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Attendees at a Cisco Partner Executive Exchange (CPEE) meeting in early October -- the first presided over by new Cisco Senior Vice President, Worldwide Partner Organization Bruce Klein -- said Cisco’s slimming down and partner enablement are a work in progress, but that it had been years since they’d seen this type of focus on partners at the field level.
Not only is Cisco is engaging better, but it's also taking administrative headaches out of things at a transaction level, such as a newer initiative, talked up at CPEE, to simplify the licensing of Cisco software to basic categories and user-based pricing instead of the massive, SKU-based pricing catalog available now.
"My impression from them was steady as she goes. It's been very encouraging that they can be a stable and supportive entity," said Harry Zarek, president and CEO of Compugen, a Richmond Hill, Ontario-based Cisco Gold partner. "As long as we're communicating both ways there's lots of opportunity for business growth."
Whether it's newer programs under Cisco's global Partner-Led initiative -- including the rebates and resources in its Partner Plus program for midmarket enablement -- or taking a more consultative approach vs. a top-down approach to helping partners, the biggest difference partners see in Cisco is a simpler, more focused business relationship: easier approvals, streamlined programs, meeting partners halfway.
"Some of the changes they've made are paying off," said Michael Gleason, managing director of Cherry Valley, Ill.-based Global Enterprise Technologies, a Cisco Gold partner. "We spend a lot of time in the midmarket space, so Partner Plus is a way for them to recognize there's white space there and then empower their partners around sales and marketing. I think the biggest difference is that they're being more consultative: what resources do we need, and how can they be a lot more tactical and strategic."
"I've seen them put a lot of investment into vertical markets and training -- and it's the right resources to understand the challenges in industries like health care," said Jessica Mayo-Pike, business development leader, advanced solutions for IPLogic, a Latham, N.Y.-based Cisco Gold partner. "The big difference now is that they're more active about being a resource to channel partners. We've seen much more emphasis on granular details and making sure they're helping us."
Cisco's distributors -- a less-heralded source of strength for the networking king -- are also seeing major benefits. As Cisco restructured its legions of channel account managers, for example, it pared down the number of partners assigned to individual reps -- from 50 to 20, in many cases -- and handed much of the field-level support over to distributors like Tech Data.
A move like that had potential to be a relationship-shattering disaster, but Cisco deftly managed the transition, said Angie Beltz, vice president, Cisco Solutions Group. Now, Tech Data gets a higher touch relationship with many more Cisco partners, Cisco reps have an easier time providing attention to their partners, and everyone sees fewer management layers and administrative headaches.
"There was some frustration over that at first but we quickly got to a point where no one has complained," Beltz told CRN. "You really do see a difference in Cisco's focus now and a lot more field-level emphasis on partnering."
As to whether Cisco can withstand the competition, solution providers applaud the ecosystem approach the company is taking, where it compartmentalizes the relationships it has with, say, EMC or VMware or IBM, in terms of compete one day, cooperate another.
"Cisco is dealing with so many different technologies now," said Sudhir Verma, vice president, consulting services at Force 3, a Crofton, Md.-based Cisco Gold partner and federal government integrator. "One day, you're a parent company, tight with someone, and on the next, you're competing on a different product line. That ecosystem approach is not going to change. So as a VAR, that's where you really add value for the end customer: you keep them away from those politics, you manage the relationships, and make sure it doesn't trickle down to them."