Monday, November 6, 2006

Cisco's Master Specialization Channel Partners Program

This morning, Cisco has announced an expansion to the high end of their channel partners program. I don't normally comment on breaking news releases, but I happened to get a briefing about this on Friday at Cisco Canada's office, so I got an extended look at what this is about, and was asked to keep it under embargo until the news came out. So here we are.

It's a mouthful, but the Master Unified Communications Specialization is a bit like getting your MBA, or as I'm seeing with my youngest son in Tae Kwon Do, getting your 9th Dan Black Belt. There's a lot involved, but the briefing and today's news gives me a better appreciation for Cisco's approach to channel partners, and just how central this is to their overall success. No doubt Cisco is the gold standard for the channels, and I'm sure their competitors are watching this closely.

Cisco's channel programs have 3 levels along 2 axes - Depth and Breadth. For Depth, the tiers are Express, Advanced and Master, whereas Breadth has its own tiers - Premier, Silver and Gold. Today's news essentially focuses on channel partners with Master Depth and Gold Breadth in the Unified Communications space.

Any Cisco follower knows that Unified Communications is a core element of their enterprise communications business. Their UC platform was launched in March, and builds on key IP enablers such as presence and SIP to support multimedia communications across all networks and types of devices/endpoints.

Underlying this is their view that growth will be driven by the applications rather than the cost savings that initially drove IP adoption. This isn't just about growth for Cisco, but growth for everyone involved. It's about growth for enterprises as they learn how to use UC to become more innovative and competitive. It's also about growth for their channel partners. This is where the Master Specialization status comes into play.

For the channel partners who really get it with UC, and know how to sell it and support it, they grow too. As I learned in the briefing, this elite group sells more Cisco and makes better margins than channel partners down at lower levels. I got a taste of that from one of Cisco Canada's top channel partners, Unis Lumin on Friday. As their President, Glenn Mowat explained, when talking to enterprises about what UC can do for them, it's not really about ROI - these become "dream with me" conversations, where the focus is about business transformation. It's a classic consulatative selling approach, and one that's entirely appropriate in these situations - so long as the channel parter really knows how to walk the walk. And that's what the Master Specialization is all about.

Cisco relies on channels for virtually all their business, and given the strategic importance of Unified Communications, it only makes sense to create this new designation. These channel partners need to be schooled at the highest level to do right by Cisco, and need to be incented and rewarded accordingly.

Stepping back a step, this the second vertical Master Specialization for Cisco's channels, and the first vertical - network security - was launched in September. So, UC adds another dimension to this Depth level, and further demonstrates Cisco's commitment to supporting its channels. Works for me.

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