Avaya, Nortel Channels Hope For Smooth Ride With Product Roadmap

Avaya completed its acquisition of Nortel's enterprise business unit on Dec. 18, but a perhaps more significant date awaits it next week. On Jan. 19, Avaya is scheduled to make public a product roadmap that will reveal how much of Nortel's portfolio it will keep and what products it will make available to the newly combined Avaya and Nortel channels.

In a Channelweb.com interview at the time of the acquisition, Avaya's Todd Abbott, senior vice president of sales and president of field operations, suggested the roadmap would be a "complement of both companies' technologies."

Some aspects of the roadmap are already public: Avaya confirmed at its Avaya Americas Partner Conference in October, for example, that it had created a badge in its partner program for Nortel's portfolio of data products. And Avaya has been tireless in pushing Aura, its virtualized unified communications platform, as the de facto method for all future Avaya IP application and UC product deployments going forward.

But starting this week, the entire Avaya and Nortel solution provider channels will get their first in-depth look at the program. Avaya has already briefed a number of channel partners on the roadmap under non-disclosure agreement, but Monday morning, it began hosting Webinar training and onsite visits with Avaya and Nortel partners to get them up to speed on what's in store.

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"All partners were invited to attend a kick-off session [Monday] morning, and all partners have a virtual training event that includes involvement directly from channel account managers," said Carol Giles Neslund, Avaya's vice president of channels, North America. "It's on-demand training they can access, and there are also live ask-the-expert sessions. This is an opportunity for them to sit down with channel account managers and really go through the roadmap and digest it."

Some channel partners -- VARs and distributors alike -- have taken their own lead with making a transition to the integrated Avaya/Nortel product roadmap as smooth as possible.

"In August or September, we put into place our Nortel customer assurance plan, which was designed to give our clients confidence that our Nortel systems would continue to receive the level of support they've come to expect from us," said Mark Neel, manager at Black Box Network Services, a Lawrence, Pa.-based solution provider. "We've got broad technical experience on both Avaya and Nortel. We're coming back up to speed on our Avaya side of the house, but on the Nortel, we had and still have a very large install base."

Neel said he had already been briefed on the plans and declined to reveal specifics, but like most partners interviewed this month said there aren't be big surprises in the roadmap and "educated guesses" will be mostly correct.

"I commend them for putting the roadmap together so quickly," Neel said. "I think the main focus is not to be too disruptive to the Nortel base, and to be aware of the investment they have made. After talking and meeting with the senior leadership team there, I'm relatively convinced that the new team is receptive to channel partners now."

The blending of channels with Nortel -- which will include a number of former Nortel executives joining Avaya in various capacities -- comes at the same time Avaya is professing a change in how it does business in the channel.

Many VARs have told Channelweb.com that since Avaya began to recruit new executives two years ago -- among them CEO Kevin Kennedy and global channel chief Jeremy Butt, as well as Neslund -- it's been more serious about correcting direct-indirect channel conflict and other problems that have dogged its partner program in the past.

"It's been a very different company from what we saw as a competitor and what we now see as a partner," said John Wrona, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Ronco Communications & Electronics, a Tonawanda, N.Y.-based solution provider. "They don't seem to be making any commitments they're not prepared to deliver on. I mean, they didn't spend $900 million to alienate a fan base of customers and have them go shopping, right?"

Ronco, a longtime Nortel partner, was recruited to the Avaya channel program in 2009 as Avaya was reaching out to well-established partners in the Nortel base.

According to Wrona, Ronco will begin a series of roadshows for customers starting on Jan. 21, offering seminars to existing Nortel customers in 18 cities along the East Coast.

"I don't think there's going to be enough deep dive," Ronco said of the Webinar that Avaya is offering. "There's going to be a lot of information, but what we can do is provide a little bit more intimacy and hands-on training, with examples and whiteboarding. We want it to be a full court press. We don't want to give anyone any reason to look around."

Avaya will launch a series of its own roadshows following this week's training and next week's product roadmap announcement. It's also, according to Neslund, "buddied up" its Avaya and Nortel channel executives so each can learn from the other faster.

She added that Avaya has been in contact with Nortel VARs that haven't yet joined Avaya's program.

"If I were a partner, the one thing you don't want to have happen is you don't want things to slow down," Neslund said. "Nortel partners have had a really tough year, and we want to get them back out there selling as soon as possible. I have not had a phone call yet from anyone telling me they're dropping this line."

Avaya has insisted all VARs participating in this week's Avaya-Nortel training sign non-disclosure agreements. Neslund didn't say what would happen to VARs who violate the agreement, but added he is "confident they won't."

"They understand the importance of keeping this information confidential," she said. "We're making a bit bet, and I'm counting on their professionalism and leadership so we can help them best.

"We're being very aggressive and striving to not be one of those companies that stumbles on the full roadmap," Neslund added. "I've seen that happen before."

Next: Distributors Mount Up

Distributor relationships are another big question facing Avaya's new blended channel. Two of its longtime distributor partners, Westcon Group and ScanSource, are both launching aggressive partner training programs around the new product roadmaps.

As for other Nortel distributors -- including Tech Data and Ingram Micro in North America -- Avaya's Abbott confirmed in December that Avaya is reviewing relationships and that distribution of Nortel product would continue, for the moment, in existing channels. The company plans to confirm which distributors it will continue to use on March 30.

Westcon Group, which carries both Avaya and Nortel, is among distributors that began developing resources for a possible combined channel as early as Avaya's July 2009 stalking horse bid for Nortel's enterprise business.

Its Avaya portal, for example, is already enabled for Nortel resellers and will be updated, according to Westcon, as soon as the product roadmap goes live. On Monday, Westcon announced a series of Avaya-Nortel bootcamps for VARs in the U.S. and Canada.

It's Nortel resellers that are learning the Avaya product line for the first time, and vice versa, said Westcon Group's Steve Bernard, that have been coming to Westcon's training sessions with the most questions. Westcon was scheduled to be briefed on the new product roadmap this month, but even before then, Bernard said, the distributor was "hedging its bets" and focusing on bringing both sets of resellers up to speed on each line.

"As much as you'd like to think you know everything about your competitor, having someone from Avaya join us has helped them understand the value of the product," said Bernard, vice president of Westcon Group North America. "We didn't look at it as, this product will go forward and this product will not. We will also be able to guarantee that both of our inside teams will be sales certified on both lines. That's already been in progress."

Bernard suggested the integrated channels would help Avaya have more of a global presence, and also deepen its opportunities in areas like the federal government where Nortel is a force. He said he hadn't been briefed on future Avaya distribution relationships but wasn't too worried, either.

"We're the only Avaya distributor that has authorizations across the entire portfolio in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, and we have Nortel authorization in every region, so I'd be lying to you if I said we didn't want to know," Bernard said. "But Avaya has been clear to us that they would prefer to have distributors that are keenly focused. They understand our global capabilities."

ScanSource's Catalyst Telecom, for its part, started last fall to prepare solution guides on ScanSource's Avaya portfolio and offered them to Nortel solution providers. It followed up with a Catalyst Telecom/Avaya landing page after the Avaya-Nortel transaction closed, and it too is planning a number of instructional roadshows starting Jan. 25.

"It's important they [VARs] learn how to position this with end user customers," said John Black president of Catalyst Telecom. "We've had success recruiting some of the larger Nortel resellers, and we've been transitioning them from even a year ago, getting them ramped on the Avaya line."

Much of the burden in blending channels, ScanSource executives argued, will be relieved by Avaya's Aura platform, which can make for easy migration from legacy systems and help customers with aging environments gain unified communications solutions without rip-and-replace.

"Aura has lent itself to acquisition really well," said Chris Marlar, director of merchandising at Catalyst Telecom. "Aura itself is really a migration platform for Nortel, or Cisco, and others, thanks to how it's a SIP- and presence-based offering. It's going to be a key part of the roadmap going forward, and that was being developed and deployed even before they had the stalking horse."

Black said ScanSource hadn't been briefed on Avaya's future distribution plans, either.

"I don't think they're going to increase it [the number of distributors], but they haven't told us whether they're going to reduce it," Black said. "We're supposed to get an indication on March 30."

Overall, Black and Marlar agreed, the merger of channels could prove great for both Avaya and Nortel partners.

"The sooner they can get on message on realize they don't have to compete against each other, they've eliminated one competitor," Marlar said.

Expect acquisitions and lots of partnering between Avaya and Nortel VARs, Black added.

"Common sense says users are going to buy legacy products on both sides for a while," he said. "It'll take time to evolve. What you're going to see next is a lot of partnerships, some acquisitions and even some resellers bringing on specialists from other resellers."