Jeff Marshall, Director, North American Cisco Practice, Servion Global Solutions
Decades ago, our IT shops had a fondness for specific technology vendors, often expressed as, “no one ever gets fired for buying [vendor x].” It seemed quite common to purchase in silos –databases from one, LAN from another, servers from a third and so on. With the rapid pace of acquisitions in past years, and even some recent large-scale organizational changes, it’s hard to keep pace, and it’s even more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff when working with technology vendors and their partners.
I worked for a rapidly-growing company in the late 90’s that was acquired by Cisco Systems. The technology was strong and there was an intentional fit with other recent Cisco acquisitions. At first, Cisco’s reliance on a partner ecosystem was completely foreign to me. How were we going to address all of our customers’ needs in this very large company? But I soon learned that my value, including the background I could bring to the conversation and my ability to react to a client’s need, wasn’t entirely lost. Instead, it was being shifted to the partner ecosystem. After a couple of years, I left Cisco and have been employed as a leader in the partner space ever since.
A recent search put the number of US Cisco partners at over 15,000. With a bit of insider knowledge from Cisco, I hope I can help you navigate this very broad and complex ecosystem around the value that Cisco specifically brings to the table, as well as the value that its partners can offer you.
Within the Cisco Channel Partner program, I really see three variations of partner focuses:
1. Resellers who simply provide products at a price
2. Systems Integrators who sell products, but also deploy and maintain them
3. Technology Service Partners who bring specific technology expertise and value-add services to the conversation
Some partners may only focus on one area, while others focus on all three (often with small, well-organized technology teams under their larger SI umbrella). While it would be easy to recommend that you go to cisco.com and search the partner locator, the results won’t show everything you need to know.
Partners have excellent sales teams. Most of us have our sweet spot of excellence and we should be doing a good job in helping you understand our value. While we’re all in the same grocery store, the analogy is that we know that we’re not going to ask the butcher how fresh the bananas are. One way to avoid partner overload is to engage the Cisco sales team and ask them for some references. Many technologies need very specific knowledge experts to solve the really complex problems, and it’s easy to get lost in the “what” of the technology and miss the “who” without at least a little help.
“Cisco employs processes that ensure their partners have minimum skill sets to achieve success for some of their very complex technologies”
Cisco employs processes that ensure their partners have minimum skill sets to achieve success for some of their very complex technologies. Look for these specializations, such as Master Specializations and Advanced Technology Partner (ATP), in the technology space you’re focusing on. Use caution when assuming that partner certification levels specifically outline levels of quality. Many partner program classifications simply denote revenue attainment levels (e.g. Gold, Silver, and Premier).
It’s not at all unusual for me (as an ATP) to partner with an incumbent partner to solve a larger client need. As the client, don’t disconnect yourself from the conversation. Your incumbent should clearly understand that (a) it’s not your intent to get rid of them and (b) there is value that the other partner brings to the table. You may be inclined to have your current partner be the prime and handle all the contracts, bills of materials, services, etc. This arrangement works about equally as well as I’ve seen it turn into a disaster. There are two specific cautions. Firstly, there is always the hazard of margin stacking, where the incumbent takes the price from the new technology partner and adds a bit of margin on top of it. Secondly, there will always be a discussion about who runs the project. Does the incumbent? They know your business; do they have the relationships with you and your team, or does the higher-level technology partner run it? Only you know this, and only after independent conversations with both partners. Insist that all contracts run through you. Then, decide who runs the project and if you want your incumbent to hold all the paper, while you have full clarity.
To conclude, use Cisco to gather partner references, engage at the technology level to develop the “who” and participate in the ecosystem conversation.