CenturyLink Sets Channel Sights On The Cloud

If CenturyLink is to double its overall percentage of channel revenue within the next five years, it will need the buy-in of both traditional and cloud-centric solution providers interested in a cross-sell approach to network connectivity and hosting solutions.

That won't just happen on its own, so CenturyLink's top priority in 2013 is ensuring its thousands of partners have more enablement and support than ever for a broader range of products and services, according to Blake Wetzel, vice president of sales for CenturyLink's Channel Alliance.

"Our entire organization is set up to enable the legacy telco partner," Wetzel told CRN in an interview at CenturyLink's Alliance Expo in Denver last week. "We want to have a logical amount of growth across the entire portfolio, because there's tons of market to get at here."

[Related: 10 Networking Predictions For 2013 ]

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The Monroe, La.-based company, now the country's third-largest telco, has spent the past few years digesting three game-changer acquisitions: Embarq in 2009 and Qwest and Savvis in 2011. Compared to other cloud and telecom companies, executives said, CenturyLink's breadth and depth with cloud solutions -- from managed hosting to Web consulting, infrastructure, colocation and Web performance management -- is the greatest.

Partners have voiced concerns that so much billion-dollar acquisition combined with both corporate restructuring and channel program retooling have left CenturyLink in constant flux. But according to Wetzel, CenturyLink has a goal to grow its channel revenue percentage from 15 percent to 30 percent in three to five years, as well as to equip partners in areas such as its Savvis hosting business, where only 5 percent of revenue is channel-driven.

CenturyLink has a goal of certifying 1,000 partners, Wetzel said -- 400 have signed on so far -- even though certification itself is not required for the Alliance program. CenturyLink also preserved initiatives such as the former Qwest Million-Dollar Bonus program -- for high-achieving partners growing CenturyLink business by $2 million over a five-year period -- and Savvis' hosting solutions consultants (HSC), which are effectively overlay staff designed to help partners identify and develop new market opportunities.

"Product-plus-channel doesn't necessarily equal success when the product and service are so new and disruptive," Bob Hollander, CenturyLink senior vice president, sales, hosting solutions, told CRN. "You have to light the path to opportunities, otherwise you're wasting everybody's time."

Hollander said CenturyLink will continue to focus on targeted-offer bundles, such as the recently announced SavvisDirect program, and making those resources both repeatable and scalable, depending on the type of CenturyLink partner and the size and nature of the deal it pursues.

NEXT: Helping Partners Cross-Sell, Up-Sell And Strategize

All of those initiatives will help partners cross-sell, bringing cloud and hosting solutions into their networking customers, and vice-versa. The overlap in buying both types of services from CenturyLink isn't even 10 percent in CenturyLink's top 2,000 customers, CenturyLink's Wetzel said, so the cross-sell and up-sell opportunities for the channel are vast.

"The approach we're taking is with a handful of partners, going through their bases and helping them strategize," Wetzel said. "Say they have 200 customers where we'd play; we can find six opportunities with [each of] those they can pursue."

"The education around hybrid [cloud] solutions is so important," added Hollander. "Selling a network is a much different sale than selling hosted. There's a great intersection between the two, but if you only know the network approach, you're not going to get to it."

The convergence of the IT VAR and telecom agent channels has been a hot topic in recent years, particularly as telecom and cable providers seek to recruit regional VARs and get at the customers they serve. CenturyLink, and Qwest before it, always had VAR programs, Wetzel said, but current VAR interest in telecom and cloud services is definitely trending upward.

"A number of the VARs we went to years ago, when Qwest was aggressively going after this community, they said no. Now, they're coming back to us and saying, OK, now we are ready," Wetzel said. "They see what we have is a frictionless product that they can take to the market on a massive scale. You still have to edge them into the [telco] model, but when we start getting three or four large, nationally-known VARs participating, then it becomes not a question of doing it but building the tools to make it work."

"The customer wants a complete solution," added Hollander. "Whereas maybe before the VAR would resell it and provide maintenance, now maybe that [sale] is a custom-built cloud module under a white label agreement. This has to be part of their value prop."

Successful VARs that have made the crossover to telecom agent-style selling have built dedicated practices, sometimes with separate staffs and P&Ls, Wetzel said. But for VARs that can't yet build that practice, CenturyLink offers sales force and staff assistance to its partners with the intent of scaling the business to where VARs can make the investment themselves.

"How this works is by enabling them to be as self-sufficient as possible," Wetzel said. "We're being more thoughtful and logical about that."

NEXT: Master Agents Thumbs-Up CenturyLink's Progress

Master agencies that partner with CenturyLink give the company's overall channel progress a thumbs-up, even as they acknowledged a few continuing speed bumps.

"I think we're most excited about Savvis because that exemplifies where things are now going: the layering of these types of products and services on top of infrastructure, and not just the sort of legacy LEC play," said Vince Bradley, president and CEO of World Telecom Group, Malibu, Calif. "That's what we're going to be evangelizing to our partners non-stop."

Bradley saluted CenturyLink for not rushing to integrate the various channel programs it gained through acquisition. Partners, he said, saw a clear cadence with the blending of the Savvis program last year, which gave the channel an idea of what to expect with future integrations.

"Ultimately they left the legacy programs alone for a while, and we were pretty impressed with that," Bradley said. "A lot of the other carriers would have attacked the integration and tried to mash things together as quickly as possible. And, yes, a lot of agents want things right away, but the mature approach is to take your time. They prioritized Savvis over the legacy programs, which was a smart move."

WTG will be pushing partners to cross-sell, as well, as part of its ongoing "Cloudology" partner training.

"It's really about having business conversations and understanding where your client is having issues and plugging services and technologies into those," said Susan Penevolpe, WTG's vice president of sales. "Partners are so used to being reactive with clients, but if you're not having those conversations proactively, you're leaving the door open for them to find someone else."

Jay Bradley, president of Petaluma, Calif.-based master agent Intelisys, agreed that CenturyLink has done a good job with channel support.

"We believe in CenturyLink," he said. "When you're the 800-pound gorilla in this channel, which CenturyLink is, you're the biggest and baddest in the land, so anytime you make changes, you're going to make people nervous."

Intelisys' Bradley said a lot of the service complaints CenturyLink was experiencing in 2011 and into 2012 have ceased.

"There were a lot of service issues coming out of this meeting last year and that gave the partners some pause," he said. "We don't hear that as much right now, and they appear to be performing well."

Karin Fields, vice president of sales at Marietta, Ga.-based master agent MicroCorp, said CenturyLink could stand to get more of its partner tools out to the field faster, but that overall, communication around channel integration has been strong.

"It does take a while. You're not just going to turn a company of this size on a dime," Fields said. "The Savvis piece was the first, and it went pretty well. It will be interesting to see what happens next with the Embarq side of the house, but they've made sure we understand where things are in the process."

CenturyLink's most recent restructuring, in which it combined its network services business sales and operations teams into a single organization -- effectively merging its enterprise businesses -- will be a positive for the channel, the master agents agreed.

"This time around, with the way things landed, channel seems like it's even more mainstream in the overall management of the company than it was previously," Intelisys' Bradley said. "And you've got people like Blake [Wetzel at CenturyLink], who's done a yeoman's job of fighting the good fight for the channel."