Juniper Channel Chief: Why We Are 'Deliberately Dependent' On Partners

2013 has been a busy year for the Juniper Networks channel. In addition to navigating a number of high-level executive changes -- not the least of which is the planned retirement of Juniper CEO Kevin Johnson -- Juniper partners are still wrapping their arms around technologies such as software-defined networking and the cloud and wrestling with the business model changes those technologies demand.

That's why Chris Jones, Juniper's recently appointed vice president of Americas partner sales, sat down recently with CRN to shed some light on Juniper's latest executive moves, its evolving channel strategy, and what it all means for solution providers at the end of the day. Here's a glimpse into that conversation.

On the heels of several other executive departures, Kevin Johnson recently announced plans to retire. Are partners concerned about all these changes, and if so, what's your message to them?

I have been in this business for a while and I think every year there has always been some kind of change with whatever organization I've been with. Some partners have asked about [Johnson] and, personally, I really enjoyed working with Kevin. He was a big proponent of what we have done in the commercial [market], and a strong advocate for the channel. But, from a corporate perspective, the team that Kevin built around him is also committed to those same values. So I don't see any fundamental changes happening with regard to our partner program.

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Kevin made a personal decision to retire. He spent 30-some-odd years in a lot of intense, high-pressure roles and wants to spend some time with his family. I fully respect that decision. As far as what that means for specific partners, there is no change in strategy, direction or the investments we are making.

You've had a lot of face time with partners during your first four months as channel chief. What are they saying, and what have you learned?

I have spent the majority of my time on the road with our key partners. We have gotten very good feedback related to the three goals we laid out the last time [CRN and I] spoke: growth, focus and profitability. These have been resonating very well with the partner community. We are also getting a lot of optimism coming from the partners, in general, just around macroeconomic trends, what they are seeing from Juniper, how we are engaging together on deals, and how we are finding new opportunities together. The question I ask a lot is, how do you feel about the next six months over the last six months? Will they be better, worse or the same? Overwhelmingly, there's much more positivity around where things are heading.

Juniper recently announced partner certifications for professional and support services. What else can partners expect from Juniper in the services arena?

This is an area I would say differentiates us from other players that are out there because we are deliberately dependent on our partners to deliver services. You will not see Juniper getting into an environment where we will be competing with partners around services. Of the three goals we laid out -- growth, focus and profitably -- this ties to the profitably component for our partners. If we can help our partners drive and build more of their services offerings, that innately helps them become more profitable, and that's in everyone's best interest.

NEXT: Juniper To 'Do More With Fewer Partners'

Roughly how many Juniper partners have a services business in place?

Most partners have some kind of service offering. I think it's probably difficult to survive in a world without service offerings. Where I think there's differentiation, though, is at what level and how intense those service offerings are. Some might provide what I call basic-level services, meaning break-fix support or on-site installation. And then, as you start to augment that, we have some partners that have built practices around doing security assessments for customers, so they have very specialized and compartmentalized service offerings around that.

The new support and professional services certifications are exclusive to Elite-level partners. Do you expect it to stay this way?

Of the three pillars we have laid out, one of the core ones is focus. I think I have been pretty deliberate in saying this, but we plan to do more with fewer partners. So my comment around this is that we have the requirements clearly identified and put in place for partners to become Elite. It requires an investment on their part. I would say, for now, our plan is to really focus on helping these Elite partners drive these services.

Where it may go down the road, it could be something we evolve, but I don't see that in the foreseeable future.

Will we see Juniper working more exclusively with these Elite-level partners moving forward?

Because Elite is an invite-only program, it means just meeting certain requirements doesn't make you an Elite [partner]. You still have to be invited into the program, and we think that's one of the key differentiators we have. And we look at a multitude of things, not just [partners'] coverage capacity or the capabilities aspect of things. We want to see the commitment that they have to Juniper, and we think that it's only right that, for people placing that kind of investment and building their business with us, that we have, in turn, some special offerings that we give to them versus making it a broad-brush approach.

How many Juniper partners are Elite?

We have approximately 3,000 partners in the Americas, and about 250 that are Elite throughout the Americas.

NEXT: Juniper's 'Teaming Standard' Initiative

Juniper recently announced its 'Teaming Standard' initiative, meant to drive greater alignment between its direct sales team and partners. How's that effort going?

I think we are making good progress. When you have big initiatives like this, and especially when it's something you haven't done before, in my personal view, these are things that I would always love to be doing more of, and faster. But I think we're making good progress. We have developed a lot of the modules that are being put in place for our Teaming Standard curriculum, and we are trying to not make this something that we just pile on as an extra to-do for our [field sales] teams, but to make it an embedded part of what they do daily.

I like it call it embedding more partner DNA into the entire ecosystem of our company. The field or sales team is the biggest component of that, but there are also other pieces of this that I am taking on as a personal objective to drive this within other areas of our company. When we do things like new product introductions coming from our business units, we want to make sure we embed the partner aspect sooner rather than later, so it's not just something that's ultimately thrown over to our partners.

Did you notice friction between Juniper's indirect and direct sales teams prior to this initiative?

I guess I would say there was probably some friction in the past, just given the legacy of who we were as a company and growing up from being a service provider-centric company, where we had a very quantifiable set of big accounts that we worked very closely with and still do today. But as you evolve as a company, and [try to reach] what's now, with our product portfolio, literally hundreds of thousands of prospective customers, we have to be deliberately dependent on the channel to be successful. And the only way we can do that is making sure we have that alignment at the field level between our salespeople and our partners.

Where are most of these prospective customers, and what's the opportunity for partners?

We have started to build vertical practices focused on a couple of key industry protocols. Health care is one, public sector/government is another, along with education and financial services. And when I say we are building practices, we are putting people in place to build not only what I call the 'mark-itecture' or the marketing aspects of things, but [to determine] how we embed this all the way through the product development cycle, and how we make sure we are getting close to those customers and their needs. Another key component of this is to work closely with the partners to help them build proficiencies in these areas.

Where do you see partners playing a role in Juniper's push toward the cloud and software-defined networking?

I think there is a lot of interest and a lot of intrigue [around these technologies], and a lot of partners know this is a part of the business they have to be thinking about. How this all ultimately plays out in the marketplace is still in progress. For us, we think we are in an enviable position to not only lead in the industry from this perspective, but also to help our partners make the transition when the time comes.

We are still on track to announce this quarter a Partner Advantage [program] specifically for cloud. This will be an area that we will get into more details about within the next 30 to 45 days ... but it will be a combination of product offerings, pricing strategies, marketing strategies behind that and some sales components. But it's ultimately about helping partners build cloud offerings to deliver what their customers are looking for.