REDMOND, Wash., Feb. 14, 2007 – For solution providers that specialize in serving small and midsize businesses (SMBs), the statistics point to a startling level of opportunity: these partners report that no-charge tools, best practices and guidance found in the Microsoft Infrastructure Assessment Framework (IAF) can help boost deal-close rates up to anywhere between 70 and 90, according to internal Microsoft surveys.
“Previously, my sales team was lacking the detailed guidance to aide them in making conversations in the customer engagement process more strategic,” says Paul Russell, Head of Consulting, Servo Computer Services Limited. “The Infrastructure Assessment framework enables us to prepare before a customer engagement meeting, which triggers discussions with customers that are deeper, and more about the business than just technology.”
That, in turn, is turning up to nine out of 10 customer sales engagements into sales and service contracts, according to the same Microsoft survey data, and that’s impressive, considering the SMB market is ripe with opportunity.
Steven VanRoekel, Director, Windows Server Solutions Group
“During the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, over 600,000 servers will be installed in businesses with fewer than 100 employees in the United States alone,” says Janet Waxman of IDC. “Globally, well over 1 million installations are expected. The market opportunity represents more than ample opportunity for partners.”
New Tools Help Reach Customers
Microsoft recently announced an update to the Infrastructure Assessment Framework, a set of tools and best practices that help network infrastructure solution providers identify business opportunities with both new and established customers by guiding them through the entire customer engagement cycle – and beyond, for follow-up engagements. The new framework includes the Microsoft Business and Technology Assessment Toolkit to help SMBs understand how Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2, Windows Vista and the 2007 Microsoft Office system can help businesses be more efficient.
To date, the IAF has received high website traffic – over 2,000 visitors monthly from nearly 90 countries, with 35 percent of them repeat users of the site.
“We really enhanced the learning focus of the IAF,” says Steven VanRoekel, director of the Windows Server Solutions group at Microsoft. “We want to present the information so that it’s quick and easy to learn – and our step-by-step methodology can also serve as a sales training tool to ensure that customers receive consistent service.”
The IAF has meant increased business success and customer satisfaction for Evolve Technologies, a Washington D.C.-area IT-solutions company. “Using the tools and guidelines in the Infrastructure Assessment Framework helps us focus on the business needs as well as customers’ technology requirements,” says Dave Sobel, president of Evolve Technologies. “It’s helped us to approach our customers as trusted advisors, not just sales people, resulting in a 20-percent increase in the number of sales we close”
The first version of IAF was launched in July 2006 and immediately drew enthusiastic responses from partners. Accordingly, Microsoft launched Phase II of the IAF in Dec. 2006. The expanded IAF includes 12 new tools and an updated tools matrix and allows partners to rate the individual tools, providing evidence of the various tools’ success.
Microsoft Business and Technology Assessment Toolkit
In January, Microsoft introduced the Microsoft Business and Technology Assessment Toolkit, part of IAF and an expanded version of the Small Business Technology Assessment Toolkit. This toolkit is a step-by-step guide that helps partners gauge the business and technical needs of small and midsize business prospects, and has proved a hugely popular resource for SMB partners, receiving the top “five star” rating. The toolkit was downloaded by over 30,000 partners with another 30,000 copies distributed on CD. A survey found that using the toolkit produced deal-close rates of nearly 90 percent.
As an added benefit, Microsoft is offering at no charge a resale copy of Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2 to partners who use the toolkit, submit five customer assessments and participate in a short survey. Currently, over 7,000 partners worldwide are participating.
“The Business & Technology Assessment Toolkit ensures that I capture all the relevant business information to begin to identify gaps in the customer’s IT infrastructure, then gradually work towards developing not just a solution but an IT strategy for them,” says Tim Long, owner, of TiGra Networks in the United Kingdom. “At the same time, it gets the customer thinking about what it might cost them not to upgrade their IT – for example, in the case of a disaster. We worked with Microsoft to help test the new toolkit and I plan to use it with all my future customers.”
With the updated version, partners can customize assessments, create their own templates and tailor them to customer needs or differing business models. For the final finishing touch, partners can add their contact information and company logo.
“The toolkit helps us deliver to our potential customers both a business and a technical assessment in a very regimented, process-oriented manner,” says Sobel.
The Business & Technology Assessment Toolkit contains 11 standard templates, plus scenario-based templates for functionalities such as messaging and collaboration, desktop deployment and mobility.
Traditional Roles Expand with Assessment Toolkits
“The toolkit not only offers a step-by-step guide to identifying prospects’ business and technology needs,” says VanRoekel. “It also lays the groundwork for long-term relationships between partners and their customers. This totally changes typical sales and customer roles and relationships, turning salespeople into strategic advisors.”
Sobel uses the toolkit beyond just the first customer engagement. “We leverage the business assessment to perform quarterly business reviews and to talk to our customers about their business plans, so we can find a technology to fit their upcoming needs,” he says. “We’re already working with our customers to plan and budget for needed upgrades. It’s far less painful for everyone involved if we start talking about future enhancements early on,” says Sobel. “So when upgrades are available, the customers are expecting it and ready to pay for it.”
Using the toolkit enables Sobel to develop a role with his customers that goes beyond sales and service. “For our customers, we may be their network engineers and their help desk, but we’re also their chief technical officer.”
NetCom Systems Inc. is a network solutions provider and longtime Small Business Server partner in the Atlanta area. “We used the toolkit to create a front-to-back sales process that focuses on what your business is, what your objectives and processes are, what applications you use, and how technology interacts with the actual business processes in your company,” says Larry Allen, business development manager for NetCom. “Then we’ll do a brief survey of their current infrastructure and provide them with an assessment and a written review with recommendations.”
The close rate? “We have about an 80-percent close ratio,” says Allen. “Our customers tell us that they are impressed that our processes are so organized and professional.” According to Allen, customers say that many other vendors don’t take the same approach. “We hear that it’s more typical for our competitors to come in, look at the computer hardware, recommend updating the server software and call it a day,” says Allen. “Customers appreciate the fact that we’re interested in making sure that what we’re recommending to them is relevant to what they do.”
Allen offers another impressive statistic: NetCom Systems’ average deal size is around four or five times the national average. “The whole process that the toolkit takes you through creates a more holistic viewpoint for the client,” he says. “When you go through the assessments with customers, you hit every aspect of their business. It changes the conversation from technology upgrades to business value, and I think that’s why customers are willing to spend a little more money.”
He gives the example of a recent project with a legal firm: “Using the assessment to have an in-depth conversation about how technology could be a help rather than a hindrance led to a full network upgrade with Small Business Server.” Now, Allen says, the customer is using solutions for remote access and collaboration, such as Windows SharePoint Services.
Rising Opportunities—Rising Competition
Being seen as a highly professional, trusted advisor has proved to be an important differentiator for partners looking to form long-term relationships with their customers in a competitive, and fast growing market.
Allen says that using the toolkit helps NetCom compete more effectively. “For those of us on the infrastructure side, we’re looked at like plumbers or electricians or any other kind of technician. It can easily get to the point where you’re competing 100-percent on price.”
The toolkit takes that out of play, says Allen. “Customers start to see you as more of an advisor than just somebody who fixes the broken computers. They begin to see that we understand their business, so we are trusted to recommend and implement the right technology…and partner with them for the long term.”
Says Sobel, “Using the toolkit not only ensures that we give consistent levels of service to every customer, but when we are paired competitively with another service organization, we are the only ones taking the time to really understand what our customers need from a business point of view, before we even start talking about technology.”