Big changes to Cisco SMB business worry former Linksys partners

Former Linksys partners have undergone a bumpy transition and are worried about ongoing changes to Cisco's SMB business.

Former Linksys partners that joined Cisco's small business practice in August say the transition has been bumpy, and some worry about their future even as more changes are planned.

Cisco said earlier this month that it is dumping the Linksys brand for small businesses and will launch new products under two new names: Cisco Small Business and Cisco Small Business Pro. The Linksys name will now be used only for consumer products.

"We felt it was important to go out under a single brand," said Mark Monday, vice president of product marketing in the small business technology group. "We were confusing our audience by having a Linksys and Cisco name selling to small businesses."

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Just a week after that announcement, Linksys senior VP and general manager J. Michael Pocock resigned. His departure has not ruffled many feathers among partners, who say they never had direct contact with him anyway, but some still think his exit was "political."

"You spend that long building a brand just to have it replaced -- I'd be pretty upset, wouldn't you?" said Austin Smith, CEO of Atlanta-based DigitalSon I.T. Services, a Cisco small business partner, formerly of the Linksys channel.

Now partners have to figure out how they will incorporate Cisco's new small and medium-sized business (SMB) products, which are expected in December but have yet to be fully outlined. They're also watching for Cisco's moves in the SMB market in general.

In August, when Cisco folded the Linksys business channel into its own, the company also formed a new SMB council in charge of development, manufacturing and marketing products. That council determined three patterns of small business buying. One type of company buys products over the counter and doesn't need assistance. The other two categories need services from value-added resellers (VARs) and product lifecycle management. These are SMBs with multiple sites and elite companies, such as small financial services firms, that function like enterprises and depend on a strong network. Many of the new products will target these latter two categories. Partners will now also be able to offer services to these companies similar to the packages available to larger enterprises, Monday said.

The brand change is a positive sign for former Linksys partners -- with some reservations.

"It's actually a beneficial thing. Now we don't have to sell Linksys, which is associated with consumer products," Smith said. "For us, it's not a big deal as long as the prices don't change. That's my main concern."

But until the new products are released, partners won't know whether there has been a sharp change in pricing.

Other partners are more concerned with a fast and smooth transition.

"I'll wait to see how they do it … if it's dragged out over time or if it's a clean issue," said Roger Otterson, president of Qualitec in San Diego.

"Our customers don't read trade publications, so dragging it out won't be beneficial. Relying on old ways of image marketing and network speak will not inspire a business owner to sign a check," he said.

Otterson said Cisco has to realize that SMBs want a straightforward message that identifies their problem and simply explains the solution.

"They have to convince people if they spend a little money now, they'll save over the years," Otterson said.

Meanwhile, Cisco has to ramp up its efforts in bringing the Linksys folks into the fold.

"I think they're positive about this, but honestly there's not been a clear kick-off start or clarity to what it means to partners. They haven't reached out and said, 'Here's what we're going to do and let's go,'" Otterson said.

What's more, at least a couple of Linksys reps have been moved around or promoted, leaving partners with new Cisco contacts that they have yet to hear from.

"I couldn't even tell you who [the new reps] are," Otterson said, regarding his own territory in Southern California.

Those Cisco SMB partners who didn't come over from Linksys are less concerned and eagerly await the new products.

Jen Wong, owner of Dynamic Quest in Greensborough, N.C., said he expects new products to be higher-end than what Linksys had offered, but at a lower price than Cisco's previous entry-level line.

"When we try to sell products, there is always a big void for businesses that want Cisco product but can't afford it," Wong said. He added that he would like to see versions of the entire Cisco line, including routers, switches and access points, made for this price point. In the meantime, Wong said Cisco has offered special packages and prices to sell the combination of existing Linksys and Cisco SMB products.

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