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Partners: Three Wishes for Cisco

To hear many solution providers tell it, Cisco Systems is in a pretty good place. That said, there's always room for improvement.

As partners gear up for this week's Cisco Partner Summit in Las Vegas -- an annual event that this year is expected to draw 2,500 solution providers from around the world -- many of them say their relationships with the networking vendor are strong. Partner profits are up, driven by strong sales of VoIP solutions, as well as the rebates and incentives Cisco has put in place to help drive those sales. The company has also been loudly banging the unified communications drum, pulling in pieces such as its TelePresence line of high-definition videoconferencing wares and its planned acquisition later this year of WebEx Communications, moves that broaden the portfolio channel partners can pull from when building solutions.

Nevertheless, partners see room for improvement. As the San Jose, Calif.-based company prepares to fire up its partner base and galvanize its channel strategy for the rest of the year, here are a few things solution providers hope make Cisco's to-do list.

1. More Products for Small Businesses

Cisco for the past several years has made a concerted effort to bring more SMB-focused products to market, a strategy solution providers said has paid off. That's why they want to see the company continue to drive its portfolio downward, not just in the much-vaunted VoIP and unified communications markets -- where rival Microsoft has already planted a stake with the unveiling of a small business IP-PBX code named Response Point -- but in other product lines such as networking and security as well.

"I still think there's room for them at the low end of the market for some of their other security products, like firewall, VPN and content filtering," said Martin Gendell, principal at Apogee Technology Services, a Cisco Registered partner in Alexandria, Va., that doubled its Cisco business last year.

Gendell said he'd be able to close even more sales for Cisco if the company offered security products targeted "somewhere below 100 [users] or even below 50, where companies like SonicWall have a real attractive solution ... There just doesn't seem to be a solution as competitively priced from Cisco."

2. More Market-Development and Training Funds Now

Gia McNutt, CEO of Special Order Systems (SOS), a Rocklin, Calif.-based Premier partner, said her partnership with Cisco "is stronger than ever." But, she adds, still not perfect. While Cisco has added more field coverage as part of its partner enablement efforts, the addition of more funding for market development and training looks to be farther out. "What we've heard from [Cisco Chairman and CEO] John Chambers is that the funding won't improve until next fiscal year," McNutt said, which means Cisco's fiscal year 2008, starting at the end of July 2007. As McNutt points out, that's more than half way through SOS's year, making planning difficult, which is why she and other partners like her would like to see the funding flow sooner.

In the mean time, SOS spent about $200,000 in marketing last year but could only get $7,500 out of Cisco. Funds for marketing and training are key for Cisco partners, especially those out there paving the way for new unified communications solutions, she said.

3. Clarification on Requirements for Specialization

At last year's Partner Summit, Cisco rolled out a new channel strategy that included a new tiered technology specialization program. The vendor gave partners until March 2008 to train and certify themselves on the new requirements. But partners say the new program has yet to jell, with Cisco already making tweaks to the requirements. One change that Cisco has pledged to reconsider is a ban on role-sharing, which raised strong complaints from some partners. The debut of that rule last year means that each sales and technical role within a partner organization has to be filled by a separate, dedicated individual.

The end result is that partners like CXtec, a Cisco Silver partner, are awaiting final word on what the requirements are. "They just have to be clear," said Frank Kobuszewski, vice president of the technology solutions group at the Syracuse, N.Y.-based company. CXtec, for example, was eager to earn the new specializations to support its growing Cisco business, which is "doing exceptionally well," he said. CXtec had already adapted the career paths of several employees to meet the new requirements when some of them changed after the fact, he said. "I think the new direction [of the specialization program] is fine. I just don't know how effectively it was communicated."

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