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Microsoft is revamping its partner program with a new system of membership designation that officials characterize as less hierarchical and better suited for the wide diversity of partner types the company now supports, including such partner types as Web developers and designers.

In her keynote opening the annual Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans today, Microsoft channel chief Allison Watson unveiled the updated program, which will go by a new moniker, the Microsoft Partner Network.  Over the next year to 18 months, the company will phase out the well-worn “Gold Certified,” certified and registered membership categories in favor of four new classifications assigned to partners at different levels of relationship and commitment with the Redmond, Wash., software provider, according to Microsoft.

The new categorization will span a range of partner types, including:

  1. Community: This designation is being described as entry level and is intended for any channel organization that is considering launching a Microsoft practice, but is not yet at the level of selling.
  2. Subscriber: Partners who have moved beyond the exploratory phase and committed to building a Microsoft practice or capability in a particular area.
  3. Competency: Partners that have earned a solutions specialization in the Microsoft program. Microsoft will be reducing the number of official competencies from 46 to 30 over the next year, as well as changing some of the specialization names to be more relevant to the end customer.
  4. Advanced Competency: Microsoft’s Best-in-Class space; partners that are most committed to Microsoft and operate a full-scale, sophisticated practice.

A couple of drivers are behind the membership adjustments, according to Julie Bennani, general manager of the Microsoft Partner Network. Most notably, she said, the partner ecosystem has evolved dramatically over the past five years with the number of different business models in the channel more than doubling from about five types to upwards of 10 or 12 – everything from traditional reselling to managed services to ISVs to Web developers.

Bennani said Microsoft is looking to better support market differentiation for its partners, many of whom had complained that achieving Gold Certified status has been “too easy” and therefore failed to be of any significant value-add in the eyes of end customers.

“We have heard that Gold Certified is not a differentiator so we wanted to change the way we qualify partners,” she said. “One of the key things is that of the 640,000 partners worldwide, not all can, should or would be in Advanced. And that’s OK.”

Different partner requirements will come with each of the four landing spots, with the Community designation requiring little more than some company registration information. The key requirement in the new Advanced category will be participation in regular, formal customer satisfaction surveys. Ultimately however, Bennani said Microsoft is trying to create a program that provides for partners more than it requires of them.

“This vision has been in development for two years. It’s not a hard right,” Bennani said. “We want these partners with us and we have a strong system today and want to keep it that way so we are giving them 18 months to meet the new requirements and giving them a year to brand their business without having to do a lot.”

In introducing the new partner program, Watson talked about three key pillars that the company is looking to drive. One focuses on shoring up partner capabilities, especially sales and marketing skills that Watson said will be key to selling the host of new products and services coming from Microsoft in the next year, the second emphasizes customer satisfaction and the third lasers in on the importance of social networking to businesses.

“Customers are requiring and recognizing sales and marketing expertise in the partners they work with,” she said. “

To that end, Microsoft is introducing a new set of profitability modeler tools for sales and pipeline management targeted specifically for partners that will be jumping on the software-plus-services bandwagon. Many partners are still unclear how they make money from Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite of services; many, in fact concerned about hosting conflict with Microsoft and about the validity of the recurring revenue model.

The Profitability Modeler tool will allow partners to estimate three-year profit and loss impact for new opportunities such as BPOS, mobility and hosting solutions, she said. Additionally, and to great applause during her keynote, Watson announced that Microsoft is making available 250 seats of BPOS for free for partners to try in their own organizations, so they get a better sense of how it works and how to sell it.

Watson unveiled a number of other new resources for partners, including Project Greenlight, which gives partners a tool to test their customers’ applications on Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7, along with providing technical recommendations for ensuring compatibility and marketing resources to help drive the sale. The specter of compatibility issues with Windows Vista and XP applications has many customers skittish, according to a recent survey by ScriptLogic, and Microsoft took great pains to try to allay concern during the keynote on Monday.

On the skills front, the company has revamped its Partner Learning Center, which aggregates all the training opportunities – technical, sales and marketing – into a portal for partner access. The portal allows users to create their own individual training view in real time and lets managers maintain a master view so they can keep track of where their staffers are on the training path, she said.

Watson stressed Microsoft’s belief that social networking can be leveraged to boost business and pledged investment in a variety of areas to help partners learn how to take advantage and save money for their customers.

“You can use social media to increase customer satisfaction, change attitudes and increase revenues,” Watson said, citing a recent IDC study that showed that using social media as part of marketing and sales increases the size of the average IT transaction by 16 percent and the volume of transactions by 33 percent.

“This is an important objective that we’ll be driving harder this year,” she added.