Staying Relevant in Microsoft’s Ever-Changing Partner EcosystemStaying Relevant in Microsoft’s Ever-Changing Partner Ecosystem
How to identify and leverage the nuances, opportunities and tools necessary to effectively navigate Microsoft’s Office 365 business arena.
March 10, 2020
Sponsored by Quadrotech
Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com, once said: “The only constant in the technology industry is change.” Many of us feel this day in and day out in the various sectors of the tech industry as we constantly adapt our business models, shift gears with product development, tweak our marketing strategies and try to get ahead of the competition. This reality is not mutually exclusive for CSPs and MSPs, and lately has rung all too true as Microsoft’s vision for partners continues to change.
So how can service providers stay relevant and profitable, all while adapting to the constant flux in Microsoft partner dynamics? In this article we’ll explore the nuances, opportunities and tools necessary to navigate the ever-changing Microsoft Office 365 business arena.
The Changing CSP Landscape
Over the years, Microsoft has modified its CSP program, forcing partners to adapt their operations accordingly. Major changes to the Direct CSP service provision model were first announced in 2018, but changes to both Direct and Indirect CSP programs have started to become a reality. One Microsoft partner, AppXite, predicted that only 20% of Direct CSPs would keep their status throughout this shift. Here are some of the changes to requirements and benefits of the Direct CSP program:
Microsoft support contract required ($15,000/year for ASfP or $50,000/year for Premier)
Partners must have infrastructure to support billing and provisioning infrastructure
Partners must provide at least one managed service, IP service or customer solution application
Updated incentive rates and direct rebate payments reduced, with 40% going toward co-op fund incentives (impacts both Direct and Indirect)
In 2019, we also saw some partners grappling with change related to the new “Microsoft Customer Agreement” (MCA) model for Azure. At renewal time, the MCA encourages and easily opens the door for customers to purchase their licenses directly from Microsoft, with partner activities consigned to mostly “value-added presales services and post-sale solutions for your Azure services.” Since this is the new approach for Azure, one has to wonder if Office 365 will follow.
Given these changes, the next logical step for CSPs is to create unique value-add services around licensing. This approach allows you to build your own margins, which offers more flexibility and provides a better safety net if Microsoft decides to change its CSP programs even further.
Stephen White, Research Director for Gartner said it best: “Microsoft has begun making the line in the sand more visible–providing licensing without services, and lightweight services providers seeking to leverage the transaction may be on the wrong side of that line moving forward.” Differentiating is critical in order to stay relevant and competitive, and to stand out in an already crowded Microsoft Office 365 space.
New Opportunities Created for MSPs
These changes might not sound like the best news for your traditional CSP partner, but they do provide some big opportunities for MSPs, where the business approach is often holistic and already includes services. While Microsoft’s new direction has led partners to explore new and expanded service opportunities, a shift in customer buying preferences is also impacting the types of services MSPs are offering.
In recent years, we’ve seen a trend developing around large enterprise customers gravitating toward turnkey solutions for all IT needs that fall under the managed services umbrella–licensing, IT services, support, software sourcing and service desk capabilities. Their preference is to bundle services and work with fewer vendors if they can, to lessen the overhead and burden of dealing with different vendors’ contracts, billing cycles and SLAs. The operational efficiencies of reducing overhead and simplifying costs is not only highly attractive, but also has become somewhat of a crucial commodity.
Another reality is that customers don’t want more licensing for less money; they want to spend less and use only what they need. The days of selling a surplus of licensing to accommodate new growth are gone. Your customers simply want licenses that make their workforce more productive and ultimately impact the bottom line. Across the board, it’s in everyone’s interest for licenses to be used–you, your customers, and even Microsoft have recognized this, now aligning seller and partner incentives based on usage and consumption rather than license volume.
Then you factor Microsoft Office 365 into the equation, and how essential the platform has become to everyday operations. Office 365 touches practically every area of a business–every department, user, collaboration, email and core business function–making it is a crucial licensing investment for a large enterprise company. Again, organizations want to get as much from the spend as they can, and ensure that all users are benefitting from and adopting the tool. This creates many areas of focus for an MSP, and a great foundation to build a practice around.
But, as we stated above, the Office 365 space is already saturated, so in order to capture your share of the market you’ll need to elevate your offerings and differentiate from the rest of the pack. To further corroborate this idea, Microsoft recently began putting a lot of emphasis on “unique” partners, coaching them to “find your angle” and stressing that you shouldn’t try to be everything to everyone.
Now, the obvious question here is, how can one differentiate? Let’s look at SaaS Management Platforms (SMPs) and why they can be the lifeblood of a successful MSP practice.
Why an SMP Is Invaluable to MSPs
Gartner recently created a new SMP market classification. By Gartner’s definition, SMPs provide IT administrators with additional tools and capabilities above and beyond the native management consoles that literally everyone has access to. They fill a void where more visibility, control and access to granular data are needed. From this vantage point, where you have a holistic view of the environment (or multiple environments), which enables you to see so you can do, your service offering becomes that much more valuable and unique.
According to Gartner, some key features of market-leading SMPs include:
Role-Based Access Control
IT Workflow Automation
The benefits of a comprehensive reporting engine are innumerable. When it comes to security, being able to run an organization-wide report to show logs, privileges and who has access to what can prove under an audit that every precaution has been taken to protect the company and its data. You can also use reporting features to take corrective action to implement or update policies to lower the organization’s risk profile and use the data for faster investigation and remediation of suspicious events.
With licensing, the reports can show at a granular level which licenses are being used, how they are being used and which licenses aren’t being used.
This type of reporting gives an MSP leverage with the customer in several ways. For one thing, it can help maximize the customer’s investment and offset the costs of the MSP contract. If the company is over-licensed, some of those licenses could be re-allocated toward other departments for utilization, without the organization purchasing further licenses. In addition, this type of reporting gives the MSP the data to see exactly what kind of usage is happening in its customers’ cloud environment, what features and tools they are using, and how all of that factors into their IT spend. This information can then be used to optimize their IT strategy moving forward.
When it comes to your helpdesk, with the enhanced view and service monitoring provided by the SMP, you can pinpoint if you’re getting a lot of tickets for a particular problem, from a particular client or a particular part of your service desk business. You can view the reporting and monitoring data, identify the issues, and then begin to proactively optimize your service by getting emails out to your customers letting them know what service is experiencing issues and that either your team or Microsoft is working on it.
If your SMP is worth its salt it will also have RBAC and policy management, which can be used in a number of ways to maximize efficacy. At Quadrotech, we call this Delegation and Policy Control, or DPC. Organizations can reduce the administrative burden of managing an Office 365 tenant by assigning roles and responsibilities to selected users such as Helpdesk Operators, country-level Administrators or even to end users. Tenant Global Admins receive the most benefit as they are relieved of the need to perform day-to-day operations across the entire tenant, freeing up time so they can tend to more important responsibilities like managing change within the tenant or launching a new application, such as Teams or Planner.
SMPs for Office 365 support nearly endless customer use cases, but they also create administrative and operational efficiencies for the MSPs themselves. With a secure multi-tenant view across all your customers’ environments, you can more easily manage tenants at scale (without switching between browsers). An SMP also allows you to identify your most/least profitable customers and spot opportunities for adoption and license lifecycle management services. By providing more value for your customers without increasing their license spend (or even while decreasing it), you establish yourself as a trusted advisor and improve the likelihood that your customer renews with you.
To sum things up, with the right SMP, an MSP can differentiate its practice and grow by elevating service offerings to customers.
Whom You Should Partner With, and Why
Now, let’s say you’re a small-to-midsize CSP that is at the crossroads of this transformation journey. You see the writing on the wall and realize that if you continue with the business model you implemented years ago, your most profitable days may be dwindling. You know that you need to transition to a services-based practice. But where do you start, and what cornerstones do you need in place first?
For starters, you need the competency. You need the right internal skills, resources and tools to support your service offerings. Second is capacity–you need to be able to scale. And if you don’t have the competencies and capacity to build from the ground up and fully support an MSP practice, then what? You’ll need to find a vendor to partner with that does.
The vendor you should partner with ultimately depends on your individual business and your niche. You need to determine what your immediate strengths are, what gaps you need to fill and where exactly a partner could insert itself to bring additional value to your practice. Finding a partner with a solid, proprietary and market-leading SMP that gives you a competitive edge could be the answer. This will allow you to go broad and deep into an area of your choosing and enable you to create more overall value around Office 365, while focusing on fewer but higher-value service offerings.
Here at Quadrotech, we bring together several software capabilities: migration to Office 365 and management of Office 365 with our market-leading SaaS Management Platform, Nova. Partners can manage their customers’ entire digital transformation to Office 365 with Quadrotech solutions that are designed to reduce risk and allow you to properly scale. We provide you with the toolsets to “find your niche” and create unique value for your customers–something a standard CSP model won’t give you. Get in touch today to discuss how an SMP like Nova can create new, strategic and valuable recurring opportunities for your growing MSP or transitioned CSP practice.
Russ McKeith is a Partnerships Manager at Quadrotech, working alongside strategic partners to get the best out of SaaS applications and the cloud. With a long-standing passion for IT and as the sort of person who pulls the TV apart to see how it works, he naturally gravitated toward the InfoSec side of things. He regularly writes best practice guides for users and corporations.
This guest blog is part of a Channel Futures sponsorship.
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