Office 365 Master Class

Channel pros share their 15 best techniques, tips, and tricks for selling, implementing, customizing, and managing the cloud version of Microsoft’s premier productivity suite. By Lauren Gibbons Paul

Cloud offerings are now part of just about any channel partner's bag of tricks, and for good reason. Cloud reduces up-front costs for customers, shifting the burden of maintaining the IT infrastructure to the cloud provider. For Microsoft partners, Office 365 is the cloud.

In the two-plus years since the debut of Office 365, channel partners that got in at the beginning have learned a lot about how to sell the cloud-based suite to small and midsize businesses. So without further ado, here are their 15 top tips:

1. Hammer the cloud value proposition. For SMBs, the message is clear and compelling: Cloud will get you out of the IT business so you can focus on your company's core capabilities. Sean McNeill, cloud services specialist at Austin, Texas-based Catapult Systems LLC, advises that you say, "Let Microsoft manage the technology for you. Focus your business on what you do best, not on the IT infrastructure. Enable your company to grow and [concentrate] on its value add."

Customers needing upgrades "... are the easiest to sell to. You know ... what versions of software they are running. If they are not current, it's an easy conversation to start with." Ro Kolakowski, Founder, 6th
Street Consulting

2. Target clients with the clearest need for cloud. At any given time, a certain percentage of your customer base needs to upgrade its technology, which is a natural time for them to start looking at the cloud. Ro Kolakowski, founder of 6th Street Consulting in Redondo Beach, Calif., suggests starting with your existing customer base. "They are the easiest to sell to," says Kolakowski. "You know their upgrade cycles, what versions of software they are running. If they are not current, it's an easy conversation to start with." 6th Street got its start in the cloud with Microsoft's then BPOS suite, the precursor to Office 365, and cloud now accounts for 25 to 35 percent of its revenues.

Companies that have experienced recent high growth are also likely ripe for the picking, he adds. "They have outgrown their system and they need to move to bigger systems. What works for 50 people doesn't work for 150 people." Office 365 is a natural fit for most of these clients.

3. Find the right use cases (think "collaboration"). Related to the last point, pinpoint customers whose businesses rely on employees being able to share content quickly and efficiently. "Look for a business that depends heavily on moving documents around in a timely way," says Brett Hill, senior technical marketing engineer for San Francisco-based Riverbed Technology. Hill also maintains a website called Office365Answers.com. "Office 365 is very useful for collaboration. [Users] can post documents to SharePoint Online and they are available immediately."

Look for sweet-spot use cases, Hill advises, such as field engineers or salespeople who need to send forms back to the office every day. "[SharePoint Online] is a great fit when you have a distributed field force. The data they are sending needs to be centralized in a timely way. They can send it in, SharePoint can kick off a workflow, and it can all be automated," says Hill.

Collaboration now tops the list of cloud conversation starters. Companies looking to dip a toe into the cloud waters used to start by asking about email, says McNeill. Now, however, they are looking to move SharePoint into the cloud. "SharePoint Online [part of Wave 15, the current release of Office 365] is built to work in a hosted environment. It has so many functions and features that are useful," he says.

For example, SkyDrive Pro is the new iteration of MySite, a place for individual users to store up to 25 gigabytes' worth of documents and other types of content. "Now it's very seamless to the end users to synchronize their SkyDrive Pro with multiple devices and also to synchronize other document libraries online. It has very robust offline access to documents because they are synced and cached," says McNeill.

4. Steer clear of clients whose workflows are not a good fit. Office 365 won't be right for everyone, says Hill, such as a company that regularly does commercial mass mailings. "Exchange Online is not good for broadcasting out. The tools for managing memberships in groups are not the best. Exchange Online was not designed with that in mind," says Hill. With the on-premises version of Exchange, it is significantly simpler to do this kind of mailing. "You don't have licensing issues. It has throttles built in," he adds. "For the mass-mail market, you really need your own server."

5. Understand differences in feature sets between online and on-premises versions. Clients often express concern that the features they rely upon in Office won't be available-or won't work exactly the same way-in Office 365. That can be a legitimate concern, says Kolakowski. For email capabilities, the cloud and noncloud versions are virtually interchangeable, he says. But for something like SharePoint, you can't deploy custom code on SharePoint Online to the same degree as you could on premises due to the multitenant cloud environment. Also, SharePoint Online does not integrate with on-premises Active Directory, he says, which can cause problems for certain clients.

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