Revamped Cisco channel affects VOIP installs

Last year, Cisco revamped its channel partner certification programs in an effort to get the VARs and integrators — through which Cisco sells 80 percent of its products — to become more competent in such advanced technologies as IP telephony and voice, wireless and security. The change required partners to specialize in certain technology areas, such as VOIP or WLANs, as opposed to Cisco integrators who just resold, installed and supported the vendor’s whole product menu.

A year after this program was launched, Edison Peres, vice president of worldwide channels at Cisco, talked with Network World about the state of expertise and certification in its channel. The following is an edited transcript.

How is the revamped channel partner program being received in the market?

A year after we made that announcement, about 60 percent of all certified partners around the world have already converted over and recertified under new criteria.

When Cisco first began selling VOIP products widely, some users and analysts said channel partners installing VOIP were not as competent as they should be. Have the changes made last year affected this?

To be honest with you, we’re assuming that we’re getting increased productivity out of our channel partners [installing VOIP]. Our TAC call volume is at the same level as it was a year ago, but the volumes of products installed and new customers are increasing at a very high rate. Advanced technologies are growing at about 30 percent. What we’re seeing is that call volumes are continuing at same pace, which, I think, points to greater productivity from our partners.

Interestingly, when we last measured, our customer satisfaction through our partner community has outpaced satisfaction coming from customers who do direct business with Cisco; these would be only the largest enterprises. Last year was the first time that that we crossed that line, where partner community was outpacing what do on a direct basis. We see it as a positive signal.

How have resellers and installers of Cisco data gear — your traditional partners — adapted to selling such technologies as VOIP?

We’re five years into selling Unified Communications and voice. In the beginning, we had the data world and the voice worlds, in terms of channel support, and the integration was rough at first. Over time, we’ve made changes to configuration tools, and architectural concepts to make sure partners were designing customer networks the proper way.

How has Cisco’s relationship with its channel partners changed over the years as the company expands into more technology areas beyond switching and routing?

One of things we did about five or six years ago in the partner program was we changed our philosophy about how to do business with partners. We went from being a volume-based program to a value-based program. Most manufacturers give more discounts and benefits based on the more volume you move.

Now the value of the partner is determined by the number of by degrees you have, or specializations. By going to school, the thought is you get higher degrees of certification, and the more committed you are to Cisco. That led to a higher status in terms of the certification program. It has nothing to do with volume. You could just as easily have a $1 billion premier partner and a $1 gold partner.

How do some of Cisco’s emerging technologies get into the sales channels to reach customers?

We have to determine if a new technology is for open distribution, where we’ll make the product make available to everyone. Or we require partners to have a specialization or take a course to have access to it. Voice is a restricted product. Unless you pass certain exams, you don’t get access to the products.

In our emerging technology areas, the products are geared toward early adopters, and we need for partners to be very skilled in the technology. We designate those kinds of products to authorized tech provider (ATP). We’ll take a new technology and put it thorough that program and restrict the product flow only to partners in that program. This is only in areas where the product is new, or demand is not so strong yet. We did that with our telepresence technology. Another technology in that area is IPICS. Also, with storage products, we want to manage distribution of those, and how those are installed so they also fall under ATP. Call centers, and very high-end contact center solutions are also put through that program. We’ve very deliberate in deciding how aggressively open or restrictive we are with these new technologies.

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