VARs Balk At Microsoft Customer Satisfaction Requirements

Microsoft in July redubbed its partner program the Microsoft Partner Network and traced the outlines of a new playing field for VARs. Solution providers are generally in favor of the program changes Microsoft has in mind, but some believe there could be bumps along the way to their implementation.

The first new program requirement that Microsoft plans to institute this October already is ruffling some channel partners' feathers. Starting Oct. 31, solution providers looking to enroll or re-enroll as Gold Certified Partners will be required to have taken Microsoft's Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) Index within the previous 12 months.

Participation in customer satisfaction surveys wasn't a requirement for partners in the past, although it was encouraged, said Allison Watson, vice president of worldwide channels for Microsoft, in an interview.

The problem is that many solution providers view customer satisfaction as something that's best left for VARs to handle in-house. "This will be met with some reluctance, and I will be surprised if this part of the program continues fully and effectively," said Matt Makowicz, principal at Ambition Consulting, a Somerset, N.J.-based solution provider.

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"It's a great idea and concept on paper, but the truth is that partners, especially larger enterprise partners, aren't very gung-ho about providing all their customer contact data, even when a third party is handling the survey," Makowicz added.

Another solution provider who has taken part in Microsoft's customer satisfaction surveys for the past several years described them as "a major waste of time." "We're very close to our customers, and we've learned nothing from this exercise that we didn't already know," said the source, who requested anonymity. "Our customers really don't want to be bothered to do the surveys, and we spend a lot of time following up with customers to complete them."

Not all partners share this view, however. Curt Wheadon, global vice president for Microsoft solutions at Dimension Data, says the customer satisfaction surveys can work as long as they're not too time consuming.

"We're pretty aggressive about polling our clients regularly, so adding additional demanding surveys could cause dissatisfaction," Wheadon said. "In general though, the CSAT/references that the partner program has used have been fairly low effort for our clients, so this hasn't been an issue."

Microsoft also will have to ensure that partners don't find ways to game the system, says Matt Scherocman, vice president of consulting services at PCMS IT Advisor Group, based in Cincinnati.

"I'd rather survey a marginal client and figure out how I can improve my business than my 'raving fan' clients who are obviously supportive of our business model," Scherocman said. "But if I have to score a high score with Microsoft, partners will be forced to only survey their top clients."

NEXT: What The Changes Will Ultimately Mean

Customer satisfaction surveys are clearly an area of concern for some VARs, but most would agree that Microsoft's tighter focus on customer satisfaction in general will benefit all channel partners.

With the program revamp, Microsoft says it wants to help partners develop new skills and better differentiate themselves in the marketplace, both from a technology and business perspective. In July, Microsoft said it planned to get rid of the current Gold and Certified partner designations next year, and will instead rank partners according to their specific competencies.

Microsoft is in the process of developing 32 "solution competencies" for channel partners, in some cases merging existing competencies, and in others, creating new ones. VARs who've been craving differentiation in the market stand to benefit from this decision, as will customers in search of precision-focused channel expertise. But both groups will have to be patient, as the revamped competencies won't take effect until October 2010.Partners also are aware that the new competencies will give them greater visibility with customers.

Core infrastructure competencies include virtualization, desktop platforms, and identity and security; and business productivity competency encompasses business intelligence, content management and unified communications.

"The more specialized competencies, the better it is for me, since as a small solution partner I can differentiate our expertise and stand out against larger competitors who try to be more general," said Ken Winell, CEO of ExpertCollab, a SharePoint-focused solution provider in Florham Park, N.J.

Microsoft partners not only want to differentiate themselves, they're also asking Microsoft to brand them more in front of customers, according to Watson. Next year, when Microsoft begins to assess partner qualifications and certify them for the new competencies, customer references will play an important role in the certification process, she added.

"Customers want to know which partners are the best and what they're the best at, and one way to prove that is with customer references," Watson said. "If our partners are not current and on the latest innovations, our customers are missing out, and we have other partners that are willing to do it."

This is one aspect of the Microsoft Partner Network that VARs are positively giddy about, given that many have been asking for Microsoft to address the issue of the Gold certification losing its luster.

Dimension Data's Wheadon says Microsoft partners around the world have been asking for Microsoft to address this issue for quite some time. "The Gold Certified Partner logo was pretty much the pinnacle of what you could achieve, and the bar was pretty low," Wheadon said.

The switch to competencies will better reflect the considerable investments Dimension Data makes in intellectual property, business development and early adoption programs, according to Wheadon. "Our being able to better convey this sort of information consistently via Microsoft is something I hope will help better differentiate us to the multinational clients we serve," he said.

For Ambition Consulting's Makowicz, customer references will make the process of determining a VAR's suitability a quick and painless one. "eBay has feedback for sellers, Amazon has product reviews and now Microsoft has customer references," Makowicz quipped.

PCMS IT Advisor Group's Scherocman would like to see Microsoft take it one step further and educate clients about the differences between partners, as well as market partners' competencies directly to end-user clients. Still, the Microsoft Partner Network looks poised to help partners keep up with the time and expense of keeping pace with the latest innovations, he said.

"Anything that Microsoft can do to set the innovative partners ahead of the rest will help us get a positive return on our investment -- and that makes it easier to make the next investment," Scherocman said.

Next year, Microsoft partners will be given opportunities within the program that they've never had. And in 2011, depending on how everything shakes out, Microsoft will decide whether to take these changes even further. But for now, Watson says it's time for partners to take their game to the next level.

"There will be healthy competition, as partners have asked us to raise the bar. And we have raised the bar," Watson said.