Cisco's latest partner program upgrades could trigger the biggest opportunity for its Australian channel partners in the last 20 years.
That is the view of Graham Robinson, Data#3 national Cisco partner manager, who called Cisco's transition to being a software-centric provider as a momentous opportunity to change the way customers consume technology.
Speaking to ARN during Cisco Partner Summit 2021, Robinson said it was too easy in the past for technology to end up left unopened in a box on a customer's shelf.
"Cisco's transition to a software-centric model is the biggest opportunity that I have seen in the channel for 20 years," he said.
"It is fundamentally an opportunity not just to help customers with technology but to help them completely change the way they consume technology and the programs in place make sure they're getting the value out of it.
"It was too easy five years ago to provide technology to your customer that never got used. It got left on the shelf or sat in boxes. Now there is a demand from customers to make sure they're getting value for money, and what Data#3 and the partners are delivering are business outcomes."
The reorganisation of the channel program around a software model will see some big shifts for local partners, some of which are already underway.
One of these was to consolidate multiple programs and structure partners into four specific roles — integrator, provider, developer and advisor — the former two having launched already.
For Sydney-based Cisco partner Taleka Asia Pacific, the traditional reseller moniker never quite fit. As such, director Tracey Kingston believes the reorganisation will enable it to finally differentiate itself using its "key strengths".
"For us at Taleka, it is a change that we have been waiting patiently for, as we never really fitted into the traditional reseller partner mould as a consulting ecosystem partner," she said.
"The advisor role will be perfect for us to help us show our value more easily. Having different options available to partners such as ourselves will enable partners to grow in different areas as they see fit.
"We are seen as the ‘trusted advisor’ to customers but we may look at other ways to build up our skills and offerings (such as developer) if we feel like there is a gap in the market, or alternatively continue to partner with other partners that are highly skilled in this area."
For a large player like Data#3, the key area that has stood out in Cisco's new partner strategy was the launch of single-contract enterprise agreements, known as EA.30, which Robinson said will have a big impact on the company's administrative burden.
"We started with many of our customers having individual enterprise agreements with Cisco and, over the last year or so, we have expanded these customers to multiple enterprise agreements," he said.
"Every time we do that, we have to renegotiate a new enterprise agreement; it's a lot of work for Cisco and it takes us and Cisco away from focusing on the customer. The new agreement allows us to focus on activating the software and how to use the software. Once you have the framework, it becomes easier to focus on the outcome and not the contract.
"It will lower the barriers of entry for customers to explore new areas of technology," he added.
However, for Nathan Georges, owner of Sydney partner Tekoi Consulting, the enterprise agreement reform will have a limited impact, given the company's speciality in small-to-medium businesses (SMB).
"Enterprise agreements certainly enable partners to broaden the outcomes by expanding the dialogue with customers," he said. "However, these contracts are often difficult to transact without the right specialisations and based on my experience, not encouraged in the commercial and SMB patches as they are suggested to increase the sales cycle.
"If targeting partners focused on other segments other than perhaps enterprise, then more needs to be done to enable partners and account managers to construct such agreements."
Specialisation was indeed a big focus for Cisco's global channel chief Oliver Tuszik, especially those that will enable cross-selling and cross-architecture.
Of particular note is the Customer Experience Specialisation, which all gold integrators will have to achieve by April 7, 2022.
Although Kingston admits she is "probably biased in this area" as customer experience is Taleka's key area, the push to improving this should help partners more broadly across the channel.
"We believe it is imperative for any partner (not just gold) to be focusing on CX, if they want to stay relevant," she said. "I think it is a good move that Cisco is setting the new requirements as a way to help partners on this journey. We can always help fill in the gap for partners until they see the value and build up their own skills internally."
According to Robinson, partners have been focused on CX for some time, but it remains an area that continues to evolve.
"Cisco's gold partner is the industry gold standard. If Cisco is going to continue to raise the bar so its partners can deliver on the promise of its value proposition, it can't be limited to just the technical skills we have been developing for decades," he said.
"It has to be beyond that: it has to look at the lifecycle piece. It has to look at the business objective and put a plan in place with the customer. This means consulting with the customer to clearly map out what activities need to be done; the planning, the design, deployment, migration and going through the adoption activities."
"The specialisation ensures that partners have the skillset to engage in a structured way with customers to deliver the outcome and not just the technology: there is a big difference between those two things."
Nevertheless, for Georges, the owner of a Cisco Premier Partner, the specialisation changes may potentially place smaller partners at a bigger disadvantage.
"These specialisations further spread the gap between emerging and legacy partners making it harder to achieve gold status," he said "Large partners often achieve this status as a result of their headcount whereas these specialisations are often out of reach for smaller partners.
"It would be refreshing to see Cisco introduce scaling to the requirements based on the organisation size as opposed to creating a one size fits all requirement for partners."