In the first post of this mini-series, I gave examples of the questions you, as a Microsoft Reseller, might want to ask of a prospective indirect CSP provider. Building on competencies, support, and skills, this post focuses on areas around practice development, CSP platforms and partner-to-partner engagements.
Indirect providers are actively focused on demonstrating how they add value to the relationship you build. It’s in their interest since both parties will see success each month through the various profit margins, rebates and incentives earned for every dollar spent on Microsoft products and services; particularly Microsoft Azure, Dynamics 365 and Microsoft 365. Crucially, it’s easier than ever for a reseller to switch providers – they have to work harder to keep your business. The conversation pivots away from price and margin towards value, growth, relationship and success. This isn’t unique to traditional ‘broadline’ distributors, but is a shift occurring across ‘born in the cloud’ challenger distributors also.
Practice Makes Perfect
There’s an increased focus on addressing the skills gap faced by the industry from many of my colleagues. Businesses of all shapes and sizes are recruiting for technical roles at an incredible rate. One partner I’m aware of is recruiting over 30 roles alone. It’s never been easier to learn about Microsoft technologies, and with a new raft of certifications, it’s also straightforward to validate and verify that learning digitally and transparently. Of course, whilst demonstrating skills attainment is an important step towards unlocking competencies, it isn’t enough to guarantee success.
Microsoft has made much about the importance of developing differentiated, vertically aligned, repeatable solution offerings or technology practices that can be taken to market and scaled easily. In fact, there is a portal dedicated to the cloud practice playbooks and the comprehensive guides to building these out from scratch. They cover everything from “Cloud Migration and Optimisation”, through “Data Platform and Analytics” all the way to “AI Practice Development”.
If you’re new to some of these technology areas, following the playbooks can be a daunting prospect. This is where your prospective indirect provider should be able to help, and I’d be asking the following questions:
How do you support me through practice/solution development beyond pure skills attainment?
How do you help me market my practice or solution capabilities?
What case studies or references can you show me of where you’ve worked successfully with other partners on practice or solution development?
Documentation is the thing to look for with the answers to these and many other questions I’d recommend. Indirect providers should be proud and keen to wax lyrical on the successes they’ve supported and this should be easily shared.
When is a platform not a platform?
One thing indirect providers are typically excellent at is handling transactions. It’s in their DNA. This is largely handled through a platform that’s either developed in-house, or bought from a platform provider. In any situation, it’s generally your primary way to create quotes, place orders, raise support requests and handle billing. While many indirect providers have similar functionality, there are no universally guaranteed core capabilities. Some platforms are utilitarian, basic, ‘good enough’, where others are rapidly evolving to capitalise on data, analytics and insights to enrich the experience for resellers by giving them new things to know.
I think we’re on the cusp of a ‘platform war’ as the battle lines are drawn out over what a ‘next generation’ platform should offer to a channel partner. For some, it’ll be about automation, velocity, reliability and accessibility. For others, it may be about intelligence, insights, prediction and learning. For me, it should be a little of all of those things, and more. Indirect providers occupy a unique position in the sales cycle where they have sight of a tremendous amount of data which can be used to help you identify trends, insights and opportunities for you to better serve your customers. The race is certainly on to see who helps the channel make best use of this proverbial ‘gold mine’.
You may make your decision about which indirect provider to use based purely on the platform experience, and so I’d be thinking about the following questions:
How does your platform equip my business with the knowledge and insights to have more intelligent conversations and build deeper relationships with my customers?
What are the availability SLAs for your platform; is it independently audited for security (e.g. penetration testing, etc.), and are you GDPR compliant?
Can I bring my own identities to access your platform through federation, multi-factor authentication and role-based controls?
Operating a modern, feature and insight-rich platform, should be one of the jewels in the crown of an indirect provider. Sadly, many still see them as a ‘necessary evil’ rather than a strategic differentiator. Perhaps most revealingly, when a platform isn’t a platform is when it’s underpinned by a hand-crank requiring lengthy human intervention to process on-boarding, provisioning or billing. We live in an increasingly instant-gratification-focused society, and customers have come to expect a certain pace from their suppliers. Can your chosen indirect provider meet the standards you and your customers demand?
Let’s stick together
I mentioned earlier in this post about the skills gap and the importance of practice development. It’s true to say that not every reseller can spread bets to every opportunity. Sometimes it makes sense to partner with a relevant business to deliver a solution worth more together than your individual abilities can achieve. For example, you might have a rich set of capabilities in the modern workplace field, and you may know that you can dramatically improve the situation for one of your customers by coupling Microsoft 365 with Dynamics 365 Business Central. Rather than learn about the nuances and subtleties of the Dynamics 365 cloud, it would make better sense to partner with a Dynamics partner, divide and conquer the opportunity, and increase the likelihood of delivering a successful, impactful project.
Since indirect providers collectively interact with a significant number of channel partners they have the opportunity to build a powerful community of partners who can share knowledge, skills and opportunities to be collectively more successful than ‘going it alone’. Facilitating a partner-to-partner connection can be hugely valuable, and promoting a rich community for you to join should be something an indirect provider is keen to showcase. To that end, here’s what I’d be asking:
How do you foster a community amongst your channel partners? (e.g. events, digital communities, etc.)
How will you connect me to complementary organisations to support winning bigger, broader and more transformative opportunities?
Where have you successfully facilitated partner-to-partner opportunities previously (e.g. through case studies, references, etc.)?
Some partners, understandably, see their competitors as a threat. Sharing knowledge, best practice, skills and opportunities is perceived as a ‘forward thinking’ stance, and may not be something every partner can be comfortable with for now. That said, there is an increasing contingent of modern partners who recognise the power of partnership and actively embrace a growth mindset, a sharing and collaborative posture and seek to create lasting partnerships to galvanise success long into the future. If that sounds like you, make sure to build a relationship with an indirect provider who can support those philosophies.
The indirect provider market is diverse. It isn’t always clear how to compare and contrast the different offerings each presents to its resellers. That’s why asking questions is important. I’d like to hope that in time, indirect providers will answer many of these questions and more by default. I’d like further to hope that the days of sales practices such as those of Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, the infamous ‘merchant venturer’ of Ankh-Morpork (“I’ll sell it for less, and that’s cutting me own throat!”) are consigned to the past as indirect providers truly embody the role of the ‘value added provider’.