Q&A: CenturyLink Exec On ISVs, Federal Customers And Getting Specific With Channel Support

Bulking Up And Building Out Channel Support

CenturyLink is at it again. The telecom giant has once again this summer added to its channel program, adding industry veteran and former Westcon executive Gahn Lane to its ranks in a newly created position as vice president, ISV and federal channels for CenturyLink Business.

Monroe, La.-based CenturyLink is going all in with the channel, and putting the right resources in place to do it. Lane will be supporting two specific types of partners for the provider – ISV partners, and solution providers that serve federal government customers.

Lane sat down with CRN and shared his vision for his new role, how he will be working with fellow channel executives at CenturyLink, and what partners can expect this year.

Is your new role -- v ice president, ISV and federal channels -- a newly created position for CenturyLink?

The ISV portion of the business existed, and my role there is to accelerate and expand that unit. I'm excited about doing that because it’s a strong business, but we are going to strengthen it and make it an even bigger opportunity for our partners. The other portion is the federal channel, and that is brand new. CenturyLink has a very solid direct [sales] federal presence and we are one of the 35 largest suppliers to the federal Government. But, when it comes to the channel, we didn't have [a program] specifically for partners that sold to civilian and defense [government] customers, so we are formalizing that and standing that program up aggressively and quickly.

We are also working closely with our direct federal team and they are part of the planning process. This isn't something that's being done in a vacuum -- the leader of the federal direct organization is working closely with me. We are working in tandem.

Talk about CenturyLink's focus on federal customers and how the channel is now a part of this effort.

Candidly, there is a strong desire by leadership at CenturyLink to expand our channel relationships across the board. We have not historically been as channel-centric as we want to be, and we are working very hard to change that. Secondly, there is a tremendous amount of federal channel partners out there -- a lot are relatively small shops that have a great deal of expertise and they can serve government customers very well if they have the right partners that help them. We have a great suite of products that we sell into the government, and it's in our best interest if they have access to that through a consistent channel program.

I want to make sure what we have in place is exactly that, a consistent program for the partners so that the channel knows there is a low barrier to entry, there are very clear rules ... and they know that they are going to be supported and make money doing it, most importantly.

Our federal partners will also know that our people are near them in the Virginia and D.C. areas – where many [solution providers] that serve federal customers are located. They will be able to physically see [our executives] and go on sales calls together because they are in close proximity.

How are CenturyLink's recent channel efforts all coming together?

What we have done is put together a channel team that is broken into five groups. Bill [Corbin, senior vice president, strategic partnerships and channel operations] owns the entire Channel Alliance program and we all report to him. John [DeLozier, vice president of Channel Alliances] has the traditional channel program that CenturyLink has had in place for several years, which is a great business and he's going to continue to drive that. Then, we have a team under Terence Gleeson [vice president, strategic partner alliances] and that team is driving strategic vendor relationships. We have a fourth group under Dave Dyas [vice president, System Integrator Alliance] for systems integrator partners. Lastly is my part of the team, the ISV and federal channel.

The point of having those five paths to market is that we are all peers working together. It's inevitable that we are going to reach across and bump into each other in the marketplace, and if we all are in sync as a team, that removes barriers and gets rid of silos across the business, because CenturyLink is a big firm.

Coming into this new role, what did CenturyLink ask of you?

The role was positioned as an opportunity to build something new, which I've done before at Westcon. We also had the ISV business in place, and we have 752 billing partners today, but [CenturyLink] knew it wasn’t being maximized. We absolutely knew we were just scratching the tip of the iceberg. They wanted me to expand on that and apply my experiences as a channel leader to really maximize that opportunity in the marketplace.

I was asked what I needed to do in this job, and the first thing I said was that I wanted to meet the people within the organization and remove the barriers to their success. I've been really impressed with the people. It's important to build up that ecosystem so that outsiders want to do business with us. The second thing I need was to bring in talent, and we are doing that. These new channel staff members will be in place within the next three weeks to augment our channel strategy, and help drive consistency across all five parts of business.

What was your first priority when joining the channel team at CenturyLink?

I wanted everyone to know that accountability was important – both to customers and to each other. So I started by publishing what I was going to do so that everyone had it in writing. Establishing a culture of accountability and demonstrating that was No.1. No. 2, I wanted a couple weeks to understand where the challenges were, and to identity the top five challenges and opportunities. Lastly, I wanted to make sure the right people are positioned in the right spot. I'm talking about … the fact that some people are being underutilized. As an outside person coming in, it's much easier to notice those things, and point out that someone can do so much if we give them a chance. I said that by Sept. 15, I wanted to meet at least 20 customers and I already beat that. We want to be someone that [solution providers] want to partner with and people want to work with, and that is an absolute commitment.

What do you think will be your biggest challenge in working with the partner community?

I think it's probably that we don’t make it clear on the differentiation of our value in the marketplace. Our direct sellers know our value, but there is been no good messaging system for the partners. Many [partners] are unclear where they should position us, and it's important to know why you should do business with us and why you should sell our solutions. It's really going to be about making sure they understand the full strength of the brand.

CenturyLink has a very impressive scope, but a lot of people don’t understand that because it's grown so fast both organically and inorganically. Consequently, they'll say things like, 'I know I can use you for managed services and network, but you have a cloud offer, too?' We hear a lot of 'I didn't know you had this or that.' Some customers are growing so fast that we have to help partners understand were we fit. If we have [solution providers] representing us, they have to be able to communicate that message.

Do you have plans to expand the number of ISV and federal solution provider partners?

I will expand the number of partners we have, absolutely. But I want to expand with the right partners. By that I mean I want true business partnerships and true relationships, not just transactional ones. I'm really looking for [partners] who are looking to expand their businesses, double down with a few solid offers, and for us to be a part of that package. I don't expect [partners] to be exclusive with us of course, but I do expect that we are going to make this partnership appealing enough that they are going to want to be a part of that and we are going to make sure we can care, feed, and nurture the ones that want to invest with us.

Our goals for growth are not insignificant, and we plan to show progress during this calendar year.

How important is CenturyLink's partnerships with ISVs?

The world is moving to a few things specifically ,in our opinion. We believe that service providers with a network and cloud presence are absolutely the future. The days of us delivering T1s are rapidly declining, and we have made tremendous investments in our cloud offers and in our solutions. These ISVs have created these really impressive -- and almost always vertical -- solutions to help with anything from CRM, to HR, to finance, and even video gaming use cases. So why not enable them to be channels for CenturyLink solutions where they can sell their stuff and we can support, manage and host it for them? It really makes a lot of sense. When you talk to these ISVs, they often say that will be great if they had a program that they could really rely on as opposed to a one-off deal here and there. We can build a blueprint so that ISVs know exactly what they need to do with their software to integrate into our cloud quickly. They can say with confidence to customers that they can provide a total end-to-end solution that will be managed with SLAs and they can say it's powered by CenturyLink, if they want.

The future is going to be increasingly vertical and cloud-based. Bill Hurley [chief marketing officer] stated publicly that within three years, ISVs will be the single strongest go to market path we have.

What are your long-term goals for the ISV and federal channel?

I would like to be able to say in a certain period of time -- maybe three years -- that we have built a strong and profitable program for our channel and that we are considered a world-class provider of partnership and solutions for our customers. I want to be able to say it’s a stable program, and one that is growing in a consistent and forecastable fashion.