Exclusive: New Cisco Channel Chief Talks Partner Incentives, Dell-EMC And How Apple Fits In The Cisco Channel

Cisco Channel Chief Looks Ahead

Cisco Systems' new global channel chief, Wendy Bahr, says the networking giant is "amplifying" incentives for channel partners around security, software and collaboration. Partners could also see some elements of the company's recent partnership with Apple be implemented into Cisco's channel program in the future, she said.

Bahr, a 15-year Cisco channel veteran, has spent the past 90 days talking to partners from around the world to get a sense of what they want to see from the networking leader in the digital age. She discussed with CRN in an exclusive interview her strive toward simplification, the Dell-EMC deal, and a number of updates to Cisco's partner programs coming down the pipeline.

What type of enhancements to partner programs are you looking to make?

What you'll see is we'll continue to refine our programs and program enhancements around security and, specifically, around security and software. Half of our opportunity in security is software, so they kind of go hand-in-glove. Software is also a big component for collaboration and now with the Cisco One suite, software is a big component of enterprise networking infrastructure and the data center and cloud. So for us those are areas I can promise you we're going to be paying close attention to as we continue to refine those programs.

The thing about Cisco I'm most proud of is we always continue to evolve our programs. There are some programs that are foundational and some that really help us explore the mutual benefit of some of these new go-to-market motions. My commitment is that we will continue to do that. We will continue to align those programs around, not only Cisco's key priorities, but where we see the group opportunities in the market with always a keen eye toward our partner profitability.

Anything coming down the pipeline as far as new VIP incentives for partners?

We're amplifying around security in terms of incentives. We're amplifying around software, collaboration, and those kinds of things are obviously very exciting for our partners. Security is the top area of concern and focus, which always resonates well with Cisco and our partners.

We're on fire with our Advanced Malware Protection product. We're winning twice as many customers with AMP as our nearest competitor. We've had some great feedback about our end-to-end security platform in the fact that we're taking this architectural approach.

Should partners expect to see elements of the Apple partnership start to make their way into some of Cisco's incentive programs, like VIP?

The opportunity for Apple is really, really exciting. I can tell you that the promise of our technologies working flawlessly together across security on the network, across collaboration capabilities and creating that performance dynamics in terms of fast lanes with our operating systems -- I can't imagine any enterprise user who wouldn't be excited about the fact that their Apple product could work faster and better when it's running on a Cisco network.

We're in the early stages of that strategic partnership, but it's one that is garnering a lot of interest and attention for both our customers and partners. As we think about exchanging that value, that will be something we will consider in the next evolution of our partner program.

There's been a few personnel changes within Cisco over the past few months. Is the channel team pretty set now, or do you think there are going to be more personnel shifts?

It's always a changing landscape, but I am blessed to have such a deep bench at Cisco with literally decades of channel experience spanning not only the product side of the house, but the services side.

Ken Trombetta now having programs for both a product and services perspective; Denny Trevett on our global system integrators as well as our ISV and ecosystem strategy; I inherited Steve Steinhilber from alliances with our IoT and IoE partners -- so thrilled to have Steve on the team. Also, of course, Rick Snyder leaving the Global Partner Organization to run my former Americas partner organization is a really nice rotation. He and I are comparing a lot of notes. We have Sandra Flinders, she's our services expert with years of experience both on Cisco's Service Partner Program as well as services in general.

It's an exciting time and I think change is a constant element in everyone's business, but we feel very confident we got the right players in the right position with the right level of experience to ensure our continued success with the partners.

Do you see any of your channel partners jumping ship in the future when the Dell-EMC acquisition is complete? Are you afraid you're going to lose any channel partners to the new Dell-EMC combination?

We're hearing from our partners that it's sort of business as usual. Their heads are down. They're continuing to focus on the tremendous opportunities that we see in data center and converged infrastructure. So for us we don’t see this as something that our partners are giving us reason to be concerned about. We have an incredibly loyal partner base. EMC is still a very strong partner for Cisco. The VCE solution is still a very, very strong solution.

We've seen a lot of integration and mergers in the past, so we're going to continue to support our partners and solutions. … We're going to stay head-down-focused on the business.

What has the first few months been like as the new channel chief?

It's been a whirlwind. I started off assessing the landscape and made my first visit to Asia-Pacific -- Japan and Greater China -- and attended partner conferences and executive exchange events. I've visited Tokyo, Singapore, Mumbai and Bangalore, meeting with both our traditional partners -- resell and VARs -- as well as some of the nontraditional ecosystem partners; that was really enlightening. From there I attended an executive exchange with 50 or so of our top North America partners, which was really an opportunity to have the relevant conversations with these partners about what they're seeing in the landscape.

On Halloween I go to London to an executive exchange with EMEA partners in London. Then France, Italy, Germany and then a Netherlands trip meeting with employees, partners and customers.

What are some of the concerns on partners' minds?

Complexity. As these ecosystems get larger, the deals get a bit more complex. First and foremost, it's important to hear me reiterate something absolutely true, which is that we've never been more committed to our partner strategy. In this increasing complex landscape, our partners have never played a more critical and pivotal role in our mutual success. They're asking us, 'Hey, Wendy, we want to hear you say it as the new partner leader. We want you to articulate the commitment by Cisco and the Global Partner Organization', which I am happily ready to do.

They're also asking us in the same breath to simplify. Simplification is a big pillar that [CEO] Chuck Robbins [pictured] talked about -- how we need more lubricant and not more sand in the system. It's an imperative now; we need to simplify. We're going to definitely focus on that with our partners.

What are the other concerns partners have?

We need to become better aligned. We have such a broad portfolio, which is such an asset and benefit, but we also need to be clearer in our messaging, clearer in our priorities and clearer with what we want our partners to be doubling and tripling down on. Messaging helps us with agility and that speed you heard Chuck and a lot of our leadership talk about.

Partners also want us to continue to evaluate how we best exchange value with them. They're very fond of many of the very critical elements of our programs and they want our commitment that that will continue. They're also hearing from nontraditional partners in the ecosystem. There's many ways that Cisco can exchange value with those types of partners, and sometimes the biggest value is connecting our partner ecosystem more easily together.

When you talk about this need to simplify, can you give us some examples of the low-hanging fruit you're going to do to help partners see this simplification?

We have integrated our product and services sales teams in Cisco's sales organization.

Right out of the gate, rather than having these two sort of siloed and separate programs, we're starting to evaluate what we can do to make it easier as we approach customers collectively and holistically together in a combined product and services benefit. What can we do to make the [Cisco Service Partner Program] and product program element to help our partners engage around those programs in an easier way. … It removes some of that friction and puts a little lubricant into the system.

The outcome of that will be that the services piece is just brought into the sales process much earlier?

Yes, and we look for synergies. When you talk to a customer, they look at it as a single motion. They're looking at both the product and services to produce an outcome. We're looking to find areas of synergies, holistic connections between products and services to make it easier for partners to administer both the product program as well as the service program.

What are you doing around simplicity in the long term?

The long term of simplification is really digitization and looking at tools and processes. We're looking at analytics to try and provide, not only to Cisco, but our partners with more data and analytics to make sure we're responding to the customers' needs more quickly. That’s something Kevin Bandy, our new chief digitization officer, is helping us look at both internally as well as externally with our customers and partners on our digitization platform.

You're looking for new types of partners around things like IoT and data analytics. Are you focusing on on-boarding a lot of partners there?

We have been. We've made an effort now under way for the last couple of years to look at independent software vendors and ecosystem partner types. We've attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of partners into our DevNet program from a development perspective. Everyone from the big guys like an SAP, for example, to markets like MapR, Cloudera and Hortonworks. One of the most successes we've seen across the globe is with a company like Splunk. So traditional VARs and system integrators working with ISVs around data analytics and big data, structured and unstructured data.

Analytics creates a distinctive differentiation. We're seeing quite a bit of uptake by our VARs and [Direct VARs] partnering up with or acquiring these types of big data and analytics or even mobility-apps-type of companies.

Is it really intrinsic now to the solution provider success factor going forward that they start to bring on a data scientist or beef up their data analytics practices?

What we are seeing is, no matter what, is that some of our most profitable and successful partners are expanding into these new targeted addressable markets. They're expanding into these line-of-business buyers by teaming up with and/or acquiring these kind of key assets and resources. It really depends upon where that partner's priority lies, but also whether or not they're focused exclusively on that or it's just part of their overall portfolio. I've seen it work both ways when they partnered and when they acquired. The good news is I think there's flexibility in the model. I think it's a more complex go-to-market motion and it does sometimes take longer to have the bigger conversations. But when you go to that effort, the deal is stickier, more relevant and can be more profitable and mutually beneficial.

Can you give us any new details or update to the new Software Partner Program coming out?

We are going to be launching in early 2016 our software elements of our Partner Program and those are going to be role-based. One of the things we'll be focused on is the role in software of a partner to adopt, expand and renew software.

In the collaboration space with Cisco … the focus now is not just the selling of the software -- whether than be an ELA or whatever form -- but how do we get those features adopted and expanded inside of a customer base.

While I can't share the details quite yet of what that element of the program is going to look like, I can tell you we've been testing with our partners and they're very excited and many of them are out working on these elements in advance of any announcements we make in 2016. Software is a critical element of our portfolio and critical value element for our customers, and we're excited about this new opportunity for our partners.