Tarnished Silver, Gold?

That's the question some Cisco Systems solution providers are asking about the vendor's high-level Certified Partner Program, which provides Gold, Silver and Premier designations to more than 2,600 of Cisco's some 20,000 partners worldwide.

"There's definitely mixed value there, and mixed opinion of value," said Jim Sommer, president of Xitech, a Cisco Silver partner in Carnegie, Pa. "I'm more excited about and will go after specializations in advanced technology, driving those as differentiators," he said.

The Silver and Gold designations, which incorporate intensive requirements for organization-level technology specializations and individual career certifications, have lost some luster and are ripe for an overhaul, some partners told CRN.

"They're archaic," said a top executive at one of Cisco's 78 U.S. Gold partners, who asked not to be identified. Clients want to know if a solution provider is a Cisco Gold partner "because it's become known as the best price on the street. It's no longer tied to credibility and strong reputation from a networking perspective," the partner executive said.

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Cisco currently has 69 Silver and 643 Premier partners in the United States. Some of them are calling on Cisco to modify its program requirements to support their investment in areas such as vertical market focus, solutions selling and in-depth services practices.

"We tend to have higher-level consultants on staff, so every year I end up having to bring in some lower-level guys to fill in the requirements. Does that make sense?" said John Freres, president of Meridian IT Solutions, a Gold partner in Schaumburg, Ill.

Cisco is in continued talks with its partner advisory council about the future of the program and is mulling over changes to make it more valuable for its partners, said Paul Mountford, senior vice president of worldwide channels at Cisco, San Jose, Calif.

"The question is how valued are Gold, Silver and Premier and should they have a different construct based on changes in the market," Mountford said. He maintains that Cisco's partner designations are recognized by customers for their value and are often required in requests for proposal.

Certified partners are also seeing a rise in profitability, in large part due to Cisco's special rebate and discount programs, he said. Partner profitability is up 20 percent over the past 18 months, according to a recent Cisco-commissioned study.

Cisco is now preparing the next generation of its channel program, which will focus on growth and likely debut within Cisco's next two fiscal years, depending on market requirements, Mountford said.