26 May 2010
Why Choose a Microsoft Partner?
Q: Jim, what makes a Microsoft Partner special?
A: Essentially, just like any selection criteria, a Microsoft Partner Certification separates the wheat from the chaff. Most business owners, I find, would not claim to have a thorough knowledge of IT. So how would you decide without some sort of criteria, who's good and who is not?
So the Partner Programme is a pretty good proxy for that: it says "Microsoft has done some quality control for us, this group has jumped these hurdles."
Q: What are the hoops Partners have to go through? Do they just pay annual fees, like a national association?
A: Well, it's not expensive to get involved - because partner qualification is never about money. Rather, you have to have commitment to training and commitment to qualifying staff.
It actually works on a point basis. We can only achieve certified status by demonstrating customers who have had relevant Microsoft products installed and who have given us positive enough feedback in a case study or customer satisfaction survey.
There used to be lots of companies that came and went in this industry. Many of those that have remained are the ones that have gone through the Partner qualification process. I believe they are stronger businesses because they have done that, they have had to focus on delivering to the customer.
Q: Why do I need a Partner – can't I just use anybody? Or do it myself?
A: Say you're a small business and you have an IT problem, sometimes these problems are particularly difficult and intractable. Then you need to go to someone who is really steeped in that Microsoft knowledge.
We have a pile of engineers and that's what they do - all day, every day, Microsoft stuff. They're well and truly steeped in it, they understand it and they've seen 99% of problems before. On the fairly rare occasions, when we haven't seen something before, we can get Microsoft themselves involved. And Microsoft is actually really good at that.
Q: So Partners get special access to Microsoft that non-Partners don't?
A: We do have access to more in-depth support but it's a lot more than that. We get regular bulletins about new products coming up, we get invited to events and training opportunities to keep up-to-date. As well as that we get trial copies of all new software: we can run it here in our office and learn about it in advance.
We probably only go back to Microsoft for technical help a couple of times a year, to be honest; but when you need it, you really need it. We get to talk to real engineers (not just the person logging the call) and that makes a real difference.
Q: Why does Microsoft need Partners? I thought it was all meant to be easy to use?
A: Microsoft software is easy to use. But companies have millions of possible configurations, and nobody can anticipate them all. If you can isolate your technology to 'one piece of software on one PC' then fine, you can probably support yourself.
But the reality is that in today's businesses, a piece of software is not isolated in that way. It has to work with five other bits of software, interact across a network and the Internet, all the applications and systems work together in an inter-dependent ecosystem. That adds a layer of complexity and unpredictability which demands technical expertise to support.
Q: Aren't Partners just about forcing me to buy more software and hardware?
A: I can understand why potential customers might feel that and there were IT companies that undoubtedly did that. But I think those days are over.
Where we make our profit is in supporting clients and having long-term relationships with them. It is not in our interest to push stuff that they don't need and that we don't make any money out of; because it destroys that long-term interest.
Q: What other positive effects can a Partner have on a business?
A: Well, there are certainly opportunities for saving money with the new licensing models becoming available; and a Partner will have experts on that, particularly as Microsoft are now making more and more hosted applications available, renting 'seats' on remotely hosted software.
The Partnership programme enforces standards: you should see some of the installations we come across, that we have had to fix! The enforcing of standards empowers the client because their setup can be supported by any Microsoft Partner. So in order to keep our customers from switching to someone else, we constantly have to add value.
We do that by providing very good support, by understanding our clients' businesses and using technology to give them competitive advantage, lower costs, all the things they need to be successful.
I do genuinely believe that doing something right saves business money.
I'm running my own business here and I can say, hand on heart, that every time I've done something on the cheap myself, it's always cost me money. And, what's worse, is I've then had to pay to do it again properly anyway.
We make it our business to know our customers' businesses. One business owner recently said to me that their IT relationship was far more important than, for example, their bank relationship. It was a much more intimate and involved relationship, it was day-to-day, week-to-week involvement. That’s what the word 'Partner' means.