Feature

Adding value with Microsoft

Comms Business explores how channel partners are offering value-added wraparound services to Microsoft products in 2022.

When it comes to offering a suite of products that can provide a versatile foundation for innovative, value-added solutions developed by Channel partners, there are few bigger names in the game than Microsoft.

Microsoft Teams, in particular, has continued to grow in use since the shift toward hybrid and remote working, and the ever-evolving, cloud-first market continues to be reflected in everything from the services on offer to the way in which Microsoft itself engages with its partners. In March this year, Microsoft announced a revamp of its partner programme, now renamed the Microsoft Cloud Partner Programme, with the changes effective from October.

As Comms Business reported at the time of the announcement, the changes were put in place to “align partners’ go-to-market motions with the way customers are buying today”, serving as recognition of the “enormous and ongoing transition” of business operations to the cloud.

The new partner programme is focused around six solution areas aligned with Microsoft Cloud: data and AI (Azure), infrastructure (Azure), digital and app innovation (Azure), business applications, modern work and security.

Nick Parker, CVP global partner solutions, Microsoft, revealed the changes in the company’s ‘State of the Partner Ecosystem’ event earlier this year, telling attendees that partners’ engagement with Microsoft technology has driven “significant impact” on communities globally, including enabling recovery from Covid-19 and enabling customers to capture “reshaped market opportunity” such as hybrid work, digital payments and telehealth.

Parker said during the event: “Where partners are successful, we see communities thrive with technological skills, job creation and community-level digital transformation, creating a hub for technology resources and access to innovation, and enabling economic growth.”

Jeff May, UK sales director at Konftel said that for partners, forging deeper relationships with Microsoft has to be a good thing to develop business growth and create additional sales opportunities.

“The Microsoft ecosystem is based around many individual components with customer needs constantly evolving,” May told Comms Business. “Strengthening digital capability, deepening partner technical capabilities, equipping partners to better meet customer needs and streamlining engagement are all important.”

Taking the Teams opportunity

May described Microsoft as a very influential market player. With Teams continuing to grow in popularity, he said there are clear opportunities for partners.

“In terms of conferencing, end users have two distinct choices; either [one] where they use their own laptops or a dedicated in room facility where all the hardware is already in place. It all depends on individual preferences or even a mixture of the two across an office complex. There are pros and cons around each option.

“Conferencing works hand-in-hand with Microsoft Teams and over the last few years there has been huge growth and demand. The pandemic brought about positive and permanent change about the way we communicate and work – not just from a standard office. Konftel video kits provide a seamless Teams meeting experience. The Microsoft influence will continue to grow.”

Paul Enright, voice and hosted propositions manager at BT Wholesale, pointed out the extent of Teams’ influence in the wake of the pandemic, which has completely transformed the working landscape. He said, “In fact, recent research from Cavell found the number of Microsoft Teams active users nearly doubled between April 2020 and April 2021,” Enright explained.

He added, “What’s more, the penetration of Microsoft Teams telephony users is predicted to grow to more than 25 per cent of the market — or more than 3 million users — by the end of 2025.

“This provides a huge opportunity for channel partners. Microsoft Teams already comes with all the collaboration fundamentals such as video calling, collaboration on live documents and instant messaging. However, telephony capability is not included as standard. Phone calls remain one of the most vital communication channels for businesses, especially SMEs, yet the integration of telephony services is not part of Microsoft Teams by default.”

Last month, BT Wholesale announced the launch of its cloud-based WHC Teams Direct Connect solution, which aims to bridge this gap. Enright said that the solution, bringing Wholesale Hosted Communications to Microsoft Teams, will allow channel partners to take full advantage of the hybrid working environment.

“Built for the channel market, our new solution is quick and easy to deploy and doesn’t require specialist IT support,” Enright said.
“We developed WHC Teams Direct Connect to improve collaboration for hybrid working for our channel partners to better serve their customers, particularly small businesses, providing a simple and cost-effective way to get calls in Teams, with everything in one place. Users can have the same number anywhere, on any device alongside quick service set-up.”

The company said this will offer benefits such as flexibility — partners can mix and match hosted PBX, hosted SIP trunking and Teams to build a solution that is suited to the customers’ needs.

Evolving at speed

Hilary Oliver, chief marketing and experience officer at Tollring, agreed that the Channel’s biggest opportunity is to add value to Teams, which now has over 300 million users.

“There are many third-party applications and the Channel should do their research to identify the apps most relevant to their target audience and the ones that will enhance their overall proposition,” Oliver said.

“Analytics has become business-critical across the globe and adds value to any proposition. Whilst Microsoft themselves deliver personal insights to our inboxes every day, the apps for analytics can go a step further to provide visibility of the estate with valuable insights on collaboration trends, to help identify key drivers for change and to support business decisions.”

Marketplaces have made these apps far more accessible, she added, with easy access to free trials allowing resellers to get involved ‘like never before’ and establish critical market differentiators in the process.

“Microsoft’s roadmap is also extremely aggressive. Not a month seems to pass without new features appearing in Microsoft products, so the Microsoft portfolio itself provides a fertile opportunity for the whole Channel.

“Microsoft’s recent focus on convergence through their Teams phone operator connect mobile service presents yet further openings for the Channel. The speed at which they are evolving is a huge opportunity, but also presents the risk of being left behind.”

Partners can take these opportunities by creating a strong proposition in line with their expertise, she said, such as through leveraging services like direct routing coupled with business productivity tools like contact centre management and analytics — areas where opportunities are increasingly opening up to meet evolving customer demand.

“As organisations increasingly route their incoming and outgoing calls via Microsoft Teams, analytics delivers deep insight into internal and external business communications.

“The strength of analytics is in delivering actionable and meaningful insights, highlighting patterns, making observations and spotting changing habits. The channel can add value in helping organisations to identify their drivers for change, then providing solutions that enable them to take action and make positive change, leveraging technology throughout the journey and onwards.”

Attaining certifications

Channel partners should also consider the importance of attaining Microsoft certitications — Oliver described this as a “major milestone for any organisation”, and a recognition of a continual commitment and investment in Microsoft technology and solutions.

She added, “Tollring is a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner for its best-in-class capability in application integration, data analytics, application development, and cloud platform alongside Silver in project and portfolio management.

“Tollring’s investment in Microsoft technologies, and the cooperation we have had from them, has been instrumental in the delivery of Analytics 365 as a native application for Microsoft Teams.”

Microsoft’s certification process is rigorous, she explained, and provides product confidence to both partners and end users. She added, “Certification enables an application to be integrated within the Microsoft app store, Appsource. As a trusted provider, channel partners should leverage their vendor’s certifications coupled with their own, to build trust and confidence through expertise as they look to differentiate themselves.”

Expanding your portfolio

Adrian Sunderland, CTO at Jola said that following Teams’ bump in popularity after lockdown, SMEs are increasingly considering renting Microsoft’s Phone System module and getting rid of their PBX or hosted solution.

“Resellers may be better off adding this to their portfolio than risk losing the argument and the customer completely,” he commented.
“Although the margin on the Microsoft element of this solution is fixed, resellers can buy Teams Direct Routing from a number of suppliers, either pure wholesale or as bundles, and make very good recurring margins.

“As this solution matures it will become increasingly attractive to SMEs and resellers will have high ARPU, high margin upgrades to sell like call management and call recording, all of which are available from third parties.

“Many of Jola’s IT resellers are now selling Teams Direct Routing as a bolt-on to Office365 and Jola’s traditional telecoms resellers, who have the advantage of billing, porting and fraud management experience, have added it to their portfolio.”

In May this year, Jola announced the addition of recording capabilities to its automated direct routing solution for Teams. Sunderland said the fully configurable solution can managed within Jola’s portal and looks to provide partners with new revenue opportunities.