As Microsoft launches the biggest overhaul of its partner program today since 2010, its new chief partner officer says the changes will help enterprises and other customers more easily identify qualified partners that are the right fit to help with their cloud needs.
“All of our priorities, all of our design principles, are built with the customer in mind,” Nicole Dezen, Microsoft’s chief partner officer and corporate vice president of global partner solutions, told Protocol in an exclusive interview, her first since being appointed in July.
Microsoft is ditching its generic, customer-facing Silver and Gold designations for its 400,000-plus partners — the technology companies that sell and support its products and services — in favor of a tougher certification process that categorizes them into six core selling areas. In the past, Microsoft has said that partners have a hand in 95% of its commercial revenue.
Under the new Microsoft Cloud Partner Program, first announced in March and officially rolling out Monday, those resellers, systems integrators, managed services providers, device partners, and independent software vendors, or ISVs, now must earn a minimum “partner capability” score to obtain Solutions Partner designations in Azure data and artificial intelligence, Azure infrastructure, Azure digital and app innovation, security, “modern work,” and business applications. Microsoft Solutions Partners also can earn specializations and expert program status that recognize their expertise and experience in specific technical scenarios under each solution area.
“What I think is unique about the Microsoft Cloud Partner Program is it gives customers total clarity on the partner that has the designations, the specializations that are a great fit for their needs for whatever unique cloud solutions they’re looking for or the transformation that they’re trying to get after,” Dezen said. “It’s like a clear road map, so to speak.”
A 12-year Microsoft veteran, Dezen most recently served as corporate vice president of device partner sales. She talked with Protocol last week ahead of Monday’s announcement.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why are these changes better for Microsoft partners?
We’re sunsetting our legacy MPN [Microsoft Partner Network] and the Silver and Gold competency programs, and we’re replacing them with these six simplified solution partner designations that really align so nicely with the solution areas that make up the Microsoft Cloud. What this means for partners is that they get to differentiate themselves in a very competitive market to customers.
It’s a really important moment to showcase to partners that we are evolving … as the market is evolving, and we are introducing new capabilities in our programs that let partners focus on their own innovation, leverage our R&D investments, and help customers. The program makes it very easy for partners to understand the things that they need to do to activate all of the resources that we uniquely deliver to partners, whether that’s our R&D investments, our go-to-market scale and capability, or innovation.
Partners can plug in via skilling, incentives, [or] investments to make sure that they’re getting the best of what I think is Microsoft’s unique differentiation, which is our tech stack plus the combination of the way we go to market, which is the asset of our commercial marketplace combined with our 35,000 [Microsoft field] sellers.
What’s been the reaction among partners?
We’ve spent the last six months talking to partners, listening to their feedback, answering their questions. I’m really optimistic that the partners are excited about what we’re doing. They’re excited about the [timing] of this. They see that the portfolio of assets that we’re bringing together with a trusted platform, services, products, and investments for them are so aligned to the way that customers are actually buying products. And it’s aligned to the way that Microsoft sells, so it’s an accelerant for the partners.
What percentage of partners have decided to join the new program versus renewing their legacy statuses for a year?
We’re not disclosing specific numbers, but what I will say is partners have the ability to start earning designations immediately. And for partners that aren’t quite ready — first of all, we’re leaning in with resources to help partners make that shift — but they can continue to enjoy their competency benefits uninterrupted through their annual term. They can even renew those benefits after the Silver and Gold badges have retired.
When Microsoft announced the new program in March, it said partners’ preliminary partner capability scores would be available then, and they had to achieve at least 70 points out of 100 to earn a designation. What percentage of partners needed Microsoft’s help in getting to 70 points?
Every partner is in a different place on their journey. We have broad-reaching guidance through our partner center that tells partners exactly how they can improve their score in the different categories: performance, skilling, and customer success. Partners can start earning those designations immediately. There are some partners that are well on their way.
Partners still remain our partners regardless of their designation, and so we’re always going to look for ways to support our partners through any evolutions that are happening with us and in the market. I recognize sometimes change is hard for people, and so we’re going to meet partners where they are. But I really believe that this program is the thing that’s going to differentiate partners, and so it’s in our interest, in our partners’ interest, and frankly, in the customers’ interests, for partners to lean in and do this work with us.
The economy has tumbled since Microsoft announced the changes that take effect today. Were any considerations given to partners that might be experiencing economic challenges?
I actually think the time is better than ever. This is a challenging market, there’s no question about it, but customers need help. They need help to digitally transform, and it’s in their economic interest to do that. We’re giving partners the skills, the resources, the assets, and the partnership to enable them to show customers how they can run their businesses more cost-effectively digitally.
I recognize sometimes change is hard for people, and so we’re going to meet partners where they are.
Can you talk about the changes coming with the industry designations for ISVs?
There are actually two immediate investments that we’re making around ISV Success, which is the pathway for ISVs within the Microsoft Cloud Partner Program, and then the industry designations. Those are going to be available later this year. They will differentiate solutions based on the demonstrated performance with customers, their technical maturity, and customer success. The first three industries are health care, retail, and financial services. It’s designed with the intent that it will help these ISVs differentiate their solutions by both industry-specific scenarios as well as the broader technology and line-of-business capabilities.
Can you give a sneak peek of anything else that’s coming after these changes?
The way to think about it is the Microsoft Cloud Partner Program is designed for every partner. We want to invite every partner to participate in it. So the things that you could expect to see in the future are more design capabilities for partners like device partners, mixed-reality partners, learning partners, success partners. We’ll have more specific capabilities roll out as we advance the program.
What are some common problems or challenges that partners have communicated to you?
Partners are deciding how quickly they can evolve and modernize their businesses. That’s pretty core to the discussions that we have with partners all the time: How can we help them? How can we help them make more money? How can we help them run thriving, profitable businesses to help their own employees?
We just published [Microsoft-commissioned research] from IDC. It’s a great illustration: It talks about how partners that invest with Microsoft see distinct business value and growth. There’s really two things that popped for me. One was that partners that engage deeply with Microsoft see faster growth and higher margins. Partners that invested across all six of our solution areas are estimated to grow revenues by 47% this year. The second one is around co-selling and going to market with us. The research showed that the most successful partners we have are engaging across the variety of go-to-market resources with us. These are partners that develop differentiated, value-added approaches to customers that align with Microsoft’s strategy.
Partners that invested across all six of our solution areas are estimated to grow revenues by 47% this year.
Are there any emerging technology areas where you’d like to see more partners investing in?
I’d like to see more partners in all of our solution areas. The party’s open. There are some things that are very timely: certainly security, data, and AI. These are very hot and relevant topics for customers right now, and so that’s pretty core to the conversations that we’re having with our partners.
Are you going to get involved in trying to bring more female-led partners into the program and promoting greater diversity overall?
I have a massive responsibility to be a loud voice for diversity and representation in the ecosystem. Any things that we can do to help more diverse partner types participate in our programs, build their own businesses with Microsoft, and then help customers, for me that’s not just a professional win, it’s a personal one.