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Techaisle Blog

Insightful research, flexible data, and deep analysis by a global SMB IT Market Research and Industry Analyst organization dedicated to tracking the Future of SMBs and Channels.

New partner program from Cisco seizes the channel transformation conversation

Cisco held its annual Partner Summit on October 28-29, 2020, where it announced its new partner program. Since then, I have been sifting through pre-event analyst briefings, at-event announcements, post-event partner discussions. It has been difficult to find flaws with the Cisco partner program's vision, trajectory, commitment, and investments that Cisco is making in an integrated execution model to simplify partner engagement, support profitability, and drive partner differentiation. Cisco is focusing on customer-in rather than product-out.

Key announcements:

  • New partner program organized around four roles (Integrator, Provider, Developer, Advisor) while maintaining three-tier structure (Gold, Premier, Select)
  • Partner Experience Platform (PXP), a digital house to deliver a single source of truth and provide actionable insights, API-enabled for more automation and higher efficiency for partner success; consistent eight-month initiative resulting in a move from 166 siloed partner tools to a unified platform approach
  • Business Critical Services (BCS 3.0), a set of advisory services for customer use cases, for example, a secure remote workforce, trusted workplace, cloud transformation, multi-cloud networking, workload management, and automation
  • Significant increases in incentives for participating in BCS, Success Tracks, and Solution support

Rather than elaborating on each announcement's details, in this Techaisle Take, I am highlighting the three areas that showcase why Cisco is leading the charge in defining channels' future.

Future-ready partner profitability journey

The impact of the cloud on traditional channel business models is wrenching at all levels of business operations. Pay-as-you-go models are compelling to customers; there are higher rewards in business valuations for recurring revenue, and pursuit of as-a-Service calls for different sales approaches. Cisco recognizes that the profit model that was relevant yesterday, based on product lifecycle with margins, rebates, and close to the box services, is not the profit model that a partner will need to succeed. In direct contrast to several IT suppliers' narration about the customer journey, Cisco leads the partner profitability journey's conversation. Before the new announcements, the Cisco partner program was Cisco-out but not customer-in. Cisco put partners in a box, based on how they transacted or interacted with Cisco. The new program emphasizes the roles that partners play for customers. Besides integrators and providers, Cisco has added two new roles– developers and advisors. Developers who assemble solutions by leveraging Cisco components or building on Cisco's platform, and advisors who use their expertise to guide customers to the right solution, often in a pre-sales motion, or kickstart on the lifecycle journey.

Channel partners have looked to vendors for information on technology directions. They will continue to align new offerings with customer needs and internal resources with emerging requirements. This dependence grows more acute in times of structural industry change, as channel partners look to vendors for product insight and guidance on how to position their firms to ride with and not get swamped by the waves of change. However, the cloud has broken many of the links which connected channel and IT supplier business strategies. The buyer needs have become much more acute in the cloud era – meaning that the channel partner has an essential role to play in supporting mainstream businesses in IT acquisition. But the services/functions that have justified vendor payments to the channel have less direct value, which has strained the vendor/channel relationship. The channel's most significant opportunity is in meeting buyer needs – and that requires that the channel partner plot a path for the buyers rather than vendors. Cisco's new partner program helps partners be future-ready and build these capabilities to drive profitability by delivering full customer value across the lifecycle.

It is critical for partners to invest in new capabilities and differentiate their practices because the differentiated practices can jump-start their profitability journey. Front-end discounts and deal protection matter too for the partners. Cisco is inching towards a vendor-partner zero-friction future by introducing guided deal registration, which means faster approval time through a simplified process, apply the right promotions to offer the best discounts. Partners that are customer experience specialized will see incremental discounts and protection.
To align with the primary revenue model, cloud channel partners often view sales commissions as tied to a book of business, which is a challenging proposition to present to seasoned reps who have substantial quotas and variable compensation expectations. It is one reason why established channel partners have difficulty migrating from product sales to hybrid/cloud sales. To assist the partners, Cisco provides a bonus for maintaining monthly recurring revenue and a cumulative book of business. Lifecycle incentives vary from US$7500 (lifecycle starters) to US$100,000 (for defining a use case and then successfully delivering upon it) with the potential to earn up to 6% for additional software licenses sold.

APIs are essential to empower the consumption of Cisco technologies and enable partners to build tools and services on top. The shift to APIs isn't a matter of moving to where the market is going – it represents a requirement to accommodate a current need that will continue to increase in importance. Software-led business assessment is a tool that Cisco is introducing to help partners identify where they are in their journey. The tool identifies areas that partners may want to invest in or begin the process of becoming software-led and moving into the world of transformation. Associated with the assessment tool is a profitability simulator. Once the partner has determined the transformation path it wants to take, the tool simulates a profitability profile to ensure that partners get a return on their strategic investments.

Pivot to customer value creation through as-a-service

The notion that channel businesses need to add value - logistics, installation of software, upgrade, or implementation of a system, provision of services - to remain viable is old. Each value-add has an essential factor in common – it looks at what the channel does to enhance its revenue stream or differentiation. However, future-ready channel partners need to look at the issue from the other direction: how do the products and services delivered create value for the customer? What is my client able to do differently or faster, or more efficiently in a way that enhances their revenue stream or differentiation? In today's post-pandemic reality, customers are not especially interested in optimizing their hardware and software widgets' performance – they are focused on improving their businesses' performance. And this is where Cisco is focusing, empowering partners through agility, relevancy, and profitability to create customer value successfully.

We know that "as-a-service" is growing and is on its way to becoming the dominant technology acquisition model, as both a consequence of customer demand and a result of IT suppliers changing their business approaches to emphasize the as-a-service delivery model. Like HPE and Dell Technologies, Cisco is on a mission to empower buyers' preferences for rapidly deployable solutions through as-a-service, the need to work with managed service providers, realize value from technology investment, and assure the desired business outcome.

Cisco is estimating its as-a-service opportunity to be US$140 billion, two-thirds of which is potentially from the small market segment with pre-integrated solutions based on consumption models. Cisco is approaching the new technology acquisition business model holistically through three lenses: 1/ delivering exceptional outcomes, 2/ enabling and facilitating agility for Cisco customers by removing their operational burden when adopting Cisco solutions, 3/ regardless of the IT and cloud maturity as well as the size of the business, allowing them to adopt Cisco solutions in the most flexible manner.

Seeing the 'new normal' through the eyes of the customer

As per Cisco, its most profitable partners have been winning larger deals by accessing new buying centers outside of IT, by co-selling with ecosystem partners. Over the past six months, the need for partners that can support strategy, implementation, integration, and optimization has become much more acute. Business patterns changed by COVID-19 require businesses to accelerate digital transformation within their operations. In many customer organizations, purchasing authority has shifted from IT to business management. The shift requires partners to position their offerings and services in terms that emphasize business metrics, such as time to market and measurable revenue and cost impact, rather than technical specifications and targets. This business focus ripples through partner marketing and technical operations: marketing needs to emphasize time-to-benefit, the ability of individual solutions to contribute to overall business agility, and the direct application of IT features to pressing business needs; on the technology side, partners need to focus as much as possible on services centered around pre-built vertical solutions that can be deployed and integrated rapidly, with replicable processes and predictable outcomes, so that delivery matches the vision set by marketing and the requirements of the customer executives.

For decades, a turnkey solution approach worked well for customers, the channel, and vendors but it is out of sync with a hybrid world focused on a continuous path towards ever-greater levels of digital business capabilities. Business users are not committing to static systems that manage defined tasks/processes; instead, they are building approaches that allow for incremental deployment of new capabilities that increase reach and efficiency. And this is where Cisco is heading with a book of business aimed at the business buyer through a co-selling approach with Cisco sellers and ecosystem partners. To be successful, channel partners need to develop an ability to be flexible in their approach to customer needs. Cisco is committing to support this flexibility by enabling an ecosystem that can extend the ways solutions are deployable by adopting APIs that facilitate integration across complementary offerings. It also requires Cisco to establish alliances that help position these integrations as part of a strategy aligned with a digitally-transforming market.

Final Techaisle Take

In short, Cisco's partner program is ready for the future. It is a program that can help channel partners become the navigators in plotting customer digital transformation strategies.

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Techaisle data shows channel transformation has been challenging and split in the middle

Channel is okay. Channel is not okay. The answer depends upon whose perspective you listen to, how they define channels and how they are measuring channel transformation. Techaisle studied 814 US channel partners with revenue ranging from US$500K to US$50M and number of employees from 9 to 1200. Measured against 12 points of Techaisle’s channel transformation imperatives, only 5 percent of partners are nearing completion of their transformation journey. Data also shows that the channel transformation is split right in the middle. 52 percent of partners are transformation followers and 48 percent are transformation leaders. 45 percent of partners are in initial stages of transformation working on an average of 5.3 of the 12 imperatives.

Most vendors including Microsoft, SAP, IBM, Cisco and distributors such as Ingram Micro are focusing their efforts in helping their partners transform their business models but the channel has been slow to adapt to rapidly changing environment.

Let us discuss three areas that are priorities for IT suppliers, where channel is falling short and what is Techaisle’s recommended transformation timeline.

  1. Transforming from "sales quotas" to "book of business" - whole customer
  2. Transforming from "value addition" to "value creation", - business performance
  3. Transforming from "lead generation" to digital discovery" - reducing reliance
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How can suppliers identify cloud partners most likely to be successful

How can cloud suppliers identify the partners most likely to be successful or very successful in selling cloud? Techaisle’s 7th year of channel tracking survey data indicates that a powerful indicator is found in the growth paths identified by channel firms.

Characteristics of very successful cloud channel partners (“what to look for”)

  • Very successful cloud channel firms view advanced solutions as major opportunities and are focused on growing business in BI/analytics and IoT
  • Very successful cloud firms recognize that hybrid IT is the key and are anticipating increased revenue from data and/or application integration than their less successful peers
  • Nearly 90% of very successful cloud channel firms (as compared with just 23% of unsuccessful firms) offer IaaS to SMB customers
  • Over 90% of very successful cloud partners offer SaaS today. Less than one-third of unsuccessful cloud partners offer SaaS, and 20% neither offer it nor are planning to do so
  • Successful cloud partners view partner-to-partner (P2P) relationships as a strategic imperative, whereas unsuccessful partners connect with other channel firms on an opportunistic basis
  • There is a clear, multi-year trend of very successful cloud channel partners differentiating themselves by selling self-branded (and supported) cloud offerings
  • There is strong evidence in data to support the notion that very successful cloud partners are focused on assembling multi-sourced solutions to meet customer needs, 57% of very success cloud partners as compared to 31% of unsuccessful and 34% of successful partners
  • Three-quarters of very successful and nearly 70% of successful cloud partners offer UCaaS, vs. just 20% of unsuccessful firms
  • Successful channel firms are actively participating in cloud and IT orchestration and are investing in technology advisory & architects
  • Digitalization & digital transformation are new focus areas of very successful channel partners

What to look out for – characteristics of unsuccessful cloud partners

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12 points for Cloud Channel Transformation

Recent work by Techaisle shows that the need for channel management imperatives has expanded beyond the tactical questions of sales or management metrics or marketing activities. Techaisle has identified twelve fundamental areas where conventional wisdom has not kept pace with the fast emerging business needs of the channel. Channel policies based on conventional wisdom and past history is leading channel organizations away from the practices needed to compete successfully in the cloud market. Techaisle has developed 12 points for transformation of SMB channels table to illustrate ways that channel organizations must alter basic attitudes towards their business in order to be successful in the current and future IT market. Table below compares old model with new model with imperatives that are losing relevance with those that are emerging.

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