Microsoft Partners Gain Ease of Use with Opportunity Pipeline Tool
Technical Case Study
Published: June 2011
Needing to replace an old Siebel-based system, Microsoft Information Technology (Microsoft IT ) and the Worldwide Partner Group worked together to create the Partner Sales Exchange partner opportunity pipeline management system using Microsoft Silverlight 4.0 and Microsoft Dynamics CRM 4.0.
Technical Case Study, 487 KB, Microsoft Word file
Products & Technology
The Microsoft Worldwide Partner Group needed a more intuitive tool to replace its Siebel-based partner opportunity pipeline management system.
The Microsoft IT Solutions Delivery Team and Microsoft IT RXD Engineering worked with the Worldwide Partner Group to create the Partner Sales Exchange pipeline using Microsoft Silverlight 4.0 and Microsoft Dynamics CRM 4.0.
Microsoft has a rich partner ecosystem, with tens of thousands of partners worldwide working closely with the company to provide customers with the very best technology solutions. Part of the company’s success is based upon the efficiency with which Microsoft works with its partners to identify and pursue business opportunities.
For some years, Microsoft relied upon its Partner Sales Manager (PSM) system to serve as a partner opportunity pipeline management system. Partners used the system to upload opportunities to share with the company and to request support through a hidden value within the opportunity form. This support included requests for additional funding, SMEs for technical assistance, and marketing collateral. On the Microsoft side, Partner Account Managers could evaluate these support requests and respond accordingly. There was no recourse if the manager did not follow up at the time.
The concept was good, but the solution, which was based on Siebel Systems software, was never popular with the partner community. Partners complained about it being hard to learn, difficult to use, inflexible, unstable, and time consuming. They had a point. The old PSM system had more than 140 fields in just the opportunity management section, most of which were incomprehensible to partners, were burdened with unneeded complexity, and required unnecessarily complex workflows. In addition to suffering from performance and stability issues, the taxonomy used within PSM favored internal Microsoft verbiage over taxonomy, making much of the user interface (UI) nonsensical to a partner.
Partner dissatisfaction with PSM was reflected in low adoption and usage of the tool. The low adoption resulted in Microsoft having poor visibility into the partner pipeline, which led to inaccurate revenue forecasts, non-optimized resource utilization, poor business intelligence for budgeting and trend analysis, and inconsistency within the sales process across partners. There was a lack of value exchange between Microsoft and its partners, which in turn led to a lack of trust and created a barrier to collaboration and partnership.
Microsoft wanted an additional 10,000 partners to exchange opportunities in an effort to gain pipeline visibility of its partner channel. Before beginning this effort, the company needed to find a better partner opportunity pipeline management system. The company knew it faced a challenge after polling its partners about the existing Siebel-based PSM. Comments from partners included:
“Why is your system so hard to use; so complex?”
“Every time I try to use Siebel it seems to be broken.”
“PSM is hard to use.”
“Microsoft asks for too much data from us.”
“Make it simpler to manage pipeline and tool permissions—we’re not able to see the same thing the PAM sees.”
“We do the minimum we have to do on the reporting side because there’s not a lot of value-add for us.”
“We don’t register the majority of opportunities—I tried, but it took me 2 hours to put the opportunity in PSM.”
A replacement partner opportunity pipeline management system would have to be simple to use, fit naturally into the partners’ existing work practices, and provide substantial value to justify use. It would also need the ability to scale with the growth of Microsoft and its worldwide partner community.
After significant collaboration with partners and with Microsoft Partner Account Managers (PAMs), the company created Partner Sales Exchange (PSX) as its new partner opportunity pipeline management system. PSX was conceived, developed, and released by Microsoft IT and the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Group.
“The goal of PSX is to simplify how we work together on opportunities that managed partners create for Microsoft technologies.”
Ross Brown, Vice President of Worldwide, Partner Sales, Microsoft Corporation
PSX was created with a Microsoft solution stack, including Microsoft Silverlight 4.0, which was used to create the intuitive user interface needed to address complaints about the Siebel system. The back end is powered by Microsoft Dynamics CRM 4.0 and Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 Enterprise.
The new partner opportunity pipeline management system has been widely praised—and adopted—by the partner community. The easy-to-use Silverlight interface provides drop-downs, autocomplete, and predictive text features that greatly simplify information entry, something that was often seen as an arduous task with the previous system. The use of Silverlight enabled the development team to create an application with a bright and logical user interface, which greatly simplifies navigation and other elements of the user experience. Partners like using PSX to search the Microsoft customer database to properly match customer accounts to existing data—something partners could not do in PSM.
In addition to adding opportunities individually, partners can import a large number of opportunities at one time using a simple Microsoft Excel® template and taking advantage of the Silverlight isolated storage feature. Each opportunity is given a unique ID to simplify tracking opportunities between PSX and the partner’s own CRM system.
A common partner complaint was difficulty with beginning navigation on the PSM home page, and they also had trouble knowing where to go on the UI to accomplish their tasks. The PSX home page, as shown in Figure 1, provides a simple and clear entry into the opportunities pipeline, showcasing the three most common work areas:
Add or Import. This is where a partner adds opportunities to be shared with Microsoft, including importing data from Excel. A popular feature is that the data remains on the user’s machine, using the Silverlight isolated storage feature to store the information locally until the partner is ready to formally share it with Microsoft. Isolated storage features reduces unnecessary server round trip and remembers user data across sessions. Client-side data storage enables a very responsive UI, which leads to better user experience. On certain deals, partners can request special incentives from Microsoft using PSX.
Update Shared. As a partner or Microsoft makes updates to a sales opportunity, Update Shared is where these opportunity changes are reflected. Update Shared is where a partner can export their Microsoft opportunities to Excel.
Accept Leads. This is where partners can view leads offered to them by Microsoft. A partner can either accept a lead, or pass, in which case it can be offered to another partner.
Figure 1. The PSX home page is the gateway to an easy-to-use environment
PSX was developed employing a user-centric design methodology and an agile development framework in a collaborative environment. The solution was built using a multi-tier architecture, including:
Presentation Tier. The user experience was created using the Microsoft Silverlight 4.0 development platform, and integrates with Microsoft Office productivity tools. Users access PSX using a browser, avoiding the need for downloading client-side applications. Presentation is based on a Model View ViewModel (MVVM) pattern architecture. Asynchronous communications from the presentation tier to Microsoft Dynamics CRM are handled through Windows Communications Foundation.
Application Tier. The application tier is based on Microsoft Dynamics CRM 4.0, and contains business logic, a rules engine, and a data entity provider; for database connectivity, the tier makes use of the ADO.NET feature of the Microsoft .NET Framework 4.0.
Data Tier. All data is hosted on Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 Enterprise database management software running on the Windows Server® 2008 R2 Enterprise operating system.
Figure 2 displays the technologies used within each of the three tiers.
Figure 2. PSX was created with a Microsoft technology stack
Developers used a number of Silverlight features to enhance the user experience, including the Silverlight layout grid control layout feature, auto complete text boxes (which greatly simplified navigation through the Microsoft world of products and partner programs), and custom drop-down controls to display hierarchical data. The Silverlight isolated storage feature has proven popular with partners as it enables users to stage and store opportunity lists on their own computers before formally loading them into PSX to share with Microsoft.
The Silverlight DataGrid feature played an especially important role in PSX development and enhancing the user experience. Developers used DataGrid to create a popular automated mapping feature that gives users the ability to map values from their own CRM system to the same values (with different names) on the PSX side. The feature greatly simplifies dealing with variations in customer names and process terminology. A user can select an option to apply a mapping to all future opportunities and PSX will automatically resolve any conflicts in the future.
PSX uses the Silverlight client-side caching feature to aid in performance for the user, by storing a copy of the data locally and only transferring back and forth changes (deltas). Client-side caching simplifies taxonomy and mapping. Additionally, developers used other new Silverlight features, such as mouse wheel support and right click context menu, to make the PSX UI more user-friendly.
Another noteworthy aspect of the solution is that some of the core capabilities of the Silverlight Platform, such as multi-threading and UI agility, were leveraged end-to-end for the development of the immersive and engaging experience of PSX.
Developers achieved right-to-left (RTL) support in text and controls by using the FlowDirection attribute of the UI element. This new Silverlight feature was instrumental in enabling the localization/globalization of PSX for certain regions.
PSX developers used Microsoft Expression Blend® to port designs into the application’s XAML markup code.
Microsoft IT completed development of PSX in six months, keeping Microsoft partners at the center of the design work. Partners have embraced PSX enthusiastically; more than 11,000 are registered users of PSX, with additional partners joining every day. Partners praise PSX for its ease of use and clarity of design.
A significant element of the PSX project was the collaborative and cross-functional approach used by the team. The approach proved so effective that other organizations may find value in employing such an approach on a range of software development projects.
“Working as a multidisciplinary team allowed us to think of the technical implications and the user implications all at once. Keeping the user at the center of our design was one of our core design principles.”
Kiwon Seong, Solution Manager of PSX, Microsoft Corporation
Conventionally, project work is divided up by accountability. Defining who owns what and adhering to established software development lifecycle methodologies generally leads to successful project completion. However, this approach can also translate into reluctance on the part of different teams to break down barriers and truly collaborate.
The PSX development team took a different approach. The boundaries of roles were removed in a way that helped multidisciplinary teams come together at all stages of the project. The teams formed one core team, developing a culture of trust and mutual respect. With boundaries down, the core team members felt safe and comfortable brainstorming without any hesitation. This way, everyone was able to throw out ideas, knowing that early thoughts would not be shared with the larger team before things were vetted and worked on within the core team. “Working as a multidisciplinary team allowed us to think of the technical implications and the user implications all at once,” says Kiwon Seong, Solution Manager of PSX at Microsoft. “Keeping the user at the center of our design was one of our core design principles.”
Field Discovery Work for New System
After all the stakeholders were onboard with addressing the problems critical to realizing and sustaining partner sales management benefits, Microsoft IT conducted field discovery work in collaboration with the Microsoft World Products Group. Microsoft IT engaged 24 partner employees within 11 different partner organizations in the United States, Mexico, and Western Europe to gain a crisper understanding of the user requirements. Being on-site allowed the team to get insight into motivational aspects of the partners’ jobs and understand real-world scenarios affecting account managers, technology specialists, and other sales professionals at partner organizations from whom Microsoft received significant sales pipeline data. Rather than asking technical questions, partners were asked strategy-based questions to gather the following information:
What do the partners value?
What is their goal when they share opportunities with Microsoft?
What do they use to manage opportunities?
What people do they work with at Microsoft?
What are some of the barriers between them and Microsoft?
The answers to these questions led to a deep understanding of the partners and laid the foundation for what was to become PSX.
Out of the field discovery work, the PSX team was able to gather and prioritize user pain points in order of importance and put together a 3-year recommendations roadmap for the new sales pipeline management system. This was the underpinning of the project, which led to the acceleration of the development of PSX, because the team's increased awareness of what the partners wanted in the valuable collaboration with Microsoft.
Creating Concepts to Meet Partner Needs
The voice of the partner was the most important element to come out of the field discovery work. The team gathered partner pain points and needs, which translated into solutions that became design requirements for PSX.
Because of the collaborative working relationship within the team, a PSX feature set embracing and meeting all of the identified needs was successfully created. The solution was refined when core workflows were identified and immediately translated into a realistic picture of the product. Silverlight XAML was used to visualize the look of the new UI.
Ongoing Partner Engagement
The project team continued partner interaction even after completion of the field discovery work. Over the course of the project, partners were asked for feedback to ensure the project was headed in the right direction.
Fifteen partners were chosen to provide feedback through every stage of PSX development, from design sessions where partners were asked to perform tasks using a wireframe mockup of the system to ensure ease of use, through to evaluation of live code integrated with a live back end. Design sessions allowed first-hand accounts of the partner experience, so the PSX team could see where the solution was working and not working for the partner and make adjustments.
The Engineering team’s presence in the design sessions meant they knew exactly why changes needed to be made to the design code in order to optimize the system for the partners. These design sessions continued after the first version of PSX was released, only six months after initial efforts had begun.
The benefits of having an opportunity-sharing system like PSX in place include: increased data quality and pipeline visibility, increased partner and field productivity, improved overall sales excellence, initiation of the incentive process, better understanding of the partner contribution for all business models, and enhanced individual accountability for Partner Account Managers. The new system also enables partners to reach advanced levels in the Microsoft Partner Network (MPN).
A major benefit for partners is the Solution Incentive Program. The Solution Incentive Program puts financial incentives in a partner’s pocket for select opportunities and activities, driving motivation and directly increasing competitive win rates. PSX is the solution that partners use to request incentives from Microsoft on activities and deals which they drive—this incentive program is one of the key drivers to partners onboarding and using technology to share and track deals.
Partner satisfaction drove the project from start to finish. Ross Brown, Vice President of Worldwide Partner Sales at Microsoft, described the effort: “The goal of PSX is to simplify how we work together on opportunities that managed partners create for Microsoft technologies.”
With Microsoft partners around the world embracing the new pipeline management system, it is clear the customer-focused field research and Silverlight-powered user interface have helped PSX win over the vitally important partner community. The system is already averaging roughly 7,800 partner-generated opportunities per month.
“After the release of PSX we saw the number of opportunities being logged into the system increase by orders of magnitude compared with our old Siebel-based PSM system,” says Deepak Nautiyal, Field Solution Manager for India at Microsoft. “One of our large partners recently told me, ‘I’m so happy that you got off the PSM system because I could hardly log my deals on that system and I find the PSX system so easy to use.’”
In China, where PSX is widely used across several partner types and against many licensing types such as Enterprise, Select and Open agreements, Winnie Cui, Principal Field Solution Manager for GCR at Microsoft, reports that partners adopted PSX much more smoothly. “We used to have to plead with our partners to use the old PSM system,” Cui says. “With PSX and incentive program improvements, partners say they like the simple clean user interface that Silverlight provides and they appreciate the streamlined built-in workflows.”
Ease of Use
Behind the scenes, PSX provides a robust environment powered by Dynamics CRM and SQL Server. But what customers notice the most is the ease of use that makes PSX so simple to work with. “With PSX I can connect an opportunity with a financial incentive with just one click—that’s all I need to do,” says Luc Joziasse, Director of Sales & Marketing, at Microsoft partner Wortell. “The Microsoft incentive program really helps us drive our business. We can get financial incentives and technical support, and together with Microsoft we can close deals faster. So we really appreciate how easy PSX is to work with. The Silverlight component is fast; it loads data quickly, increases performance, and provides greater efficiency. You can set up for your entire organization on PSX within just 10 minutes.”
The ease of use makes it easier to introduce a new application. “Things are different when you are dealing with a partner,” says Ed Niblock, Field Solution Manager at Microsoft. “You can’t just tell them that they have to come to training. They have their own businesses to run. That’s why it’s really helpful that Silverlight has capability that allows PSX to be designed as an easy tool to learn.”
Microsoft still provides instructor-led sessions to cover the tool and process, as partners appreciate the live training so they can ask questions about process and revenue.
“Silverlight installs without requiring admin privileges. And it works across a range of browsers. The Silverlight team has done a good job of making sure that it’s available everywhere in the world.”
Akiko Toyota, Field Solution Manager, Microsoft Corporation
Simple Deployment with Silverlight
PSX has been far easier to deploy than the old PSM system was because of the ubiquity of Silverlight. “With our Siebel system, users had to download four applications on the client side, which was painful,” Shulan Situ, Field Solution Manager at Microsoft says. “PSX runs on Silverlight, which can be downloaded with a click from the Internet if it isn’t already on the user’s computer.”
Deployment also is simplified because Silverlight and PSX don’t require a user to have an administrator account on their computer.
Support for Asynchronous Communications
Silverlight support for asynchronous communications represents a big improvement over the synchronous function of the old PSM system.
“The Microsoft data centers we use to support PSX are in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, and we support partners in remote corners of the earth that sometimes may have lower tiered network configurations from their offices,” says Thomas Verhasselt, Senior Program Manager at Microsoft. “Because Silverlight supports asynchronous communication, users can click Save and then go off and do some other task. With the old PSM system, which was limited to synchronous communication, they would have stayed until the transfer was confirmed as completed.”
Less than a year old, PSX is seen as an evolving application, which will be incrementally modified and enhanced in accordance to user feedback from partners and field operations at Microsoft. Lessons learned so far include:
Integration with Partner CRM Systems. Most partners already have their own CRM system in place, and would like to see an integration solution with PSX to avoid having to enter information into their own CRM system and then do the same with PSX. A popular request has been for Microsoft to create a business-to-business connection between PSX and partner CRM systems that would enable partners to create opportunities in their CRM Systems and click a button to automatically upload those opportunities to PSX. The PSX team will investigate this option.
Performance. Performance is always important, and some partners have identified situations in which performance has lagged when uploading and viewing opportunities. Latency could be caused by a number of things, including slow Internet connections and slow computer processing speed, especially when dealing with cached material. The PSX team is looking into this to identify exact causes and to formulate solutions. The key message is performance requires continual scrutiny.
Usability. Enhancing usability should be a continuing process. The PSX team has carefully captured feedback from partner users. While we’ve enjoyed the wide praise for the Silverlight user interface, we’ve found ways to make our application even better through listening to our users. Partners suggested the Customer Search feature, for example, would require less scrolling and hence be easier to use if more of the white space was removed. Partners have also asked for the ability to move fields around on the screen to create a more personalized workspace and for the ability to hide unused fields. By listening to the users, the development team expects PSX to become an ever better tool.
Clearly Defined Business Processes. Partners have asked for clearly defined business processes to provide them with a more precise guide to the information Microsoft needs and how it is used. Internal users have asked for more guidance on how PSX should optimally be used across partner types and groups of partners.
PSX was created by combining Microsoft technology, including Silverlight 4.0 and Microsoft Dynamics 4.0, with an innovative collaborative approach focused on user-centered design and with special emphasis on partner needs. The project serves as a model for how technology, inclusive collaboration, and best practices can combine to create solutions with high adoption and user satisfaction.
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