IT consultancies must establish healthy relationships with key vendors; unfortunately, there’s more to the dance than just letting hardware or software sales representatives occasionally take you to lunch. Consultancies share responsibility for forging vibrant vendor relationships, and an IT shop’s Microsoft relationship sits at the pinnacle of importance. Microsoft, after all, dominates the server and desktop operating system market, as well as the office productivity suite space.

You can maximize your IT consultancy’s relationship with Microsoft by following these tenets:

Register as a partner

Many IT consultants fail to even register as a Microsoft partner. By registering with Microsoft, IT firms begin the process of improving their relationships with the software manufacturer.

Subscribe to software services

Microsoft offers consultants a wide range of software subscription services. From the Microsoft Action Pack Subscription (which provides registered members with low-cost, internal-use, full version software across a line of Microsoft technologies) to Microsoft Developer Network subscriptions (which provide developers with everything from pre-release products to mainline software platforms), consultants receive cost-efficient access to an incredible range of not-for-resale operating systems, applications, and other products that prove critical to testing, development, and training.

Develop core competencies

Some consultancies struggle at developing core competencies. Microsoft’s Partner Program portal lists more than a dozen competencies. Better yet, Microsoft’s partner site lists recommendations for achieving success within those competencies. Among the solution areas Microsoft maintains are business intelligence, data management, hosting, information worker, networking infrastructure, hardware, and security.

However, organizations can only tap these tools to drive their efforts if they log on to the partner portal, review the track recommendations, and pursue the recommended steps. Make sure you don’t make the mistake of registering as a partner, reviewing the site, and then failing to follow up or take advantage of the available resources.

Attend training events

Microsoft regularly conducts training events that cover a variety of topics. Consultancies should make it a priority for staff to attend these events as part of a larger, integrated training strategy. More important, when attending these events, employees should introduce themselves to the Microsoft staff managing and presenting the event. If the consultancy staff has questions or needs assistance, Microsoft staff can share their expertise or pass along their queries to the appropriate Microsoft contact.

Pursue certifications

One of the best ways to develop expertise and forge stronger ties with any vendor is to participate within its certification program. Microsoft is no exception. Microsoft’s Partner Program awards Partner Points to organizations that earn certifications. Partnership levels increase as partners obtain points, growing from Registered Member status to Certified Partner and ultimately Gold Certified Partner status. As additional levels are achieved, consultancies receive access to additional tools, resources, and marketing materials to further drive growth.

Leverage marketing and sales materials

Partners benefit from Microsoft’s considerable marketing talent. Microsoft’s Partner Program makes available a number of sales ads, brochures, cost benefit studies, and numerous other professionally prepared materials to assist pre-sales, sales, and deployment and installation efforts. But only the partners who take the time and initiative to obtain, access, and utilize these materials benefit.

Participate within community efforts

Microsoft maintains a wealth of community efforts. From business networking to technical support forums, its online forums (including TechNet) are among the most vibrant and beneficial on the Web. Partner Labs is available for consultants seeking to participate in beta testing efforts. Get involved and stay involved.

Call for help

When all else fails, leverage Microsoft’s partner initiative to contact a knowledgeable agent or even Microsoft’s technical representatives. Depending upon partner status, consultancies can contact technical specialists by telephone, online, or via email for technical, design, and deployment support. Community-powered break-fix support is also available, but only to those partners who leverage the opportunity by taking the time to actively participate.

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