Selling Microsoft hasn’t been easy. Just ask the 25,000 people who pitch the complex array of products and services that the company sells to customers across the globe. Those sellers used to wade through more than 30 homegrown applications to get their jobs done, often spending more time filling out forms and cross referencing tools than talking to customers.
“We needed to modernize our toolset,” says Kim Kunes, who leads the Microsoft Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO) team that provides the tools and experiences that the sales and marketing organizations use to sell the company’s wares. “We needed to turn what had been our sellers’ biggest headache into an asset that would help them flourish in a connected, cloud world.”
A complete overhaul of the company’s tools and processes is fully underway, says Kunes, but it’s not complete.
“We’ve winnowed a disconnected, heavily seamed group of tools down to a core group of critical experiences connected in ways that make sense for our sellers and marketers, but there is still work to do,” she says. “We’re in year two of a multiyear journey to revamp our sellers’ toolset.”
Kunes says her team, like all of CSEO, is shifting its focus from working for internal partners in a traditional IT manner to building experiences in partnership with the business that make sense for users. In this case, those users are the heart and soul of the company’s revenue-generating selling community.
“Now, just like any other product team at Microsoft, we operate with a baseline budget that funds a group of FTE (full-time employee) engineers and a continuous prioritization and planning process to deliver functionality most critical to our users and businesses,” she says. “Now we’re thinking, ‘What should the seller experience be from start to finish? Are we doing everything we can to make their experience as seamless as possible?’”
This transformation has CSEO’s Commercial Sales and Marketing Engineering Team working in new ways. It’s centralizing and standardizing the many channels of feedback and data to derive a picture of users’ unmet, unarticulated needs. The shift is built around a new focus on how CSEO approaches customer research. It’s adopting a fluent, modern look and feel that’s consistent with how the rest of the Microsoft is approaching design. It’s using DevOps and other agile engineering principles that truly keep the team focused on the user’s end-to-end experience as it moves, fast and flexibly.
“All of our sellers’ regular tasks need to be in one place and arranged so that it’s efficient and virtually seamless to flow through them,” Kunes says. “Everything has to be intuitive. There should be no big learning curves. They shouldn’t have to figure out how to use a new application every time they want to get something done.”
This laser focus on the customer experience has required the team to think and work differently.
“I’ve seen our team’s culture shift,” Kunes says. “In the past we were focused on incremental improvements to make the process and tools better. Now we’re thinking bigger. For example, we’re beginning to use AI and machine learning to curate the gold mine of valuable data we have to surface critical next best action insights to our sellers and marketers.”
This transformation is driving results that are paying dividends, says Siew Hoon Goh, the Microsoft director of sales excellence in charge of making sure the tools and experience that CSEO is building meet the needs of the company’s digital sales force.
“Our sellers do recognize that there has been lots of progress,” Goh says. “Technology is one of the best enablers for us to scale to bigger and better things and increased revenue for the company.”
Microsoft’s umbrella tool for sales is Microsoft Sales Experience. Known as MSX, it’s an integrated solution built on Dynamics 365, Microsoft Azure products, Office 365 productivity and collaboration services, and Power BI. In July, MSX was upgraded to the new modern Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Sales user experience. It includes a simplified user experience and integration into LinkedIn, Microsoft Teams, and several internal tools.
“Our MSX instance is one of the largest implementations of Dynamics 365 in the company,” says Ismail Mohammed, a principal program manager on the CSEO team working to make life better for the company’s sales field. “Ultimately, we want to make our tools more intuitive and help our sellers get their time back so they can focus more of their time on selling.”
MSX is the gateway to several important seller experiences that you’ll read about here:
- Portal, a second generation of MSX meant to be a true single pane of glass for sellers to work from
- Account Based Marketing, a transformed approach to sifting through marketing sales leads to find the ones that are worth pursuing
- Daily Recommender, a machine learning-based discovery engine that advises sellers on the specific leads they should pursue next
- Account 360, an aggregated view of customer content that helps sellers find the right customer information before they reach out to leads
Charting the evolution of MSX
When MSX launched in 2015, it replaced eight on-premises instances of Dynamics CRM 2011, each of which was highly customized and complex. Built on Azure Cloud Services, MSX brought all those experiences into one cloud-based platform.
Though it was a big improvement, it was still just a beginning.
“For perspective, MSX started out as a collection of links,” Kunes says. “It was nice to have a place where you could get to everything, but it really wasn’t the seamless, single-pane-of-glass experience that we are working toward.”
The team has continued to refine MSX, pushing hard to evolve it into an experience in which sellers feel more productive. They felt less so when they pieced their sales story together with their own offline Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint decks, and secret contact lists (the latter of which are no longer allowed anyway, because of GDPR, or General Data Protection Regulation).
The original MSX solution is gradually making way for MSX Portal, a new, transformative experience that is being rolled out to the company’s sellers role by role, says Steffie Hofmann, CSEO’s lead MSX Portal program manager. MSX Portal debuted in February, when the experience was provided to the company’s customer-success managers, a specialized sales role at Microsoft.
MSX Portal helps sellers figure out what the next best action they can take. They get suggestions on their homepage and in context-driven ways within their workflow.
“Each time we ship MSX Portal to a new group of sellers, the experience improves dramatically,” Hofmann says. “They no longer have to leave the tool to get their work done.”
The goal has long been to have MSX provide sellers everything they need as they reach out to customers to sell the company on a daily basis , says Steve Thomas, CSEO’s lead software engineering manager for MSX Portal.
“We built MSX Portal with the idea of making it a great place for our sellers to start their day, to get their work done,” Thomas says. “We wanted to get past the notion that it was something they had to work around.”
The rollout of MSX Portal is expected to be complete by the end of the 2019 calendar year.
Sifting through the noise
Sales leads pour into a company the size of Microsoft from all directions, at massive scale. After their interest gets piqued by the company’s wide-ranging marketing efforts, leaders at other businesses watch webinars and make decisions:
- Should CIOs invest in Microsoft’s stack?
- Should CEOs ask Microsoft to see how the company can help them digitally transform?
- Should IT pros ask for Microsoft’s help via product websites and customer-service lines and at conferences?
All those many thousands of leads get funneled into the Microsoft Global Demand Center.
“Before we move a lead to one of our sellers, we nurture them in the Global Demand Center,” says Prabhu Jayaraman, a group engineering manager who helps lead CSEO’s marketing effort. “They don’t go to our sellers right away—first we need to make sure our leads are high quality and have a high propensity to result in wins before we transfer them.”
It used to be that all those marketing-driven leads would get dumped on sellers, tossed over the fence with little vetting or insight.
“Sellers would look at these queues, they’d see 25 pages of leads, and randomly say, ‘This looks interesting, let me go talk to them,’” Jayaraman says. “The problem was the lead they picked out of the 10,000 options might not be the next best lead to pick.”
To help sellers get to the right lead, Microsoft adopted a new approach to how it markets to larger customers by infusing AI into its Account Based Marketing (ABM) program. “ABM is not a tool, it’s a concept,” Jayaraman says. “It’s about stitching these opportunities together in ways that make sense—when one company contacts us in five different ways, we will connect those together into one opportunity.” To Vinh Nguyen, ABM is about bringing marketing and sales closer together—something it does by weaving relevant contacts and insights together in ways that help sellers be more effective.
“It may sound simple, but it hasn’t been,” says Nguyen, the senior program manager leading CSEO’s efforts around Account Based Marketing. “We’re trying to use machine learning and automation to optimize when sellers should engage with a customer on products that their employees have shown interest in.” The team has been working for more than a year on getting it right. “We’re using Marketo marketing software to listen to our customer interaction signals,” Nguyen says. “When signals come into the Global Demand Center, we feed them into our machine-learning models.” Those ML model-fueled recommendations are fed into the Daily Recommender, where sellers use them to decide which leads to pursue on a daily basis.
Finding the best leads with Daily Recommender
Until recently, Microsoft’s most successful sellers were those best at finding gold nuggets of customer information hidden in the company’s many sales tools. That was when star sellers were known for maintaining their own offline databases and sales pitches more than they were for building close relationships with customers.
“Why should our most successful sellers be the ones who are the best at navigating complex systems?” Kunes says. “Why shouldn’t success be about having intelligent, human connections with customers?”
This culture was fed by the fact that the company’s sales strategy was built around educated guesswork—each quarter, SWAT team-like groups of sellers would gather, discuss the indicators that each of them were seeing, talk it out, and use that war-room discussion to set sales targets for the upcoming quarter.
All of this made selling more art than science.
The team looked to change that when it developed Daily Recommender, a machine-learning tool that makes individualized recommendations for each seller, says Hyma Davuluri, principal program manager in CSEO.
“With Daily Recommender, we’re pushing the envelope on using AI to influence large-scale selling at Microsoft,” Davuluri says. “It’s also helping us accelerate our digital transformation journey across the company’s sales organization.”
Launched three years ago, Daily Recommender has been rolled out to about 1,000 sellers and, as it has learned and matured, is starting to show very promising results. So says Salman Mukhtar, the director of business programs who leads the selling community’s use of Daily Recommender.
“It’s Microsoft using Microsoft,” Mukhtar says. “We’re using SQL Server, Azure Fabric, Azure Machine Learning—we’re using a lot of our own technology together and connecting it on top of Dynamics.”
Microsoft started small with the intent to prove the value of an AI-enabled discovery engine that would improve targeting of new business while reducing the preparation efforts by sellers. So far, the results have been promising—one in four recommendations pursued by sellers result in a customer opportunity or engagement.
“Machine-to-human AI requires a mindset change,” Mukhtar says. “It requires legacy processes to be enhanced and new habits to be formed across the sales force.”
For example, sellers must give up their personalized Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint decks. “The sponsors and developers of our legacy toolkits and processes need to be bold and decommission where necessary,” he says.
The needed changes are happening but are not complete yet.
“Digital transformation is a journey—for us it involves data, tools, processes, and people all enabled by AI,” Mukhtar says. “We are scaling up our enablement efforts to transform Daily Recommender into the primary discovery engine for the business.”
Account 360 stitches the customer story together
Historically, it has been a challenge for sellers, as they reach out, to understand what relationship a customer has with Microsoft.
“The key challenge for sellers was to gather consistent insights in order to have a productive conversation,” says Alioscha Leon, CSEO’s program manager for Account 360, a new MSX sales tool that seeks to stamp out that legacy of opaqueness. “They would have to go to several tools with different interfaces and search functionality in order to get the information required to have a productive conversation, and there still was no guarantee that they were getting the full picture.”
To change that, CSEO rolled out Account 360 in May 2019.
It was introduced in beta form to an initial wave of sellers from Microsoft Inside Sales. Built into MSX Portal, it aggregates multiple tools into one, with a consistent user interface, giving sellers a comprehensive view of their customers. More than 1,300 sellers volunteered to try out the tool, exceeding the goal of 800.
“We allow sellers to very quickly prepare for an interaction with a customer,” Leon says. “We’re making it easy for them to have relevant conversations without having to do huge amounts of research, increasing the seller productivity and interaction quality.”
Account 360 allows sellers to see Microsoft’s agreements across modern and legacy systems, revenue across products, marketing interactions, partner association, and account profiles. It also shows what opportunities and leads are already being pursued, and what products and services the customer is already consuming. The insights are available and delivered in a fast and consistent manner, using an interface tailor made for sellers.
The goal is for the sellers to get all the info they need to enable a productive customer interaction in the Account 360 interface. But if they need to go deeper, a linking strategy allows them to navigate to additional resources.
A first version of Account 360 went live in July for all seller audiences. “We continue to have exponential growth in both monthly and weekly unique users, with 3,000 unique monthly users and a run rate of 1,300 weekly unique users in August,” Leon says.
Dynamics 365 is the backbone of selling at Microsoft
MSX’s heavy use of the Dynamics 365 platform is very helpful, says Linda Simovic, principal group program manager for the Dynamics 365 product group.
“I think the way we’re drinking our own champagne inside the company is amazing,” Simovic says. “With 25,000 sellers or more in the company, it gives us a lot of great ways to test out our products and services.”
Showcasing the way Microsoft uses Dynamics 365 products also helps other companies understand what they can do with the platform, she says.
Simovic says the Dynamics team continuously talks with the Microsoft selling community and CSEO, weaving their steady stream of feedback into Dynamics 365 as fully and quickly as possible.
“We actually say to the MSX team, ‘We’re thinking about building this—what do you think?’” she says. “We want them to use it and to let us know if it works. It’s a litmus test to see if what we’re thinking is a good idea or not.”
The recent decision to upgrade MSX to the latest version of Dynamics 365 helps with this—now the CSEO team can try out new features as soon as they’re ready for testing.
“We want to be able to cover their needs out of the box as much as possible,” Simovic says. “The better we can support the company’s complex sales motion, the better we can support our external customers.”
Mohammed agrees, calling out how the two teams have worked together to bring new enterprise-level capabilities into Dynamics 365.
In fact, he says, the teams are working so closely together that in some cases the CSEO Commercial Sales and Marketing Engineering Team is co-developing directly with the Dynamics team to add features that the sales teams need.
“That’s a big change from our historical approach of building in-house bridge software,” Mohammed says. “This is a pretty major leap forward for us—we’re working hand-in-hand with the product group to build new capabilities for customers.”
For Kunes and her CSEO team, the successful partnership with Dynamics is just one more signal that their new, transformed approach to supporting the company’s complex sales motion is working.
“We’ve laid the groundwork for us to finally get this right for our sellers,” Kunes says. “Now we just need to go finish what we started. It’s an exciting time to be working on this team.”