Sources: Microsoft Tightening Enterprise Channel Purse Strings

That's because Microsoft has been quietly refocusing channel resources to focus in greater depth on a small number of core enterprise partners, according to several sources close to the company.

To aid in this effort, Microsoft has been using what it calls a "contribution metric" to track opportunities that are tagged in its CRM system with a particular partner's name, in order to determine how relevant that partner is to Microsoft's overall business, sources said.

"Microsoft is trying to create a core group of enterprise partners with whom they will have a deeper relationship, which is based on how effective they are at generating business for Microsoft," said the source.

In the past, Microsoft was willing to pay enterprise partners for reported performance, rewarding them with training and campaign support dollars. But the evaluation process wasn't particularly rigorous or objective, and as a result, the program has grown too large, said another source.

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That's changing, however, as Microsoft looks more closely at partner contribution as a means of thinning the herd, said the source.

"The end result is that fewer partners will have access to channel resources," the source said. "It's just a matter of time before the enterprise partners that don't make the cut begin to feel the effects of the change."

For example, partners that used to have a dedicated partner account manager may now have to share a PAM. They could also have less access to product groups, or find it more difficult to bring clients through the Microsoft executive briefing center, according to the source.

Like most vendors, Microsoft keeps close tabs on partners' performance, says Peter Boit, vice president of enterprise partners at Microsoft.

This is especially important because some Microsoft enterprise partners are growing dramatically, while others are in the process of evolving their areas of business focus, said Boit. "We're evaluating where we see the business opportunity with our partners and [plan to] adjust accordingly," he said.

"We look at hundreds of enterprise partners. In doing so, we have to consider scale. Can they meet the needs? We engage in deep dialogues on what we will both do," added Boit.

Many vendors are going with a channel consolidation model, and Microsoft has been moving in this direction for several years, says Matt Scherocman, a director at PCMS IT Advisor, a Cincinnati-based Microsoft Gold partner. "It's pretty normal channel management behavior," he said.

That may be true, but the real issue is that the CRM data Microsoft is using to gauge partners' performance isn't always accurate, which is a serious problem given what's at stake, said another source close to the company.

"That's always a problem with these types of metrics -- the data always subject to some level of interpretation. And if you're Microsoft, you're left with 20 different versions of the truth," said the source, who requested anonymity.

Boit downplayed the importance of CRM data and said Microsoft relies more on the feedback it gets from partners than it does on statistical analysis of their performance.

"We use CRM data to get additional insight, but business is a contact sport -- it comes down to the people aspects of working with partners," said Boit.

It's possible that Microsoft could address the need for better enterprise partner measurement metrics through its Influencer Program, introduced in March. The program measures the contributions of partners that don't sell Microsoft products, but whose influence on buying decisions includes Microsoft products.

These metrics could help give enterprise partners a clearer picture of where they stand, although Boit stopped short of saying such a move is in the cards.

"The Influencer Program is an area we are giving some thought, but it's not something that's mainstream, and we are continuing to learn what it takes to be successful with our partners," said Boit.