Microsoft Inspire: A picture into the future of Microsoft

Microsoft’s huge partner show starts next week and promises to provide a unique view into Microsoft’s near-term future and priorities. The event also showcases one of Microsoft’s long-term competitive advantages in their partner program.

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 [Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author.]

Partner conferences are an element of large tech companies that smaller firms don’t have the resources to maintain. The interesting things about them include insight into how seriously the vendor takes its partner ecosystem, the balance between direct sales and partner efforts.

Partner conferences also are where the partners go to get a heads-up on where the firm’s priorities will be in the future. Done right, these are like sales events with lots of energy and programs focused on driving sales, partner and customer engagement, and lots of recognition for those that generate the most revenue and can showcase unusually high customer loyalty.

But Inspire is a view into the future of Microsoft, which is of utmost importance in this sector. And the heads-up I got this week on the show has identified some interesting new elements.

Dynamics 365

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you know that Microsoft has largely pivoted from their PC and server operating system and application roots to a cloud services vendor. Azure has replaced Windows as their most strategic platform and their emphasis on Dynamics 365, a comprehensive management dashboard with massive AI improvements, helps validate that. And this tool appears to be at the heart of what they will showcase at Inspire.

Much of the event appears to surround this effort and how partners can not only sell it but use it themselves to improve their own operations and better manage their customer relationships. Very similar in implementation (from a Microsoft perspective) to sales management tools, it’s an impressive offering when implemented properly.

But the part that should prove the most interesting is that this should allow Microsoft to better understand where partners are performing well and where they are struggling – allowing Microsoft to more effectively husband partner efforts into successes. Of course, it also allows the partners to better manage their own shops, effectively raising all boats.

At one time, companies seemed unable to grasp that marginal partners can adversely impact their brand. Back when I did more surveys, one of the interesting results was how much less satisfied Microsoft customers were when they worked through partners than when they worked directly with Microsoft. I actually observed this personally when we used a partner for an Exchange project (the partner didn’t know Exchange and I didn’t pick them).

So, the wide use of this tool should improve dramatically partner performance over time not only to Microsoft but to their customers.

What this means for the future

Long term – and assuming success (Microsoft’s execution has massively improved under Satya Nadella and Steve Guggenheimer, who leads this effort, is one of their most capable executives) – Dynamics 365 should result in a multi-channel program that’s far more effective over time. Increasingly integrated with this effort will be tools like AppSource, PowerApps and the Azure marketplace, providing an ever-richer set of tools to partners and a far higher partner engagement by Microsoft.

Once fully done it should be much harder to differentiate between the experience working directly with Microsoft and one connected through one of the highly engaged partners using these tools. Initially, there likely will be a wide range of experiences based on how well the partners use the tools, suggesting this might be a good thing to check when considering using any particular Microsoft partner.

I also expect they will increase the use of AI technology to both better enable partner decisions and to better flag partners who are underperforming with timely remedial direction being provided to both the partner and Microsoft as needed.

This virtual integration between Microsoft and its partners should lead to higher customer satisfaction and far better customer engagement both with the partner, and, when needed, Microsoft.

Finally, based on the preliminary information, three industries that are likely to get the most focus going forward are automotive, nonprofits and banking. The first an increasing showcase for applied AI in vehicles and stronger customer experience management through dealer networks, and the last a showcase for security and speed. Nonprofits are a high priority for Microsoft’s founder and chairman Bill Gates, so I’d expect a sustained focus there. Gates has always seemed to get that technology’s greatest potential impact should be on making the world a better place.

Wrapping up

Microsoft Inspire is a partner event but, as such, it showcases where the firm is going with its technology as applied to partners and what’s likely to happen with customer satisfaction and engagement through partners. It also shows the industries that Microsoft is focusing on, and their strategic imperative to better instrument their partners so they can both be more successful and receive needed help timely in order to better assure customer loyalty.

Companies often forget that partners are an important leveraged resource, which can make the difference between success and failure at scale. Dynamics 365 showcases that Microsoft hasn’t forgotten this and that they fully realize that their partners are a major part of Microsoft’s foundation for future success.

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