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Microsoft Reverses Course On SBSC Program

Microsoft is postponing plans to introduce two new small business partner designations after realizing the potential that these could create confusion within the channel ranks.

Microsoft has put off plans to introduce two new small business partner designations to its channel program, and has instead opted to stick with its existing Small Business Specialist Community (SBSC) designation.

Eric Ligman, global partner experience lead in Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Group, says Microsoft has come to the realization that the SBSC label still carries considerable weight and that adding two new small business competencies to the Microsoft Partner Network "could lead to more confusion than clarity" within the solution provider ranks.

"In the small business segment, we are 'doubling-down' on the SBSC designation by making it our lead MPN offering for partners serving the needs of small business," Ligman said in a blog post last week.

Microsoft this October had planned to roll out its new Small Business Solution Provider competency and Small Business Solution Provider Advanced competency. For SBSC partners, these new designations were to require more certifications and sales and marketing assessments. For the Advanced competency, partners would also have to meet certain revenue requirements.

Although Microsoft always planned to keep the SBSC designation, the idea behind the two new ones was to give partners incentive to move up in the program. However, Microsoft says it now believes that SBSC may be sufficient to meet the needs of its entire small business partner community.

"We are postponing the launch of the Small Business Competency and Small Business Advanced Competency in the upcoming year to further evaluate the need to have a separate offering outside of SBSC in the small business segment," Ligman said in the blog post.

Microsoft partners who were looking forward to the new MPN competencies as a point of differentiation from other VARs are perplexed by the decision. "It’s puzzling that Microsoft would push off the introduction of a key segment of their partner community," said Dave Sobel, CEO of Evolve Technologies, a Fairfax, Va.-based Microsoft partner.

The small business space is served almost exclusively by Microsoft solution providers, and these partners have exhibited fierce loyalty to the company over the years. But larger SBSC partners have been clamoring for years for a way to distinguish themselves from the smaller ones, and they're none too pleased with Microsoft's decision to keep all small business partners under the SBSC umbrella.

"To me, this really devalues the MPN, as there is now no place for me to be distinguished as a large, more sophisticated, more advanced SMB partner within that program," said Michael Cocanower, president of Phoenix-based Microsoft solution provider ITSynergy. "Why Microsoft has decided to stay with SBSC and abandon the competencies within MPN is a mystery to me."

As Sobel notes, successful marketing programs must evolve and grow in order to remain effective, and Microsoft's about-face on SBSC could be problematic for partners that are renewing. "MPN is already somewhat confusing, and smaller partners will be even more confused without clear direction," he said.

Brad Kowerchuk, president of Bralin Technology Solutions, based in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, says the situation is reminiscent of previous Microsoft attempts to create partner differentiation within the small business VAR ranks.

"It appears that Microsoft was on a path driven by logic and purpose, and then caved at the last minute when there was pushback," he said. "Even if the proposed new competencies did not get it right, Microsoft's dramatic reversal has created the perception that they have been -- yet again -- driven mainly by the vocal minority."

Next: Bubbling Discontent In The Small Business Channel


For the past several months, SBSC partners have been complaining about what they see as a perceptible shift on Microsoft's part away from the small business space. Over the past year, Microsoft has halted development of Windows Essential Business Server, Office Accounting and Response Point.

While Microsoft had its reasons for cutting these products, the moves haven't inspired confidence among channel partners. "The number of products in the SMB space that Microsoft has nuked lately is a growing trend that is worrying," said one long-time SMB focused partner.

But it's not just about the product cuts: Several VARs told CRN they've seen a marked decrease in small business partner support resources coming from Microsoft, as well as a decrease in sales effort and investment being directed at this part of the Microsoft channel.

"Microsoft is absolutely de-emphasizing SMB," one 12-year Microsoft Small Business Specialist partner told CRN in March. "I’m not saying they aren’t investing large sums in SMB, or that they aren’t coming up with some great products in the space. I'm simply saying that relative to the past, the investment and attention has been significantly reduced."

Traditionally, as Microsoft partners moved up the food chain and gained competency in areas such as SharePoint, they became local "feet on the street" for Microsoft when it came time to deploy solutions. But according to another longtime SBSC partner, this is no longer the case.

"In these situations, you were much more in partnership with Microsoft because they needed you. But in the SMB space today, Microsoft doesn't need us anymore because we're not as strategically valuable to them," said the source, who requested anonymity.

Last month, Ligman addressed these concerns, spelled out the particulars of the new competencies, and tackled SBSC partners' fears about the future of the program head-on. "We’ve worked diligently to ensure that we have solid opportunities for our SMB-focused partners to partner with Microsoft, no matter their size," Ligman said in last month's blog post.

However, in light of Microsoft's decision to put the new Small Business competencies on hold, it's understandable that SBSC partners would be peeved at what looks like a bid to package the status quo as evolutionary thinking that's designed to benefit the channel.

One potential solution, says Jeff Middleton, a Microsoft Small Business Server MVP based in Metairie, La., would be for Microsoft to have a legitimate MPN designation that acknowledges qualified 1-2 person consultants. This, he says, would clear up the longstanding conflict that has arisen every time Microsoft has tried to add substance to small business partner designations.

"Microsoft has tried to go down this road several times before, and inevitably, it’s the push back from higher level channel partners above that slams the door on small business partner status having any real value," Middleton said.

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