by Seth Fineberg

New York - Many Microsoft Business Solutions resellers aren’t entirely sure what they are going to get from Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in New Orleans, Oct. 9-11. What they really want, above all, is some clear idea about where the company and its channel relations are headed.

Throughout this year, major MBS announcements have caused many resellers to question the company’s overall direction and commitment to the channel. Two moves, in particular, stand out the most.

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

Then there was this summer’s news of Microsoft’s plans to make their nascent customer relationship management product available to the 28,000-strong worldwide MBS channel, complete with a volume licensing program that’s not popular with many traditional business applications resellers.

Though Microsoft quelled some of these concerns at its Convergence and Inner Circle meetings earlier this year, most resellers and analysts believe that what comes from this month’s much larger conference will be the bellwether.

“MBS needs to figure out its plan, and should be careful that it doesn’t cut out some of the folks that have helped it become successful,” said Aberdeen Group analyst Katherine Jones. “Success is not dictated by having the best technology, but how you can optimize and rationalize technology purchases. I hope they do a better job at sharing their strategy to work with partners, if that’s what they really want to do.”

Jones also warned that in the accounting and CRM space, Microsoft cannot “just get by on its name,” as there are other large players like Intuit, Best, and even SAP to an extent, that are vying for the same small to midsized business dollars. She also noted that relatively smaller vendors like Accpac International and NetLedger have comparable products and “a channel-friendly” approach.

Some smaller resellers, like Huntington Beach, Calif.-based TotalBIS, simply want to know where they fit into Microsoft’s scheme. This is one of the main reasons managing partner Dan Edwards is going, but it wasn’t such an easy decision.

“I don’t have a clue what to expect. It’s going to be interesting to see how much MBS information there is compared to all of the other Microsoft stuff we will get,” Edwards said. “Honestly, I just want to hear where a company like mine fits in. Am I going to have to deal with big distribution houses, will I compete against Microsoft, and where is their commitment to the partner channel?”

Even a larger firm like Tempe, Ariz.-based Tectura, which sells a broad line of Microsoft products in addition to accounting and CRM software, is searching for some idea about Microsoft’s channel strategy in light of this year’s news.

President Terry Petrzelka admits that his firm may get more attention than others, due to its size, but he is no less concerned about Microsoft’s message to resellers - particularly what Burgum’s future role will be.

“From the MBS side, there needs to be a reinforcing message coming from the entire management team, rebuilding the trust factor that was once there with Great Plains,” Petrzelka said. “Dealing with Great Plains and their leadership, you knew when they made statements you could trust it and build plans off that. Doug [Burgum] is off to the side now, but he is still going to be an influence and that just needs to be reinforced.”

For Microsoft’s part, it believes that the company will be more channel-focused than ever, and plans to make that point clear amid a stream of product news.

Microsoft declined to reveal specific information about product news, channel plans or conference content. A spokesperson, however, said that the overall theme of the upcoming conference is “momentum.”

“Microsoft will be sharing the future direction for our Microsoft Business Solutions channel strategy as well as Microsoft’s overall partner strategy moving forward,” the spokesperson said. “We cannot share details at this time; however, Microsoft’s organizational dynamics, go-to-market initiatives and field structure all support a strong partner ecosystem of reliance on one another. As a company, Microsoft can only be successful if all of our partners are successful.”

Another primary concern stepping into this year’s event is its sheer size.

In the past, resellers relied on relatively more intimate partner conferences such as Fusion and Stampede, where, even if the information sessions did not always provide clarity, they could at least rely on good networking opportunities and perhaps more interaction with executives. The two conferences are essentially combined this year, with total attendance expected to exceed 7,000.

Long-time Navision reseller Greg Price, CPA and director of consulting solutions at Houston-based CPA and consulting firm PKF Texas, went to the Stampede conference last year and did not feel it was set up for him, but at least he was able to network.

This year Price is anxious to see some good product news but, more important, to find out the proper people that he needs to deal with going forward. He is not expecting that this will be an easy task.

“Before Navision came to Microsoft, we could pick up the phone and talk to the right people. But now, even though it has been nearly two years [since Microsoft acquired Navision] accessibility to Navision people has been less and we [partners] have had to rely on each other more,” Price said.

“Usually you go to conferences to stay in touch with these folks, but this one may be too large for that. My main question [to Microsoft] is, ‘When I need you, will you be there?’”

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