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Windstream Channel Chief: Integrating Indirect, Direct Sales Teams Key To Returning To Growth

As Windstream pivots to focus on next-generation technologies, such as Unified Communications as a Service and SD-WAN, the walls had to come down between the sales teams and channel conflict had to be eliminated, Channel Chief Matt Milliron tells CRN.

Windstream is bouncing back from its 2019 bankruptcy filing with a fresh take on its sales strategy, one that involves bringing together direct and indirect sales teams and eliminating channel conflict.

Windstream in November promoted Matt Milliron from vice president of channel sales to channel chief. Milliron replaced Curt Allen, who the company said was brought in to manage the carrier's efforts through the initial phases of restructuring its channel focus and set Windstream on the right course.

Now, Milliron is focused on tightening the integration between Windstream's separate direct and indirect sales and support teams to make for better customer and partner experiences with Windstream.

"We're making huge leaps in that direction," Milliron told CRN. "The integration is at the forefront of our focus for our channel program, and we are putting big bets on the channel."

[Related: Windstream Partner Base To Be Slashed Following Bankruptcy Filing]

Windstream in third-quarter 2019 kicked off a pilot of its channel integration strategy, which teamed its channel team with the carrier's direct sellers to expand resources geographically, Milliron said. This approach broke up the silos within Windstream's separate sales organizations.

"We recognized having direct and channel sales motions was an inefficient way to conduct business," he said. As the company pivots to focus on next-generation technologies, such as Unified Communications as a Service and SD-WAN, the walls had to come down between the sales teams and channel conflict had to be eliminated, Milliron added.

Windstream on a monthly sales basis is seeing about 20 percent to 30 percent of its business coming from channel partners. "That's one of the reasons we launched channel integration," he said. "When we look holistically at our business model and the complexities of technologies on the market today, as well as the education that is needed, there's a big opportunity for us to go deeper and wider. We see that number moving directionally upward."

Little Rock, Ark.-based Windstream filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last February and began reorganizing the company. Solution providers told CRN in April that the ailing carrier began evaluating and cutting contracts with channel partners who fell below the annual revenue threshold of $5,000 in new business a year.

Milliron said that Windstream made "significant changes" to the channel program in the back half of 2019.

"There are decisions that have to be made during the restructuring process and some are tough," he said. "We've seen an incredible amount of loyalty from our partners in the past year. One thing I keep hearing is that partners want and need our program to be successful and that's why we refocused our energy to better align with our partners."

Shane Stark, director of vendor and channel relations for Carrier Access, a Clive, Iowa-based Windstream partner, has noticed positive channel changes from the carrier as it prepares to emerge from bankruptcy this year.

Windstream has a big presence in Iowa, where many of Carrier Access' customers are located. "Windstream went down the road of only taking customers over a certain amount a few years ago, but now there's no question—they are really realizing the value of the channel," Stark said.

The company's current leadership has been driving a more partner-friendly model, Stark said. "It's nice to see that that their direction has been to work with partners more and more," he added.

Windstream is actively working to grow its channel presence in several key regions. The carrier has hired several channel managers and business development managers across the country. Milliron said that Windstream has plans to further add to its head count in the near future, especially in areas such as the Nashville, Tenn., market, the Midwest/Great Lakes region, and in Northern California.

The channel integration approach eliminates channel managers sitting behind a desk and working on quotes. Instead, these managers can be out in front of their partners, Milliron said.

"It's about evangelizing where we are as a business, and the solutions and technologies we are pivoting to," he said. "Obviously, there's a challenge in front of us, but there is also an opportunity."

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