Making a Microsoft Relationship Work

Friday Apr 6th 2007 by Rob Enderle
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Microsoft is clearly having issues, but one big one, in my view, is that the folks who should be talking to them aren’t doing so effectively.

There seems to be a never ending group of folks complaining about Microsoft. Whether the company doesn’t get it, or is out of touch, arrogant, or simply deaf, the list can go on for some time. However, there are a lot of companies who actually like working with Microsoft, which remains dominant in a number of areas.

Over the years I’ve had a chance to work with firms who hated and now really like the company and one big difference has emerged and that is how the relationship is managed. Today I’d like to share what I’ve learned, and what I suggest you do if you want both your relationship with the company to improve and have Microsoft become more responsive to your needs.

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Like in sports, the goal with any IT project or relationship isn’t to just show up, it is to move the ball. Too few people are focused on moving the ball, in my opinion, and that is why we aren’t seeing much movement right now.

Driving an Agenda

There is a tendency with any large vendor, or client for that matter (speaking to my peers), to tell them what they want to hear. Often they ask you for feedback and the generic response is a public, “we are very happy and content, or that was great” followed by private discussions on just what a disaster the product, event, or meeting actually was.

Or, instead of engaging the partner, at group events folks use the time to get caught up with email, catch up with co-workers who are at the event, or just enjoy the free food and entertainment. There are a lot of Microsoft events where groups get together to hear pearls of wisdom from the company and potentially provide feedback (part of that feedback might be to listen more and talk less by the way).

In groups, the one or two people who may actually be engaged and trying to provide feedback are overwhelmed by the well wishers and the general malaise that surrounds what often is a slide-fest, and feedback doesn’t reach the vendor, in this case Microsoft.

When there are one-on-one meetings with executives rather than having an agenda, folks generally just enjoy the moment. Analysts are probably the worst, often more interested in asking the memorable question rather than addressing subjects their own customers want addressed or they need for their own research. The other path is to simply rag on Microsoft, and neither is effective at improving things.

With people, the rule of thumb is typically 4 to 1 praise to criticism; with a vendor it can be closer to 50/50. But if all you do is praise, or all you do is criticize, you either won’t improve things or they will tune you out. It is the mix that keeps them engaged and listening, and the goal is to both get them to listen and to act.

Whether it is Microsoft or any other vendor, if you are meeting with them have an agenda. What is it you want to accomplish? How are you going to keep track of it? And are you prepared to escalate if they don’t listen?

If a vendor like Microsoft isn’t listening, it’s probably because you haven’t got their attention. There are a number of ways to do that, but the easiest and least likely to be taken as a personal attack is simply to be candid and tell the vendor what you need them to know as often, and as consistently, as you can.

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Also, it helps to have milestones and meeting minutes, vendors get distracted (and few IT shops have either milestones or meeting minutes). Those that do will probably be more effective at having their needs addressed more quickly.

Fault and Project Ownership: EMC

One of the big problems with Microsoft is they generally don’t supply the solution that relates to their technology. They may provide a lot of it, but someone else often has to finish the work so that it meets requirements. This is true of big products, and small systems (for instance the most interesting phone based on Microsoft technology is the Neonode, a phone where the phone maker did its own interface on top of CE and created what could be a legitimate iPhone killer).

For large implementations we regularly use third party services organizations, VARs, or specialists to complete our projects. And many of these folks, when they run into a problem, point at Microsoft as the cause regardless of what that cause might be.

A few years back I took a look at a Linux desktop implementation which resulted from what was presented as a Microsoft screw up. It turned out that it was the service provider that screwed up and then used the event to raise their monthly fee for support for the now Linux environment substantially. It is probably a wise practice to talk to all of the parties involved when there is a screw up and make your own determination with regard to who owns the blame and what the fix actually should be.

The reason I called EMC out at the head of this section is that the company has decided to go down the non-traditional path of taking ownership for the joint Microsoft projects they take on. They are developing a reputation for taking responsibility for related problems regardless of who is at fault and focusing on getting those problems fixed rather wasting time blaming Microsoft.

I’d like to see more solutions providers go down this path as, like you, I don’t really care who is at fault, I’m much more interested in getting the problems fixed then hearing excuses – regardless of what the excuse actually is.

Relationship Ownership

With any vendor someone needs to own the relationship. When I’ve seen problems with a vendor it has often resulted from the fact that no one actually owned the relationship. With Microsoft this is somewhat more difficult because they often are not the folks actually providing the complete solution. Nonetheless, given the level of commitment firms often have with the company I believe that the relationship still needs to be owned.

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The relationship owner is not there to keep Microsoft happy; they are there to make sure that the firm’s needs are met with regard to what Microsoft is supplying. They need to know who to escalate to, they need to maintain personal relationships that enable that escalation, and they need to have open lines of communication so that if fixes or problems are coming, the firm can take advantage of the first and avoid the last.

This is often not a trivial job and it should have measurements and be a large part of someone’s compensation plan. It often strikes me that a firm might have a multi-million dollar financial relationship with a vender but then gives the physical relationship less focus than the local coffee shop probably gets.

When I’ve done causal analysis on firms that are very pleased with Microsoft and those that feel the firm cannot perform, the result has often come down to the strength of the relationship. Those that have a strong one are generally very happy, those that don’t, aren’t.

I’ve seen this same cause and result across a wide variety of vendors so it suggests a rule that should be enforced: if you have a significant vendor commitment, someone should have a significant focus on maintaining the resulting relationship on both sides. This also suggests that vendors who won’t do their part should be avoided as well.

Talk to Them

Microsoft is clearly having issues, but one big one, in my view, is that the folks who should be talking to them aren’t doing so effectively.

This is a relationship issue and if you stand back and take a look at your financial commitment to Microsoft, and what it would cost to displace them, maybe it’s time some resources were put on making things better from your end, rather than just complaining internally about what they need to do. At the very least, you are more likely to get Microsoft to listen and you might even move the ball.

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