From Three Programs To One: Channel Chief Randall Porter On Growing AT&T Partner Solutions

The carrier giant’s channel chief shares how the recently unified AT&T Partner Solutions program is growing, the tooling and enablement that’s now available to partners, and why now is the time for the carrier to go big with partners.

AT&T Channel Chief Randall Porter began leading the carrier’s indirect efforts in 2022. He’s spent more than 25 years serving in a variety of positions for AT&T with more than 10 years spent in the channel. That means he’s no stranger to the ever-evolving needs of partners.

Up until just recently, the Dallas-based carrier giant has had three distinct channel programs for its different kinds of partners: Apex, also known as Partner Exchange, Alliance Channel and ACC.

Now, AT&T has unified the three programs into one: AT&T Partner Solutions. The move was made to explicitly rely more heavily on the channel for expanded distribution.

AT&T has been on a mission to zero-in on what it does best – core connectivity and telecom services – and that singular focus created a big opportunity for the carrier’s partners to step in and lend a hand to business customers with their value-added services and managed services, Porter told CRN.

About a year into his appointment, Porter sat down with CRN to talk about how the carrier is growing Partner Solutions, the tooling and enablement that’s now available to partners, and why now was the time for the carrier to go big with partners.

Here are excerpts from the conversation.

What kind of work has AT&T been doing behind the scenes to grow Partner Solutions?

What has really been underway in the last year is a much more deliberate focus on the utilization of indirect — the channel — for scale and for expanded distribution. When you think about what AT&T does best, we’re really focused on our core services around connectivity, fiber and 5G. And now it’s about unleashing the value, unleashing the collaborative differentiation that we can get by utilizing the channel and allowing them to do what’s best for them in terms of their value-added products and services in conjunction with fiber and 5G, as well as what they do from a managed services and a professional services standpoint.

One of the big focus areas has been around bringing back together all of our channels. So, Alliance, Apex and ACC, and creating what we needed to create terms of platforms and tools and enablement across those three channels to start to scale that in a much bigger way. So that was step one, which was completed in June of last year. The next thing was around: how do we really start to invest and transform this channel and bring to life what we needed in terms of that expanded distribution, the platforms and tooling, and then the partner enablement? We were able to push forward and get approved a first of its kind indirect investment and business case. There’s been a lot of focus on making sure we’ve got the right partners and then putting them in the right place with the right tools to grow to help us be successful together in the market.

Why bring the three partner programs together now?

Really great question. The main point around that was scale. We had three programs that historically worked together, and they were split apart based on how one would approach the market. But at end of the day, kind of at the core of what was needed was a set of standardized platforms, tooling, API’s, utilization of Salesforce through our Cloudrunner program and then also the ability to utilize our data in terms of our understanding of fiber penetration, fiber availability, 5G availability, and being able to package up that across the entire channel to unleash at scale. We get much more utilization and return on that investment by being able to target it in the broadest way across all three channels versus building disparate cases for each of the three programs.

Why was now the time for AT&T to ramp up channel efforts?

When you make the decision to focus on your core and owned assets and driving maximum penetration and margin expansion through those on the assets, the secondary part of that is you’re not going to be focused in some of the other areas in terms of value-added services. We can’t go do that for large end user clients, but our core focus is going to be on our network connectivity, which means that it’s partners oftentimes who are best positioned with end user customers — who are best positioned to help provide those end-to-end solutions to those customers. They’re able to fill that gap, position that complete service with the customer and then own that both in terms of implementation and Day Two management as well. So that’s where we really see the benefit on both sides.

What tooling and enablement is AT&T offering partners today?

So, [it starts with] investing in the technology and the second is around enablement. Things like deal registration, intelligently routing, front office and back office as a service. On the platform side, [investment] has really been in two big areas. The first, everybody tells us that especially when we’re talking about connectivity, it’s got to be efficient, and it’s got to be competitively priced and easy to consume. And by easy to consume, that basically means [partners] need to know where fiber is available, or where we have the best 5G network in an automated fashion and then they need to be able to order it. Our mission has really been around how we utilize a standard set of APIs with these large tech distributors and our large Apex partners who can take advantage and do those things within their native platforms and systems and environments. We’re well down the path on launching and having our partners utilize those APIs. The second is around our integration with them on Salesforce. That enables us to do things with them in terms of promotions, intelligent lead routing and deal registration. It unleashes a set of capabilities where we can work with them and enable an environment to provide for their customers and then allow them to take care of those customers without disruption.

On the enablement side, it’s really three things that we’re focused on right now. One is that deal registration capability where they can say: “Hey, I’ve got an opportunity, you’ve provided me with a lead,” or, “I’ve got a relationship,” and [that partner] can sell and then manage [that account] and have protection around the residual commission for whatever compensation. Deal registration is extremely important. We’re launching that in third quarter this year. The second one is — when we actually started leaning into the channel for distribution and scale, we also started creating leads specific for the channel — that’s something that we historically did not do. So, fiber availability, expansion of mobile, IoT, opportunities in the market, that was all direct led. Then, if we weren’t able to penetrate that through the direct team, depending on what service that was, we’d open it up to [the channel] six months later, or a year later. That changed in the first quarter of this year and now we have access to new fiber lit locations at the same time that the direct team has access. We’re sharing fiber and 5G and wireless broadband at the same time on the channel side as we are on the direct side, which is awesome. We’re also utilizing that capability and that understanding of fiber penetration to go back to our existing partners and say: “Hey, you sold this customer two years ago, we now have five more lit fiber locations for this customer.” We’re not taking that over the direct team. The indirect partner that sold that customer two years ago is in the best position to get those next five lit locations and we’re seeing really good success with both of those. The third one is a lot of solution providers want the ability to be able to own and manage customer end to end. They don’t want to work with a direct account team representative, which is great, we’re all for it. But oftentimes, there’s some things that sit behind an AT&T firewall that we need to provide them access to. So, we’ve created both a Front Office as a Service and a Back Office as a Service which allows them the ability to see behind the firewall that information needed to manage that specific customer. That enables them to move faster and serve the customer more efficiently.

What have you had to do internally to incentivize the AT&T sales team to work with the channel?

There’s a couple of things that we’ve had to do. And part of it was really to make sure that we were utilizing our connectivity where solution providers either had relationships or could show value in the market. So, the first investment really had to come from showcasing that value out to the partner market, and that was through expanded MDF budget and funds they could utilize to invest back into their business and we expanded the list of things that they can use that for to include [things like] the APIs, the Front Office as a Service and Back Office as a Service, integrating with us for that lead generation, utilizing website design where they’re utilizing their AT&T partnership as part of the messaging and marketing in that type of environment. So, expanding that MDF budget was one and then allow them to utilize that MDF budget for those new capabilities was two. The third thing that we changed was some incentives around driving into white space and newly lit areas where we wanted to maximize that penetration. We’ve been able to now use that data and that intelligent lead routing combined with special promotions and incentives to drive specific targeting within that newly lit fiber. So, investing there has been a key component of this success.

Then, on the direct side and how we’re messaging that internally, it’s not about people just sharing sales, but it really is about how one plus one equals more than two, three or four, where the direct team is collaborating and utilizing a partner where it makes sense, where their partner is providing value differentiation, the relationship [and] most oftentimes, it’s associated with implementation, Day 2 management, staging, warehousing, SLA’s around, break/fix, and those types of things. So, our direct team having that understanding of where partners are able to fill that gap provide and provide that value on services that we don’t do? That’s where we really see the greatest impact and the greatest uplift in how we’re serving customers.