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Microsoft Unveils Revitalized Partner Network

Your network has arrived! That's the message channel partners get when they visit Microsoft's partner website these days. After years spent refining and re-refining its partner initiatives, the software behemoth has finally unveiled the fruits of its labor.

Your network has arrived! That's the message channel partners get when they visit Microsoft's partner website these days. After years spent refining and re-refining its partner initiatives, the software behemoth has finally unveiled the fruits of its labor.The linchpins of the new-and-improved program? Consistency, support, differentiation, and communication.

Just a few years ago, Microsoft's partner program was fragmented: The model in North America, for example, wasn't exactly the same as the model in Asia, says Julie Bennani, general manager of the Microsoft Partner Network in the Worldwide Partner Group at Microsoft. Now there's uniformity across the board.

The Microsoft Partner Network consists of more than 640,000 organizations, from global players to small technology companies. Bennani says the vendor's aim is to provide support for each and every one of them, regardless of their scope or size. The updated portfolio of partner resources includes virtual training and free classes, digital marketing campaigns, business planning, discounted software licensing for internal use, and pipeline management tools.

SMBs have access to specialized training and forums, including the SMB Community Blog and the Small Business Specialist Community. As it is, Microsoft partners are heavily represented on the INC500 list, which highlights the fastest growing "cutting-edge" small companies. "SMBs have very different needs than enterprises," says Bennani. "We have about 20,000 unique partner organizations in this space, and we're helping them to increase their profitability."

One key step that Microsoft has taken is to ask its partners to look closely at their businesses and identify their core competencies. Recognizing that today's customers are seeking specialization, the vendor has retired the generic Gold Certified Partner brand and is giving channel partners the opportunity to earn certification in specific areas, including security, software development, and servers. In all, there are currently 29 areas of competency.

One technology that Microsoft is shedding the spotlight on is cloud computing. With the vendor's Cloud Essentials Pack, partners get software (including 250 seats of BPOS, Microsoft's collaboration suite, and Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online), marketing resources, access to online sales and financial modeling tools, and more.

Bennani says Microsoft has always paid attention to what its partners had to say, but now the floodgates are wide open, and the vendor has focused recent efforts on encouraging and facilitating communication among the partners in its vast ecosystem. Borrowing a page from the social networking playbook, Microsoft is leveraging Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter as forums for the exchange of ideas. At those sites, and at the Microsoft Partner Network portal, channel players can read blogs, join active communities, and chat with peers about best practices, technology trends, and growing their businesses.

"Microsoft has really been listening to us," says Elizabeth Vanderveldt, vice president of business development at Conamex International, a solution provider and Microsoft partner based in Montreal. "They got their partners on a call, and we provided feedback. This is their best effort yet connecting the partner ecosystem." Conamex serves the SMB market exclusively, in an array of verticals including biopharmaceutical and recreation.

Microsoft is also making it easier for business customers, no matter their size, to find partners that can help them streamline operations and maximize efficiency. Partners and customers can find each other at Microsoft PinPoint, an online marketplace.

In addition, the software vendor wants partners to engage directly with customers. "There's so much chatter on the Web that it's hard for consumers to keep track of things, and to know what's real and what's not," Vanderveldt says, adding that Microsoft has set up informational websites with video so that partners can talk directly to customers about the technology solutions that are available to them. "We're the people who work with these customers every day, so the credibility lies with us," she says. "Microsoft is allowing us to share our message."

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