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Perspective: Cisco’s SMB Channel Partner Success Management

Cisco and the SMB market

Cisco has established an undisputed leadership position in the enterprise market. The company combines a widely-adopted and well-integrated portfolio of networking products with a highly-skilled (and paid) direct sales force to manage/expand its presence within major accounts.

The SMB market is a separate challenge. Here, buyers are less likely to require integration across multiple network components and more likely to emphasize price. They are also more likely to receive advice/management from channel partners, further reducing Cisco’s control over the acquisition process.

Against this backdrop, Techaisle’s SMB Channel Trends research illustrates the strengths and challenges Cisco must manage, as it looks to expand its share in the SMB segment.

Cisco Commands High Trust and Reputation within its Channel Partners

Within the channel community, Cisco enjoys a sound reputation and a high degree of trust. Techaisle’s SMB channel partner survey shows that 78 percent of Cisco’s SMB channel partners trust Cisco, a higher percentage than is registered by competitors such as HP and IBM. Nearly 70 percent of the partners believe that Cisco has quality products – again, the highest ranking recorded within the ‘hardware leader’ group including Cisco, HP, IBM and others. However, only 52 percent mention that Cisco has cutting edge technology, a percentage lower than that for both IBM and Microsoft. Moreover, 60 percent of Cisco’s SMB channel partners say that they Like Cisco, lower than corresponding rates for HP and Microsoft, only slightly higher than is found for IBM.

In its 2013 Annual report Cisco has written, “A substantial portion of our products and services is sold through our channel partners, and the remainder is sold through direct sales.” With specific reference to SMBs, Cisco wrote, “Generally, we define commercial businesses as companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. The larger, or midmarket, customers within the commercial market are served by a combination of our direct salesforce and our channel partners. Small businesses or companies with fewer than 100 employees, within the commercial market are primarily served by our channel partners.” Techaisle’s data shows that Cisco has attracted positive attention within this channel partner community, but that its technology and relationships may not leave it especially differentiated from competitors.

Data shows Cisco's SMB Channel Partner Challenges

Cisco is seeking to capitalize on market transitions and is steadily driving its channel partners to offer products and services that deploy cloud, mobility, virtualization, managed services, data center solutions and now Internet of Things. This is by no means an easy task as most SMB channel partners are being actively courted by competitive vendors that also want to grow their emerging technologies’ business. SMB channel partners selling emerging technologies have an average of 3.46 vendor partnerships; this average jumps to 4.21 for Cisco SMB partners, a difference of 21 percent. With this increased contention for mind/market/wallet share, it can be difficult for Cisco to manage brand identity and its related messaging.

This difficulty is illustrated by study findings showing that of the Cisco SMB channel partners, 44 percent consider Cisco to be their top partner. The other 56 percent mention Microsoft, Oracle, HP, IBM and several other firms. Within the VAR/SI community, Cisco’s share of preference is 48 percent; this drops to 39 percent amongst the MSPs/SPs that are viewed as critical to the success of future cloud initiatives.

It is not enough to only measure customer satisfaction or brand awareness to identify overall channel and market presence. Techaisle believes that it is important for IT vendors like Cisco to measure their Brand Equity within SMB channel partners as well as SMBs. Techaisle’s Brand Equity Score, BES-360, helps to identify areas where IT vendors can improve to increase share of wallet.

Cisco’s SMB Channel Partner Brand Equity

Our research finds that Cisco has done extremely well in building trust and reputation within its own SMB channel partner base. Cisco’s Brand Equity Score within its SMB channel partners is higher than most – but lower than scores for both IBM and Microsoft. The implication of these findings is that even through Cisco has high brand equity amongst its channel partners; it is not necessarily true that its entire SMB-focused channel base is firmly wedded to Cisco’s game plan.

Breaking down the data for Cisco, Techaisle’s study finds that almost 25 percent of Cisco’s channel partners have a Brand Equity rating of 80+ (on a scale of 1 to 100). This group forms Cisco’s core partners. The data also shows that almost 35 percent of Cisco’s SMB channel partners have equity of less than 40. These are the partners that Cisco needs to work on.

Interestingly, small business focused channel partners give a higher Brand Equity Score to Cisco than mid-market focused channel partners. This is a segment that Cisco should address as the mid-market is a battleground for most IT vendors and there is yet no clear dominant player.

Among all SMB channel partners of Cisco, VARs are actually driving up the Brand Equity Score. In fact 41 percent of VARs constitute the HBE (High Brand Equity) group. On the other hand, MSPs constitute only 20 percent. In order for Cisco to continue to grow its CMSP program and build on its initial successes, Cisco has to turn its attention to the MSPs that serve the SMBs to understand the key reasons for lower brand equity.

Drilling down further into the data, Techaisle finds that Cisco is not doing better within the overall managed services community than it is within MSPs focused on cloud. A higher percentage of Cisco’s HBE partners are offering managed services to SMBs whereas a higher percentage of ABE (Average Brand Equity) partners are offering Cloud to SMBs. Cisco’s SMB cloud ambitions would benefit from moving some of these ABE cloud partners to HBE segment. The HBE segment offering cloud services need extensive training on cloud solutions to become more successful in offering cloud to their SMB customers. More than 40 percent of these channel partners are working with SMB customers that have private cloud. This may be good for Cisco in the short-term but it does not represent best practice in this segment, and it is misaligned with the ongoing acceptance of public cloud as a preferred IT delivery platform.

Product resale revenue is 43 percent for HBE partners as compared to 38 percent for ABE. Similarly, recurring revenue is 57 percent for HBE as compared to 61 percent for ABE. Naturally, this bodes well for Cisco’s current revenue as the High Brand Equity partners are driving higher revenues from products. However, if Cisco plans to increasingly promote services then a lot more work is required to identify partners with higher services revenues and move them into the High Brand Equity segment.

Final Perspective

Brand Equity Score findings help indicate areas of expansion or exposure as vendors, like Cisco, assess their potential for expanding the footprint of their brands within the SMB channel partner community. The composition of Cisco’s BES across its channel indicates the core strength of its brand. Techaisle’s analysis indicates that Cisco has both strengths to build on and areas requiring focus as it moves to position its next-generation solutions (especially, cloud solutions) through its channel to the SMB market.

Techaisle’s brand management work is anchored in the belief that if a vendor’s brand equity is good, then it can compete successfully with vendors with lower brand equity for sales of comparable products or services. Vendors with sound products/services but low brand equity will struggle to maintain parity with competitors that have higher brand equity, even if that vendor’s products/services are (somewhat) inferior.

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Friday, 18 January 2019

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