Microsoft shook up opportunities for channel partners when it launched its Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) partner programme in 2014.
Nearly four years after its unveiling, however, operational obstacles are obstructing channel partners' paths to differentiation with Microsoft cloud technology.
Ismail Nalwala, co-CEO of Microsoft partner IOTAP, which has UK offices in Milton Keynes, says the shift from the Microsoft Advisor Programme to the CSP model gave channel partners ownership of customer billing. While he believes this opens opportunity, he says it also creates challenges for partners, who now have to manage invoicing and subscriptions, while tackling Microsoft's different cloud services and finding a way to differentiate.
"Because the customers that are buying these services know they want these products and they know that Microsoft is a provider of these products, as a reseller, now you're only going to compete on pricing, because it's the same product. It's very difficult to do that," he said.
As such, the CEO say it's key Microsoft CSP partners identify a way to uniquely position their business.
"You need to have some way to provide better experience, customer service, pricing and possibly even bundle your services… so you could look like you are selling a unique product and service that is differentiated in the marketplace," Nalwala says.
However, doing this amid operational obstacles can be "painful", as it requires dealing with customer requests and customer service, which Nalwala says makes it difficult to manage basic tasks, like invoicing.
"The CSP program certainly creates an opportunity for [partners] to have this relationship with the customers, but most partners don't have the technology or the tools in place to create the differentiation, because to create a bundle you need to be able to manage that bundle; you need to be able to provision the bundle," he says.
"The big issue is around provisioning, change management, pricing, invoicing and subscription management... It takes up a lot of time," Nalwala says.
A Microsoft partner since 2004, this month IOTAP released Work 365 Apps, an integrated customer experience platform for Microsoft Partners and CSPs built on Dynamics 365, Microsoft's CRM system. It's said to unify common functional areas - including billing and invoicing for cloud and subscription service, customer service and incident management, self-service and automatic provisioning and e-commere and payments - in a single solution.
Nalwala says the global firm used its development expertise, cloud expertise and Microsoft domain knowledge to develop the product, which the ISV has used internally since June 2017.
He claims resellers can drive operational efficiency and enhance customer service through Work 365 Apps and, therefore, grow margins.
"If it does what it's supposed to do for our partners, our future customers and current customers, then it's a new service line for us, and we're happy to share with partners what we've learned and really help them build this practice… And if that's helpful, then that's a new market," said Nalwala.
Nalwala emphasises that a key advantage of Work 365 Apps is that it is built on Microsoft technology to which partners already have internal-use rights.
In a blog post, the CEO writes that partners should deal with digital transformation by digitising their current strategy. He says Microsoft CSPs need a way to keep pace with Microsoft's growth, provide great service, differentiate and keep their costs low and pushes resellers to be "customer zero" in using cloud services and products in order to best train their teams to provide the same offerings to customers.
"Most partners don't use Dynamics 365 to run their business because they… never actually even thought about it," Nalwala says.
"Dynamics partners, on the other hand, certainly thought of it... So we're looking at it from the standpoint of 'look, you've got access to the software, use it, learn it, solve a problem and then potentially even sell it'."
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