Cisco Silver Partners May Be Going For The Gold

Mixed feelings are what Cisco Silver partners have over the company's recent decision to retire the Silver certification as part of a broader shake-up to the Cisco Channel Partner Program revealed last month, they said.

Some partners said they view Cisco's decision to nix the Silver level as a sign of "tough love," a move that, in some cases, will require them to embrace cloud and managed services faster than they would have done otherwise. Others, however, see it as a move that underplays the importance of smaller, more midmarket-focused, partners.

"I think it's a big mistake, especially when [Cisco] says they are trying to get into the midmarket, and we are the guys who do their midmarket business -- the smaller partners," said one Cisco Silver partner, who chose to remain anonymous.

[Related: Breaking It Down: 10 Big Changes Partners Should Know About The New Cisco Partner Program ]

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Cisco revealed plans to retire the Silver status at its 2014 Cisco Partner Summit in Las Vegas last month. That change was one of several that was made to the Cisco Channel Partner Program, which now requires all Gold partners within the next two years to be actively selling a minimum of four Cisco cloud or managed services offerings, with those four including at least one cloud service and at least one managed service.

Cisco said it has roughly 70 Silver partners in the U.S., and about 285 around the world. These partners will have until April 1, 2016 to choose one of two paths: move up the stack to Gold or move down to Premier status with a Master specialization. Cisco said these Master specializations, which partners can earn for a specific technology area like Collaboration or Data Center, are designed for Cisco partners with a deep expertise in a certain product line.

Cisco at the Partner Summit said that it will start promoting these Master specializations as being "as good as Gold" to help drive recognition of them in the marketplace.That's easier said than done, said one executive at the Cisco Silver event.

"The issue for us is that they have done nothing to promote Master specializations They mean nothing in the marketplace," said the partner. "So, from my perspective, we have made all these investments in Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert certifications and now [Cisco] is going to basically, in the marketplace, present me the same way as the guy who has one CCIE and is Premier."

Cisco is already taking steps to make the Master designation more prominent in the market, according to Sherri Liebo, vice president of Global Partner Marketing at Cisco. For instance, Cisco is starting to train its own internal sales force to direct customers who need specific expertise in unified communications, security or other areas, to partners with Master specializations, she said.

"Today, [customers] look for Gold first, and then if they need a specialty, they look for Master. That was not through any marketing -- we didn't have a marketing campaign around 'Go for the Gold' -- it was just sort of learned behavior over time. So we are going to embark on training our own sales force to understand that master is as good as Gold," Liebo said in an interview at Partner Summit. "[The recognition] isn't there today, but we absolutely need to get there."

Other Cisco Silver Partners Mulling Their Options

Some Cisco partners, especially those who were planning on moving to Gold, don't anticipate the elimination of the Silver status as presenting a significant challenge.

"[Cisco's] cloud and hybrid IT requirements for Gold, we are on the path to doing anyway," said Peter Allen, chief operating officer at Systems Management Planning, an Albany, N.Y.-based Cisco Silver partner. "We have some unique offerings around Desktop-as-a-Service that could fit really well into the Cisco Powered Cloud and Cisco managed services."

"For us, it's not a big deal, but it could be to other organizations, especially if you are Silver and didn't already have a Master specialization," Allen said. "But Silver always seemed like it was just a transitional level, anyway, or at least that's how we viewed it."

Brett LaCourse, senior market development manager at Teracai, a North Syracuse, N.Y.-based Cisco Silver partner, said Teracai hasn't decided whether it will move up the stack to Gold, or if it will choose to go deeper in certain Cisco technology segments, through the Premier and Master specialization routes.

"I think it's too early to tell, but I wouldn't be surprised if we pursued Gold as being our primary objective," LaCourse said. "But I do really like [Cisco's] Master specializations, and as a company our size -- where we are 40, 50 people strong -- it's difficult to be an expert in every single technology area. So what's nice about Master is that it really demands that you put tremendous focus in one particular area."

If Teracai does choose to move to Gold, it will be held to the new requirements announced last month, including selling at least four Cisco cloud or managed services offerings. While it would be a bit of leap for Teracai, LaCourse said, it could only strengthen its business.

"We may need to invest in them a little more than we had planned for audit requirements, but I see that as a good thing," LaCourse told CRN. "We are by no means close to deciding which avenue we are going to pursue, but we are committed to Cisco, and I think they are committed to us and helping us through this by giving us options."