Last week was Microsoft’s BIG conference at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL. I thought the venue was incredible — the amount of foot traffic in the expo never ceased to amaze me. The event kicked-off with an inspirational keynote from Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, who announced Microsoft + Adobe + SAP’s Open Data Initiative (see press release here). The alliance partnership’s big vision is to carve out a net new category for AI-powered services for customers around “Customer Experience Management.” Satya invited Shantanu Narayen (CEO of Adobe) and Bill McDermott (CEO of SAP) on stage to make the announcement together. I was really impressed by the C-level handshake and the vision that these three industry icons articulated for this joint announcement.

“Friendship and trust creates a lot of opportunity.” — Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP

Microsoft Ignite was so popular that tickets sold out weeks before the conference, even for the expo showfloor. With over 30,000+ attendees, there was no shortage of insightful conversations to be had. My focus at Ignite was to meet with as many alliance leaders as possible and understand their go-to-market strategy with Microsoft and their other key alliance partners. Over the course of three days, I was able to meet with over 30 alliance leaders, and the takeaways from those conversations were insightful and inspiring. Throughout those 30+ meetings, one thing is certain — Microsoft’s ecosystem is thriving! Their alliance partners are always aiming to do more with Microsoft across some of the most advanced technologies today including digital transformation, IoT & AI. I could feel a very high level of passion & alignment to Microsoft’s vision for how technology can transform business opportunities.

Over the course of the many conversations I had at Ignite, I noticed three common themes emerged:

[1] Microsoft’s ecosystem partners are more frequently going to market in 3-way motions as opposed to directly through the channel — “sell with” vs. “sell through”

There are a ton of highly customized projects in digital transformation happening today. Microsoft and their alliance partners need to approach the customer as ONE — this is the first pattern I’ve noticed. I spoke with a number of ISVs (independent software vendors) who are starting to engage in more co-selling motions with Microsoft which involve GSIs (global systems integrators) who typically own the customer relationship. These projects often start with on-premise technology in the current state and require migration of workloads to the cloud on Microsoft Azure. Furthermore, ISVs want to be included in RFPs early. The earlier in the sales lifecycle they start engaging with GSIs, the higher probability they will become the originator of the proposal rather than being tossed upon a big pile of other vendors in the space.

Though that’s the case, running 3-way go-to-market plays has been incredibly challenging. Each alliance partner has disparate systems & spreadsheets they’re using for packaging & publishing solutions, running joint marketing campaigns, managing joint pipeline and allocating funds. This makes alliance business planning cumbersome. I’ve consistently heard that alliance leaders spend 2 weeks in preparation for their QBRs (quarterly business reports) to align on what’s happening with their partnerships. Furthermore, partner portals are not cutting it for these go-to-market motions because they were never designed for the kinds of unique, custom engagements required in alliance partnerships. Alliances are on an equal playing field so it’s not about using your portal or mine — rather, it’s about orchestrating OUR network of people, processes and systems while finding a neutral common ground.

[2] No two alliance managers track their joint sales pursuits the same way, making alliance contributions near impossible to show in pre-pipeline stages

After speaking with many practitioners at the conference who’ve been in the industry for 20+ years, I’ve found that each alliance manager has a different & nuanced way to track their sales pursuits with partners. Most will use spreadsheets for their cadence meetings, downloaded from their CRMs then scrubbed by the alliance manager to include partner-friendly fields. The goal is to understand which sales pursuits are progressing forward, which ones have left the pipeline and which ones need to be unblocked. The top-of-mind alliance KPIs to track are: a) alliance-influenced revenue, b) alliance-sourced revenue and c) increases in deal size, velocity & win rates when alliances are involved, yet these metrics are nearly impossible to prove.

In the background, alliance managers are doing incredible amounts of work before the opportunity gets created in the CRM and lands in the Account Executive’s pipeline. They’re managing co-innovation projects with alliances to conceptualize the solution, understand what it’ll take to bring it to market, creating solution briefs & certification programs, nominating opportunities that align with each partner’s business objectives, and making strategic introductions between C-level executives to expedite decision-making processes. However, once the deal is won, alliances are trying to prove they’ve contributed to the partner-influenced revenue by forwarding emails and building powerpoint presentations. Many alliance leaders share their frustration that sales will always believe that they could’ve closed the deal without alliances being involved.

[3] Security & trust is a common theme for alliance leaders living in a world where everything needs to be GDPR compliant

A common recurring theme I heard a dozen times at Ignite was security & trust. There’s not one alliance leader I met where this wasn’t top of mind. Account provisioning and having the ability for data to be controlled at a company-wide level minimizes risk. At the event, I told the story of one of our customers whose security teams had flagged the managing & tracking of joint pipeline in spreadsheets to be a high GDPR risk. They were very concerned about the many risks in having dozens of spreadsheets floating around. For example, there’s a big risk if the owner of the spreadsheet leaves the company for a competitor, which happens all of the time in the high tech space. The level of risk increases each day where no corrective action is taken.

Lastly, I heard over and over that alliances are built on trust. Typically, it starts off with an executive handshake and a big announcement, then trickles down to alliance managers in the field and across regions in NA, EMEA, APAC, & LatAm. However, after time passes, it becomes increasingly hard to keep the buzz of the alliance partnership alive. Eventually, partners start to revert back to operating in silos and relying on weekly cadence calls to report the business outcomes upwards, laterally and downwards. In order to keep the trust & excitement alive, alliances need to be more “translucent” with one another. They don’t need to share everything that’s happening, but they do need to show that something is happening on the other side, which keep the positive momentum & morale levels high.

In conclusion, Microsoft Ignite was an amazing experience. I went into the conference with an open mind to learn more about Microsoft’s ecosystem and the inner-workings of their alliances. If there’s any company to learn from in partnerships, it’s Microsoft. 95% of their business comes from partners — that’s nearly $100B per year (see reference article here).

I’d love to hear more about your experience at Microsoft Ignite too.

Andrew Higashi, VP of Sales at WorkSpan

About the author

Workspan

WorkSpan is the Category Leader for Ecosystem Cloud. With Ecosystem Cloud, our customers are capturing a disproportionate share of the Ecosystem Economy — and you can too. Join the WorkSpan network where alliance, channel, and ecosystem leaders connect, co-create, co-market, co-sell, measure, and scale with their ecosystem partners in a single, secure, cloud-based network growing business & abundance together.