by Seth Fineberg

New Orleans -- A Microsoft Business Solutions reseller posed a simple question during the company’s recent Worldwide Partner Conference: “I’m a small reseller, not in the Inner Circle and not a Gold Partner. Where does someone like me fit in?”

The question was duly noted — but not completely answered. Such was the theme for many attendees.

For the first time, thousands of “classic” Microsoft resellers from around the globe were brought together with the growing masses of MBS partners. The result was excitement, but also confusion, as many MBS resellers found detailed information about products and where they fit into the new “one face of Microsoft” difficult to come by.

MBS partners are the chief resellers and integrators of the vendor’s line of accounting and customer relationship management products, including Great Plains, Solomon, Navision, Axapta and MS CRM. Many of the aforementioned were once independent companies with their own respective channels and more intimate partner conferences, before being purchased by Microsoft over the past couple of years.

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer did attempt to recognize MBS reseller concerns during his keynote, but offered little reassurance.

“It has been a rough couple of years for a lot of our partners, and I know there is a bit of an apprehension for some to get more involved with things our high-volume partners are used to,” Ballmer said. “The opportunities for MBS and its partners have been different than others, so we will make sure we do what we can to enhance your experience.”

And in the sea of several thousand attendees, many MBS resellers simply found themselves longing for the days of Great Plains’ Stampede — a partner conference with a more focused and intimate appeal.

“I thought that the combining of Microsoft classic and MBS partners was almost too much, and our salesperson experienced information overload,” said Rajev Bricksin, chief knowledge officer at DynLinc, an Arlington, Va.-based reseller of Great Plains, Small Business Server and MS CRM. “It just wasn’t the typical pep rally that we had with Great Plains [conferences]. At past conferences, I felt like everyone was working together to help business run better. When I left this conference, it was more a message of, ‘Sell more, get bigger.’”

Bricksin also expressed concern about classic Microsoft resellers being urged to pick up MBS products, a move that he said did not sit well with some MBS partners.

“Bad implementation news travels fast, and non-accountants implementing accounting solutions sounds like trouble,” he said.

Even Microsoft Inner Circle partners like Terry Petrzelka, president of Tempe, Ariz.-based Tectura, found many of the sessions to be lacking in detailed information, though he enjoyed many of the networking opportunities on offer.

“I thought that Microsoft leadership was impressive, and they definitely sent the message of depending on the channel and the importance of the channel, along with the need to partner,” Petrzelka said. “I also felt the sessions were more focused on Microsoft classic and of less value to the MBS side of things. Most of the sessions were at the brochure level of information, and needed to be more focused and in depth for the special needs of a partner.”

Microsoft’s resonant messages throughout the mega-conference were indeed partner unity and partner importance, as executives did their best to show how the two partner sets can and should work together.

There was also much talk of a new partner program, which the company hopes will address many of the most pressing needs, including getting more advantages for being a partner no matter what your size.

Starting Jan. 1, 2004, partners will be evaluated on their value from customer feedback and business strategy, as well as sales volumes. These ratings will ultimately help a partner achieve Gold Partner status or better, affording them benefits from Microsoft, such as additional training and marketing support.

Beginning next spring, partners will be able to track the progress of their status on a newly designed Web site.

Microsoft’s general manager of channel development, Don Nelson, realizes that many partners may not take to the new program so quickly, but has confidence in its design.

“We know that having a point system in place will be a challenge, so that is why we are giving it a year and allowing partners to check on their status throughout that time,” Nelson said. “Volume and size does matter in the end, but now even a boutique shop with a handful of consultants will have better opportunities. They will have to be really, really good in customer satisfaction and areas other than just volume business, and it will be challenging.”

Aside from the partner program, which did interest many MBS resellers, there was some interest in hearing about how Microsoft plans to work more closely with the CPA community. Information about progress on this front was scarce, but MBS corporate vice president of marketing and strategy Tami Reller attempted to address the issue.

“At this point, we are trying to figure out where we need to go to re-engage that community,” Reller said. “It is a priority to engage CPAs and get them what they need, but all I can say at this point is, ‘Stay tuned.’”

Wayne Harding, former senior director of channel development for CPA2Biz, is working on that issue. He recently signed a contract with Microsoft to study the accounting profession worldwide.

Harding, who earlier this summer stepped down as chief executive of U.S. operations for AccTrak21, is studying accountants’ role in information technology buying decisions made by their firms and by their small and midsized business clients, according to several knowledgeable sources.

Another key concern among resellers was the future role of Great Plains founder and chief executive Doug Burgum.

Earlier in the year, it came out that Burgum was reassigned to work more with product development and removed from the MBS helm. Sales and marketing was taken over by a new division and person — former Microsoft VP of worldwide sales Orlando Ayala, who some believe will ultimately diminish Burgum’s role.

While he did not address this issue directly, Burgum did make it clear that he is there to stay for the foreseeable future, and is enjoying his role as senior VP of MBS, despite any challenges.

“There are days I feel I’m working on getting processes in place to be competitive versus just working on products, but now with all of the [internal] alignments made, I am more focused on building great solutions,” Burgum said. “There is a great sense that next year will be more about customers and partners for me. In some ways, my job is now more like being the CEO of a business again.”

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