Microsoft’s sales overhaul a year ago has led to all-time high stock price and continuing cloud growth

Key Points
  • Microsoft has been hiring and training people to help it better address key industries, including retail.
  • The company has seen an increase in cloud partners.
Judson Althoff, Microsoft's executive vice president for worldwide commercial business, at Microsoft's 2017 Inspire conference in Washington.

Microsoft has made progress in important ways following changes instituted in its sales organization last year, according to executives there.

Investors seem to like whatever the company has been doing. Microsoft's stock has continued to hit all-time highs in recent weeks, like other tech giants Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Facebook.

And the company is gaining share in arguably its most important market: the public cloud, where it represents the biggest challenge to Amazon Web Services.

"The effects have been that we've had one of our best years ever if you just go through the first three quarters of the year," Gavriella Schuster, the Microsoft corporate vice president in charge of the company's One Commercial Partner group, told CNBC in an interview. She emphasized that Microsoft's Azure cloud achieved 93 percent revenue growth in the most recent quarter.

Microsoft regularly institutes corporate changes in the middle of the year. But this shake-up was "the most significant change in our global sales organization in Microsoft’s history," the company said in its 2017 annual report.

One of the first big developments resulting from the new playbook was news of layoffs affecting thousands of employees. And earlier this month, a few more people were let go.

But other changes were less visible from the outside.

For one thing, Microsoft began to retrain its salespeople — around 10,000 of them, said Judson Althoff, the executive vice president heading up Microsoft's worldwide commercial business group. They doubled down in four areas — modern workplace, business applications, applications and infrastructure, and data and artificial intelligence.

There is less going through PowerPoint presentations, and more digging into products right alongside customers, Althoff said.

Industry focus

Some of the salespeople got new managers. And many customers wound up with better coverage from salespeople who were more familiar with individual industries, Althoff said. Microsoft focused especially on six: education, financial services, government, health, manufacturing and retail. While some local teams have pursued government business in years past, splitting up to go after certain industries was basically a new idea, Althoff said.

Two of those six industries are especially interesting: retail, as that's Amazon's main business, and health, because Amazon has been increasingly active there. The Amazon factor wasn't the primary motivation for executives to choose those sectors, but its influence is still there.

"We do feel like our customers in the retail space are in fact under a tremendous amount of pressure from our No. 1 competitor in the space," Althoff said. "And so you see the notion of us feeling the need to empower those customers and them feeling the need to reinvent themselves. We see mutual alignment against the competition in this case."

But succeeding in different industries might not come easily. One person familiar with the effort said that developing serious industry skills is "a multi-year journey." Still, the person is confident that the reorganization will help the company, particularly in its cloud race against Amazon.

Alongside the re-training efforts, Microsoft also hired about 3,000 people to write code alongside its customers, Althoff said.

"Microsoft has become a destination for some of the strongest talent in the industry," he said, adding that many people have joined from competitors like Amazon, Google and Salesforce. The company has also plucked people out of less obvious sources of technology talent, like banks and hospitals, to succeed in the industry push, he said.

Althoff joined Microsoft from Oracle five years ago, and he was elevated to the top level of leadership in 2016 — with the departure of operating chief Kevin Turner — and given marching orders to build "the sales organization of the future," he said. Within a few months he began developing the new strategy.

The other top leaders, including CEO Satya Nadella and CFO Amy Hood, weighed in. Then a ring of about 80 vice presidents across the company got involved to go over the details. Then about 400 more people inside learned about the plans. Finally, in the first week of July, the memo went out to the thousands of employees in Althoff's organization, along with a webcast of executives highlighting the changes.

Consumption first

The memo didn't make it perfectly clear, but another change in the fiscal year involved how Microsoft's salespeople get paid.

A few years ago Microsoft tried aligning pay with actual use of the services that were being sold to customers. It was "a great success," Althoff said, and so Microsoft broadened the practice. Last year was the first year in which around 80 percent of all compensation was based on consumption, he said.

"We don't actually pay anyone," he said, until customers have used the services they previously made commitments to use.

There are fewer critical metrics for salespeople to try to perform well on, too. There were so many, Althoff said, that people weren't sure what they should focus on.

Partner changes

Microsoft has also established a group that works with customers long after they've agreed to buy — a function called customer success. The idea is to keep users sticking around and getting the most out of products — so they don't leave. Customer success teams are found at many cloud software companies, but Microsoft had simply never formed a group dedicated to the practice, despite the increasing focus on consumption.

The company has also rethought the way it teams up with other companies.

"We took seven different organizations that had significant partner sales teams within them and we brought them into one group," Schuster said. Practically speaking, there's one Microsoft employee working with any given partner, so companies can make investments relevant to everything the partner offers, rather than individual pieces, she said.

And in the past year Microsoft's own salespeople began selling its partners' services, receiving 10 percent of the value of the partner's contract. The initiative has yielded some $5 billion in revenue for partners, Schuster said.

Microsoft now has some 72,000 cloud partners who might offer software on Azure, help move workloads onto Microsoft cloud services or resell those services. That figure is up from around 60,000 last year and around 40,000 the year before that, Schuster said.

And now 95 percent of Microsoft's commercial revenue comes from partners, up from 90 percent a year ago, Schuster said.

The person familiar with the training challenges said the company won't be imposing more major changes in the new fiscal year, which started July 1.

Considered together, Althoff said he's proud of the progress since the reorganization, which he said is perhaps the largest ever in the technology industry.

"If we look at the Fortune 500, I would say to a number our relationships have increased materially with that base," he said. "And we're just getting started."

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