CRN Exclusive: New Cisco Channel Chief Says 'Change Is In Our Partners' Best Interest'

A New Era Begins

New Cisco channel chief Wendy Bahr says partners need to embrace the changing landscape as the networking giant begins a new era with incoming CEO Chuck Robbins at the helm.

Bahr, a 15-year Cisco veteran, will become the first female channel leader at the company starting July 27, replacing Bruce Klein, senior vice president of Cisco's Worldwide Partner Organization.

Bahr says the partner opportunities are "endless" as the industry transitions from hardware sales to selling software and services to capture recurring revenue, which is why one of her main focuses in her new role is finalizing Cisco's new Software Partner Program, set to launch in the beginning of 2016.

Bahr tells CRN in an exclusive interview what's in store for the partner community during the new era at Cisco.

What does the Chuck Robbins, Wendy Bahr era look like?

It's going to be a lot of fun; it's going to be very fast-paced and very exciting.

Chuck and I first met when I was working on the direct-sales side of the house for network service providers. We had a good relationship -- he was running the channel at the U.S. and Canada -- and it's really nice to know we have a CEO who appreciates how important the partners are to our success.

As we move forward together, my job is going to be to ensuring a seamless transition between Bruce [Klein] and myself, to continue to support the partners as we've done in the past -- [they] are a critical asset for Cisco because we can't do it without them. We'll continue to ensure their growth, success and profitability along with Cisco.

What's in store for the Cisco Partner Program in the next year? Any additions like more software and security incentives, or changes to the Value Incentive Program?

We announced our intent at Partner Summit to continue the evolution of a world-class partner program. We announced that we were going to be launching in FY16 a role-based Software Partner Program, so that's obviously going to be one of the first things that I need to continue to keep on track and help our partners understand what kinds of opportunities there are for those who want to participate in that software program.

We've made additional security acquisitions with OpenDNS, and we're going to continue to look to thread security into our programs and into our go-to-market as it is absolutely critical to all elements of our architecture.

Foundationally and fundamentally, we will continue to support those programs that have been so successful for us, like our VIP, as an example. We'll continue to support those programs that enhance our partners' profitability and allow them to reinvest in their business while at the same time knowing that as things continue to change, one of my biggest opportunities and responsibility is to ensure the programs evolve, grow and change along with the technology landscape and the capabilities of our partners.

You said 'evolve programs.' How do you plan to evolve programs alongside your partners?

Everything is about change, but we believe that this change is going to be in our partners' best interest and we look forward to getting lots of feedback on what's most valuable to them as we move forward together.

We'll [evolve] in conjunction with our partners. We have advisory boards around the world. We go and listen to our partners and we have them help us understand what is in their best interest, how they can best help our customers as we move down this path together.

Can you give an example?

So, for example, role-based program capabilities. As our ecosystem gets broader and we have more and more partners participating in solutions and outcome-based selling, we want to afford our partners the opportunity to pick and choose the roles that best suit their business model and to award them for providing that value.

We'll begin to listen -- obviously, we've been listening to our partners -- but as I take over this position one of the very first things I'll do is go out and listen to partners around the globe, understand the various geographic needs, the economic challenges and opportunity in specific landscapes, and then come back to work with our very successful leadership team to understand how we can continue to grow our success together.

As this landscape continues to evolve and change, together we take advantage of those opportunities in the market transition and in the evolution of our marketplace.

Where do you see the biggest growth in the channel in the next two years? Where do you hope to focus on the most -- security and software?

We're excited about all the opportunity in front of our partners, whether that be in cloud consulting, whether that be in security, whether that be in integration of all of the architectures to produce those solutions and business outcomes.

One of the biggest benefits I think partners garner from working with Cisco is the breadth and scope of our very robust portfolio. Each partner has an opportunity to uniquely identify their capabilities with their customer set and provide value, and we want to ensure that our programs support their abilities to do that. I think the opportunities are really endless for our partners in this new landscape.

There's a huge transition in the channel. What changes are going to take place, and what is your message to partners with the investments they need to make?

Clearly, what our customers and our partners are asking of Cisco is [to help] them take this impactful technology, this innovative capability, and drive the outcome and solutions that help a customer differentiate their business. We've always been collectively together the best at taking innovative technology and deploying that into our customers' network to provide incredible value, reliability, security, quality -- now we need to do that and keep in mind that at the same time we're driving for the business outcomes of the line-of-business buyer.

What are the opportunities for partners during this transition?

I think the opportunity is going to be even greater for Cisco and our partners to become more connected and more relevant to our customers than we've ever [been] in the past. We're going to be working collectively with our partners on adding the skills and those roles to their portfolio, along with upgrading the skills and capabilities of our own employees as we go on that journey together. We have a lot of work to do in front of us, but it's absolutely exciting times.

What are you bringing to the channel chief role?

I've sat both in the field and at the corporate level in WWPO [Worldwide Partner Organization] before. I've been able to see everything from both the field -- executing the strategic plans that WWPO has put forward -- and I've worked a bit in the headquarters areas as well. So now I get to take those experiences to the WWPO leadership role and figure out how we're going to continue to thrive together with our partners -- they're such an important part of our success.

I've been at Cisco for 15 years, been in the channel for nine years, so it's super exciting to think about taking on what Bruce has done such a good job at in the last three years. I've worked with Bruce a couple of different times in my career, and he's done an amazing job helping us take the partner community where we need to go together to be successful, and I'm just very excited to be picking up those reins and taking us on the next phase of the journey together.

What is the next evolution of Cisco?

When I think about the next evolution of Cisco, what I really think about is our ability to embrace change, to drive the transformation to our customers digitizing their companies and doing that along with our partners, who've been such a critical component to Cisco's success. We look forward to doing that journey, our next phase together, as we move forward because this is an exciting time for Cisco, for our customers, but especially for our partners.

With the acquisition of MaintenanceNet, what does it mean for partners attempting to maintain SmartNet revenue?

It's an exciting opportunity for Cisco and its partners. We'll provide some more talking points and bullet points on this as we move forward. But it's continued growth for Cisco and our partners.