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At the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference, Julie Bennani, vice president of Global Partner Programs, identified not only how the partner program was going to evolve over the next several years, but also why it must evolve. Many of the solution providers—and even some of the other vendors—I talked with at the conference thought Microsoft was the industry channel leader. They have certainly had a good run for the last five years.

Bennani explained that Microsoft launched their partner program just 5 short years ago. It certainly seems longer than that to me. The original program segmented five partner business models—system builders, ISVs, systems integrators, VARs, and large account resellers—and one geography. Microsoft has spent billions and billions of dollars investing across the partner life cycle—of plan, enable, create demand, sell, service and retain customers. This investment has grown the program to support nine solution provider types—including Retail, OEM, Hosting and Telco, several geography and industry segments. This growth has led to Microsoft engaging more than 400,000 partners and conducting 1.35 million partner training activities in the last year alone. And their grand plans don’t stop there.

Microsoft believes the evolutionary forces in the world. In this view, customers and partners will drive the change in the way Microsoft engages with partners. Bennani highlighted five ways the world is changing customer preferences and driving evolution within Microsoft. Appropriately, first are the changing customer preferences. Customers are moving towards a hybrid consumption model—blending business and personal usage together. How many people do you know that have a separate business cell phone and a personal cell phone? The customer are looking for integrated solutions, which mean several products that work together to solve their business need. And also the customers are looking to build long-term relationships with their suppliers—increasing communications, trust and collaboration through these relationships. The customers need business value and trust from capable partners via a simple engagement model throughout the relationship lifecycle.

The market is also changing. Accelerated innovation and reduced barriers to entry particularly in the everything as-a-service world, is bringing about new ways of doing business. Web 2.0 technologies, software-as-a-service and the adoption of open source is bringing about changes in the delivery of solutions and access to software. Technology advances in bandwidth are enabling the Internet as a platform for customers and suppliers alike. 

These market and customer forces are elevating the partners’ impact in the market place. The blurring of the control of content with cloud computing is forcing the shift, however slowly, in the partners’ business models. The partners need to increase their sales, marketing and technical readiness to achieve the marketplace recognition required to drive the growth and profitability they expect in the coming years. We’re all seeing a “new” type of successful partner; one with increased transparency in a simple customer engagement model.

Microsoft wants to take a journey with partners that evolves their relationship from generalists to specialists, from a product-based focus to a solution-based focus, from technology led sales to business-driven solutions that are technology enabled. We’ve already seen highlights of how this journey will progress with competencies and market specialties playing a bigger role in the Microsoft partner program over the last couple of years. Let’s hope the journey is a smooth one for both sides.

Diane Krakora is president and CEO of Amazon Consulting, a firm specializing in the development and optimization of channel programs. Amazon Consulting is a strategic partner of Channel Insider.