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Cisco introduces new specialty and Certified program level for VARs that work with SMBs

Cisco Systems, Inc. announced this morning that it is introducing a new, entry-level partner certification level and a host of new products all designed to help it expand its presence in the small- and medium-sized business market.

Cisco’s SMB announcement this morning at its Partner Summit in Las Vegas included the announcement of its SMB Specialization for channel partners – the first time Cisco has designated a certification for a segment of the market rather than a technical specialty.

The announcemend also included a package of products designed for networks of 16 users or fewer, including the previously announced Unified Communications 500 series, which supports both softphone and dual-mode phone voice-over-IP networks, and is designed to be simple enough to use that no IT specialist is required.

The SMB package also included the Catalyst Express 520, a Power over Ethernet (PoE) switch designed for Cisco VOIP phones, the 521 Wireless Express Access Point and 526 Express Mobility Controller. Together those two wireless LAN components are designed to create dynamic wireless networks with – again – little help from IT specialists.

Cisco also announced new versions of its Configuration Assistant and Monitor Director/Monitor Manager, which provide real-time monitoring and troubleshooting that is usually provided by channel companies. 

The new Select certification adds a new tier to Cisco’s Certified Partner program, which currently includes Gold, Silver and Premier levels, plus Registered partners that sign up as resellers, but aren’t eligible for most of the training, discount or rebate programs available to Certified partners.

Cisco execs said they expect about half the 10,000 Registered partners to move up to Select. Members of Cisco’s SMB Select program – its current SMB-focused channel category – will have six months to qualify as Select partners.

Achieving Select status requires an SMB Specialization certification – which means passing a series of training sessions and exams focused on the sales and technical skills required to serve SMB customers.

In return, partners will get access to partner-development funds to help generate demand and prospect for new customers, as well as access to the new SMB Opportunity Incentive Program, which rewards SMB-focused VARs for finding and landing new customers. Select partners also get access to other Cisco incentive programs, including Cisco Capital’s Easy Lease program, which helps fund projects for SMB VARs without requiring hefty upfront payments for all the equipment involved. (Also see Cisco to extend SMB leasing through Ingram Micro partners.)

The SMB specialty is Cisco’s first to focus on the size of a market rather than its technical specialty. It has introduced several technical specialty certifications during the past year, in an attempt to expand sales in security, voice-over-IP and other areas. (See also Smaller VARs annoyed at Cisco’s Master VoIP certification.)

Cisco channel chief Keith Goodwin said the SMB specialty is a continuation of Cisco’s effort to expand its share in the SMB market, which has been weak compared to its dominance in other areas.

“We’re putting a strong marketing focus on that space,” Goodwin told at the company’s C-Scape analyst conference in San Jose, Calif. in December. “We need to double our SMB resellers. We don’t want all our partners to go there, but we want to build up classes such as distributor affiliates and get them into the Cisco business model where they can grow profitably.”“Cisco didn’t focus on SMB a few years ago,” Goodwin said. “Now, for the first time we’re building purpose-built products for the SMB space and our partners can take advantage of disruptive technology, such as unified communications, to grow their businesses.” 

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