Microsoft Emphasizes Storytelling at WPC

Steve Ballmer at WPC 2010

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

Microsoft Corp. seems to think it’s got a storytelling problem. At least that’s the impression left after reviewing the agenda for this year’s Worldwide Partner Conference, which kicks off today in steamy Houston.

With no major product launches on the horizon, the WPC agenda is replete with sessions on business planning, management best practices, business modeling, cloud profitability, solution selling, partner compensation and messaging. More than any partner confab past, Microsoft is sending a message that partners must do a better job of organizing their businesses and telling the Microsoft value story.

It’s little wonder that Microsoft is emphasizing soft skills. It needs all the help it can get to reverse the troubles plaguing its business.

In the year since Microsoft partners gathered in Toronto, Microsoft relaunched nearly every major product in its portfolio, most notably Windows 8, and it introduced its first tablet, Surface. While Microsoft has won praise for the quality and functionality of its products, the year hasn’t been kind at the register.

When it comes to sales, Windows 8 has proven a disappointment. The introduction of a new operating system ushers in a surge in complementary sales, typically PCs. Yet, PC manufacturers blame the sluggishly selling operating system for contributing to the continued decline of desktop and notebook sales. Analyst firms Gartner and IDC forecast PCs sales to fall another 8 percent in 2013.

Surface, while a decent tablet in design and functionality, is selling at a fraction of Apple Inc’s iPad and the variety of Google Inc. Android-powered machines. Microsoft is introducing Surface to the channel, in a limited way, to help stimulate sales, and will sell steeply discounted models to partners at WPC to stimulate interest.

In typical fashion, Microsoft executives — most notably CEO Steve Ballmer, COO Kevin Turner and channel chief Jon Roskill — will use their main stage time to debunk analysts and naysayers, and speak in fiery tones about how Microsoft and partners can and will take the fight to the competition. It’s a well-worn presentation that Team Microsoft is quite adept at giving at WPC.

The agenda, though, reveals something more: Of the 425 sessions spread across 22 topic tracks, most are about partner organization, execution and market messaging. While cloud services and conventional products are high on the discussion points, so, too, are business acumen and market position. This is typified by the scheduled keynote by Steve Clayton, Microsoft’s chief storyteller, who will likely speak about how partners can and should talk about value in the Microsoft portfolio.

Solution providers will still have numerous choices about products and technical implementations; Microsoft isn’t skimping on those topics. However, they will have ample choices in topics on building profitable cloud businesses, the value of goal setting, making mergers and acquisitions work, leadership coaching for their teams, partner compensation, marketing products and solutions, and the benefits of good storytelling.

Many of the crossover sessions are just as much about business execution as they are about products. Sessions such as developing and implementing application lifecycle management practices, creating and supporting social communications with Yammer, selling and beating competitors with Office 365, and enabling collaboration and workflows with SharePoint, and creating outcome-based solutions with Dynamics are about performance as much as the technology.

It’s clear that Microsoft wants its partners to get more aggressive in taking its story to market. For years, Microsoft has been reacting to critics and competitors who have beaten up on the price, functionality and value of its products. While Microsoft remains a healthy and profitable company, it’s under tremendous pressure to improve performance and regain the initiative against key competitors.

Microsoft obviously believes instilling better business practices and strategies into the rank and file of its partner community will produce a positive return.