CRN Interview: Panasonic UC Exec On Social Media Marketing Push, Fighting Off Cisco And Avaya, And The Future Of Communications Solutions

Getting Social With Partners

Panasonic's unified communications business focuses squarely on the small- and midsize-business market, a space that has seen enterprise players including Cisco Systems and Avaya making inroads.

Panasonic isn't worried, though. "Although they can come down into the SMB space, they start to get very expensive," said Gary Moeller, Panasonic's UC product manager for the U.S. And while those larger companies are trying to make sense of the SMB market, Panasonic is rolling out new products tailored at growing market segments and launching a campaign designed to boost partners' social media marketing efforts.

Partners also saw Panasonic's rebates double this year, as the company looks to grow in the VoIP market while consolidating share in the shrinking digital voice market. Moeller said partners stand to make gains as more customers see the value in comprehensive UC offerings that help them avoid cobbling together various components from several vendors.

What follows is an edited excerpt of Moeller's conversation with CRN.

How is Panasonic encouraging partners to do more social media marketing?

For next year, we're adding a new marketing program to help our resellers get up to speed in social media. Not only is the SMB reseller challenged with moving from the digital world to the IP world, they're also typically a smaller shop and they're challenged just by having a website. We talk about customer contact like Facebook or Twitter, and they say that's not something they do at work. So we're trying in the next year to migrate to that, to somewhere where they have more modern customer contact. We work with a third party to get the reseller going and then it's up to the reseller if they want to consider on that track.

Have you seen some resellers' social media efforts result in sales success already?

When we step in, yes. We're in the trial phase before we actually add it to the program in 2018. We're focused now on our biggest resellers, the ones that are most likely to have the ability to have a hosted website and understand how to use different social media to contact their customer. So, right now we're just trying it out, and it's been challenging.

What will be Panasonic's key UC products in the coming year?

The assisted living solution for us is a big one. We developed a new kind of phone for the assisted living market called the DTU 100, and it's a digital phone system where you would have one in every resident's room. This is for somebody who is living mostly autonomously with some assistance. Perhaps the facility has a nurse call center already. Maybe they're all wearing pendants, maybe they have alarms on the doors and in the rooms. What we did was create some solutions that tie all this together with the phone system. Now you're in your room and you have this device, your speaker phone, that has an alarm button and a few pre-programmed buttons. It doesn't have a dial pad. Now you can speak with a nurse rather than just hitting an alarm.

What do you need for partners in order to be successful with new solutions that Panasonic is introducing in the assisted living and hospitality markets?

A lot of our resellers already have contacts into the assisted living market and also the hospitality market, but they've lacked the tools to provide a complete solution. You would buy pieces of different things from different companies. We're trying to give them a phone system that integrates with all that and you don't have to go out and buy separate products.

Is the message you want resellers carrying to customers essentially that Panasonic has an all-in-one solution?

As far as communications systems and as far as managed alarms in an assisted living facility. The alarms are still the alarms the facilities have. Those we assume are already there, we're trying to integrate with that so that your phone system is a complete phone system without having to look for all the pieces and parts you would normally have to look for to connect with a facility's existing equipment.

How does Panasonic stay strong in the market with other vendors like Cisco or Avaya inching into the midmarket space?

The further down the market they go, the more difficult it is for them because the pricing becomes much more difficult if you're used to creating an enterprise system. One is that we continue to focus on the SMB market and we try to be very sensitive to our customers and what they face as far as their end users are concerned, not migrating to IP, or not needing to make a choice between a premise system or a hosted system and then coming up with solutions to make it easy to sell a whole package without having to go to many different areas.

What's your outlook for the channel program for UC in the coming year?

Every year, we try to enhance it a little more. This year, for example, we doubled our rebates compared to last year. We want to encourage partners to sell the newer-generation equipment, so we give a larger discount.

Where are you seeing growth in the UC space?

The biggest growth is in the hosted carrier market, with providers like Vonage, and Comcast and Verizon that sell dial tone. That's where the market has shifted. It helps with not making a capital investment. It's more of an Opex investment. You pay for the service and you get the phone at a discount, or even free from the carrier. We are a SIP phone provider for the carrier market. Many of our competitors, both SMB and enterprise competitors, sell their own hosted service so you not only get the phone from them, you get the service. We sell the phone system to the service providers like Comcast or Nextiva.

How can channel partners play effectively and grow in that market?

We have a two-tier strategy: We have distributors and we have resellers. We don't sell directly to the carriers, we sell through distributors and our salespeople focus on that reseller or carrier market. On one hand, we're trying to manage our channel by selling into distributors, but we also have our own direct sales force that encourages the pull-through. We're not selling directly to the carriers. We have salespeople who help the sale to the carriers. We have carrier salespeople who work with Nextiva or Comcast who help the pull-through with a distributor. They also work with resellers to help the pull-through. They have pre-sales support, post-sales support, all for them as the reseller, and they have the resources of the distributor to create their own pricing, have their own support. They kind of get double support in that model.

What are some of your other goals for the coming year?

The trend has been the hosted market increasing year over year and the premise market being flat or slightly declining year over year, so we want to capture more of the hosted market or capture an even greater share of the premise market so that even if that market is declining, we have a bigger percentage of it. That was one of the reasons behind our senior living solutions. We feel solutions are the path for the coming year. We've made a lot of investment into solutions like the assisted living and nurse call center management, and in the next few weeks we'll be announcing solutions for customer contact centers where we're going to provide tools for our resellers to sell more with social media and the whole omnichannel mentality.

What trends are you keeping an eye on in the U.S. telephony market?

Now everything is IP, the same internet you connect with your desktops and laptops and wireless devices, you can use now, and the United States is a little slow on that trend, actually. We have such a robust infrastructure in the previous generation, the digital market that emerged in the late 1980s, separate wiring from your IP wiring, and SMB customers who invested in that aren't about to give it up, even though they have an IP network for everything else they need. A lot of our customers keep that separate, and that's one of our advantages as well because we always produce hybrid phone systems that support both the current generation and the legacy digital model.

What about older technology? Do you see many SMB customers still using old-school telephone systems?

Interestingly, we are the last U.S. phone manufacturer of an analog phone system for business. It just keeps selling because that market, which is primarily customers with about 10 lines, why would you invest in special wiring? You don't have your own IT department. You're going to go with something simple, and this is out of the box, ready to go, no training needed. It's still very successful considering we've been selling it for decades. We try to keep in mind who are our customers and where are they going? They have the option to stay with what they have and move on in the future when they're comfortable, and they don't have to rip out their equipment.

How is Panasonic's channel program structured? What can a reseller expect as far as rebates, incentives and marketing funds are concerned?

We create the program for the reseller. Depending on how much they purchase from us, or from distributors, we call them Gold, Silver or Bronze partners. We created a program to give them benefits around that status. We have a rebate program that applies to the Silver and Gold partners based on cabinets or PBXes they purchase from us. We also give people access to free online training, a partner portal where all our information is kept, and marketing funds. If a reseller has all these interesting ideas about how to market to their end-user customers, we will entertain that. We have discounts for very large installations. We focus on the SMB market, but we don't discourage if somebody wants to do a larger installation. We have deal registration incentives.

How does Panasonic differentiate itself in the SMB space?

There are a few facets. One is that Panasonic products have a reputation that they just don't die. We have very long-lasted, quality products. That comes back to bite us eventually because we'll go to people who have phone systems that are 15 years old and say, 'Hey, we've come out with several generations since that product was released, maybe you'd like to upgrade, and the answer is, what for? It works just fine.' That's one big competitive advantage. Another is price. We are not the lowest, but we're competitively priced for the features that you get. We try to focus on giving customers what they need at a fair price. All of our support, pre-sales and post-sales, is in the United States. You're always speaking to someone who speaks English as their primary language and they're educated in phone systems.