size & complexity, you might have sought some help. But Google made it look like setting up Google Apps for Business was no harder than setting up Dropbox.

Microsoft have tried to do the same with Office 365, but it’s falling on deaf ears. While Office 365 is adopted by small businesses who grab a subscription for Office for 12 months with their new computer, anything more complicated than that sees them tracking down an IT guy.  It’s not that Office 365 is all that hard. It’s that there’s this perception that Microsoft equals hard.

And we’re not doing ourselves any favours when a new generation used to iDevices is no longer interested in building a computer from scratch, formatting it and upgrading it. That used to be the only way to get your hands on technology. If the home computer was broken, you’d be figuring out how to fix it, not performing a factory reset then booking an appointment at the Genius bar. This tinkering nurtured any interest in the tricky side of technology, not just the consumption of it, but now it’s on the decline.

So, in the SMB space, Microsoft is left to the mercy of the partners. And the game has changed. No longer are we dealing with long lifecycles for software products. No longer are we waiting years for new features and months and months and months for service packs. And with this monumental shift to how Microsoft delivers things, the partner community is divided.

In the blue corner, we have the traditional break/fix/wipe/reload guys who are sick to death already of the pace of change. They’re shaking their fists at the Cloud and how much there is to learn, how fast everything is changing, how there’s something new every day (or so).

In the red corner, we have the ‘Born in the Cloud’ partners – the ones who can deliver a convincing cost-effective argument against an on-premises server before you’ve even had time to blink.

And somewhere in the middle, you have a group of partners who are ‘getting it’ – the ones who are investing the time to upgrade their skills and are taking their customers on the learning journey with them, one solution at a time. They won’t race out and convert everyone to Azure tomorrow. But they’ll be smart enough to be looking it as each new customer project comes up.

I couldn’t tell you what the split is like across those groups.  My perception is swayed by the people I hang out with, which for me fall into all three camps. But that’s the reality of what the software manufacturers have to deal with. Who stands between them and the customer? Is that a help or a hindrance? How do you bring the channel along for the ride, educate them on your vision and upskill them, when many of them are busy working for the next invoice? How do you keep the early adopters happy and bring up the technology laggards (I’m still talking partners here, not customers).

Does Google even have that challenge? It’s a two sided coin. While I can see that a direct customer relationship is working for them, Steve Kiernan at CRN Australia writes that partners are Microsoft’s secret weapon. Perhaps Steve and I talking about different ends (sizes) of the market?

Steve is spot on about Microsoft’s commitment to partners in Australia. I’ve never seen so many free or low cost in person technical events from the corporation. SMB partners don’t sell products that they don’t know and that they don’t already love. The Cloud internal use rights in Microsoft’s Action Pack subscription are the perfect vehicle for partners to touch, migrate and tweak these new offerings, as well as the Office 365 demos. So Microsoft is left wondering what else it needs to do to generate more sales in the SMB market.

Microsoft’s biggest challenge is getting the time-poor partners to  invest their time in learning new products and new skills. That was a no brainer when they introduced Small Business Server, because the partners fell in love with the product. They easily saw an opportunity to sell it and more importantly to sell the migration project that was needed to implement it. But for many partners, the Cloud is still an optional extra when customers have an on-prem environment that currently works. We’ve seen that most partners look at technology like Office 365 when another event precedes it – the Exchange server goes end of life, the customer is opening second office etc. It’s business need led, not partner led. It’s easier to sell to a customer when they are already prepared for a change of some sort anyway.

The truth is, time might be running out for partners. I’m now answering questions from partners that are just starting their Cloud learning journey when we’ve been doing this for 2 years (and I don’t consider that long). Partners are realising that a lot of great new features are now Cloud only or at least Cloud first. Yes, that’s in Microsoft’s mantra, so get used to it.

And I can hear the cries that the pace of change is too fast, that Microsoft hasn’t taken into account the real world, that partners are fed up of having everything thrust on them with no opportunity for input. The last one I’d agree with to some extent but here’s the thing – Microsoft does provide opportunities for you to have your say. You just need to know where to find them (surveys, Yammer groups, User Voice, Windows Insider program, Office 365 fast ring, feedback at every in person session that’s run). That probably won’t change the direction of crucial product feature decision, but it might. Can you say ‘Start menu’?

Microsoft’s launch of the Surface Book laptop (the laptop that’s a tablet that replaces your tablet that replaces your laptop) was a wake-up call to hardware partners/manufacturers. With the Windows 10 operating system coded to be happy across multiple devices, Microsoft needed a show-off piece that would push the performance to its limits. Instead of waiting for a hardware vendor to make one, they made their own, including developing their own chip. Would you be upset if you were a hardware vendor? If you produced high end laptops, you would. Or maybe you’d shrug and continue to push your cheaper, bottom end devices to the market. Either way, it was a bold move on Microsoft’s part, literally taking hardware into their own hands.

In conclusion, while I’ve pulled apart some of the challenges, I don’t think I’ve found an easy answer. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe the answer is found in the partners who are successfully embracing Cloud while keeping on-prem customers happy and the invoices rolling in. Should we tap into their secrets?

I’ll tell you one thing though … they’ve had exactly the same training opportunities and resources that the rest of the partner channel have had access too. They’ve just done something with it.


P.S. I’d love to hear from those outside of the Microsoft space with your views on partner relationships with your software vendor.

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