EarthLink Channel Chief On Windstream Merger And Building An Ultra-Responsive Partner Program

Standing Out From The Crowd

Telecommunications provider EarthLink has had a busy three years. The Atlanta-based company has been working hard to reinvent itself as a provider of IT and managed services, in addition to its legacy connectivity services, in order to differentiate itself in a crowded telecom market. Then earlier this month, EarthLink unveiled plans to merge with fellow carrier Windstream in a $1.1 billion deal.

Olen Scott, an EarthLink executive for the past three years, was appointed to lead the channel as vice president of partner channels at EarthLink a year and a half ago. Under his command, EarthLink has been wooing new master agent and sub-agent partners with its new quoting tool and its large portfolio of access options and next-generation networking services, including SD-WAN.

Scott sat down with CRN to discuss EarthLink's current channel focus and what partners need to know about the provider's pending merger with Windstream. Here's what he had to say.

What do you want EarthLink partners to know about the merger with Windstream?

First, I want to stress that while we are all extremely excited about the merger, it’s business as usual for several months until the transaction closes -- so let’s continue earning business together as we have throughout 2016.

Second, I want partners to know that this merger of two innovative leaders is a great thing. … It's great for our customers and for our valuable business partners. Through this merger will we be able to offer customers expanded products, services and enhanced enterprise solutions and combine our best practices. The feedback from the channel community has been overwhelmingly positive and they see that while EarthLink and Windstream’s similarities make them fit wonderfully together, our unique strengths complement each other, making us stronger together. We hear you and are listening to your feedback. Please keep sharing and let’s stay the course together toward a best-in-class partner program.

Upon coming into your role as channel chief, what was your biggest priority?

Up until about two years ago, we had been a little schizophrenic in terms of who we wanted to be as an organization, so there was a bit of a wait-and-see mentality with partners. There were some fits and starts relative to the markets we were focusing on and the services we were providing. But since Joe [Eazor] joined the organization [as president and CEO in January 2014], we have been very consistent in our direction and in our focus on offering managed network services and all of our peripheral services – such as unified threat management, and unified communications.

When I took over the program about a year ago, partners were getting more comfortable with [EarthLink], so my big focus at that point was getting partners to give us a chance to give customers really great implementation experiences. It's worked, and our brand in the channel community is extremely strong right now.

Tell us about the resources that EarthLink has in place for partners today?

We have expanded our channel management organization. We added some field marketing, and we plan on increasing those investments, including partner mind-share events. We added seven quote specialists and sales support resources in 2016, and have gotten tremendous feedback from partners on that, but probably the most significant change isn't related to human resource investments, but it’s the standing up of our partner portal and self-service quote tool. The response to our quote tool has been visceral, and we've been told it's best-in-class since it came out [in September]. In 15 to 20 minutes, partners can have a 70-site network quote built, so that's been a game-changer for us and our partners.

What are partners telling EarthLink they need today?

When I first came on -- and this story hasn't changed -- partners were saying that they need [EarthLink] to be very responsive. They want quotes at lightning speed. They want to be able to engage with customers and talk about a solution, but they need quotes, they need them fast. They [also] need services priced competitively the first time around, not the third or fourth time around, which is something that [partners] feel plagues the telecom space. That was one of the big drivers behind the portal. Now partners are telling us that they don't get paid until [services] are installed, so we reduced our [installment times] by 20-plus days from the time we take an order to the time a partner gets a check. Since I started this program, the feedback has been wonderful.

How does EarthLink differentiate itself from the large incumbent carriers?

We move faster, and we often win because we have an unbelievably broad access strategy. Most of our solutions are hybrid WAN, which means you have a managed WAN that is an amalgamation of broadband and access -- whether it's cable, DSL, or Ethernet over copper. In order to provide the most optimal solution for any customer while considering cost and performance, you have to have access to relationships with every [network operator], and we do. There's not a single company out there with the depth that EarthLink has when it comes to access availability, and now with the launch of SD-WAN over broadband, we can give customers 100 percent uptime on a high-performing and affordable network.

Give an example of how working with EarthLink can simplify solution selling for partners?

We ran an interesting SPIF a couple of quarters ago that we called 'The Perfect Game.' It included the primary network, the backup network, managed services over the top, UC, Wi-Fi and security. We wanted our partners to understand that really makes us unique -- we can come in and do all of that with a bunch of best-of-breed partners, and they can buy services from one company. For that SPIF, we said would write that partner a $150,000 check. We launched the SPIF thinking it would take months. It took four weeks for a partner to win it. They brought a nine-service solution to a 50-plus location company.

For EarthLink, it's really about the breadth and depth of our access portfolio, and all the services you can put over the top. Our partners tell us that they want to do business with vendors and providers that don’t create additional work for them.

Where is the big opportunity for partners right now in terms of offerings?

SD-WAN will open up tremendous opportunities for partners. There also is no longer any aversion to hosted, or cloud-based telephony services, and those services will require more bandwidth. There's a lot of pull-throughs for partners -- services that customers want – like [unified communications] that require more bandwidth than they have today. Now, when our partners offer SD-WAN, which makes the network high-performing and highly available, they can pull though UC services. So, [SD-WAN] opens the door for a bunch of services by providing customers with a secure, cloud-enabled network.

What's your message to partners?

Partners need to explore our SD-WAN certification. This is a game-changing opportunity in the channel, with the latest compound annual growth rate projection at 136 percent. Also, if you haven’t test-driven our self-service quote tool on the partner portal yet, you really should. It’s amazing, and takes mere minutes to complete a complex quote while automatically building your solution diagram simultaneously.

It’s too early to comment on specific changes that may take place following the completion of the [Windstream] merger. An integration planning team is being established with representatives from both Windstream and EarthLink to ensure we identify the best of both companies as we build a larger, stronger and more competitive enterprise.