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Cisco channel chief talks collaboration, certification

Cisco's new channel chief Wendy Bahr took over the position of channel vice president for North America from the very popular Chuck Robbins in early January 2008. A former Verizon executive, Bahr joined Cisco in 2000 as operations director of network service providers. SearchITChannel.com sat down with Bahr after her first 90 days in office to talk about collaboration software, partner certifications and more.

You've been in your position for three months now. How's it going?
I remember thinking when accepting the role that this will be a different kind of challenge than I'm used to, because things are going very very well. Sometimes you step into a role -- which I have done at many points in my career -- where it's a turnaround or cleanup role. In such cases, the problems are pretty obvious, and you know what needs to be done. I felt this role was a little more challenging because we had had such positive feedback from partners on programs, on the innovations we've done, and I had to think about what I could bring to the role. Was Chuck Robbins a tough act to follow?
Chuck is a very gregarious, and very popular, leader, and has done a lot for the channel. When I asked myself
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what I could do in the next 12 months to bring value to the channel, I settled around collaboration and ease of doing business. Although we've been focused on that for some time, there's always room to improve. And also, frankly, my goal is not to do damage to things that are working. I've had a lot of feedback along the lines of: "We're glad you're here, but frankly, we're pretty happy with the way things are." I heard the phrase "stay the course" a lot. When we talked to partners earlier this year, they expressed dissatisfaction with the certification process. What is Cisco doing to make this easier?
It's certainly an interesting challenge. I hear that partners love the certification and specialization programs because there are ways that they can differentiate themselves. That said, we have many levels of certification, and within those you have various levels of specialization, and it can get complicated and take a lot of time. And clearly as you move up the partner certification stack, from Select to Premiere to Silver to Gold, the investment gets significant. Partners are concerned about the time it takes in comparison versus the return on investment (ROI) they get. So we're hearing from partners, "We love the certification, but make it easier." We will do that by focusing on automation, Web access and collaborative online chat -- anything we can do to move more aggressively toward helping our partners achieve accreditation. Do you have any advice to partners on how to weather the economic downturn we're currently in?
This came up at the Partner Summit. Despite the clouds on the horizon, most of our partners have a relatively positive outlook. We're encouraging them to continue to build demand, fill the pipeline, and track close ratios carefully. Obviously, marketing becomes even more important, so we're focused on demand generation programs, and frankly, on working around solutions rather than just technology. Business problems need to be solved just as much when the economy is a little more challenging. Cisco recently announced that it enabled integrated services routers (ISRs) to be Linux application servers. How would partners approach this kind of upsell?
It all comes down to riding the applications that can be used on the ISR. Applications and collaboration are two things that are key for Cisco and to our partners in this area. We're encouraging partners to work with applications providers to make sure the right sorts of applications are being written. You talk about collaboration a lot. Are partners really willing to work with each other?
We recently commissioned a study of about 500 partners globally, to ask them this question, and we found out that they are. We're seeing a lot of partnerships revolve around what I would call "surge coverage" -- whether partners need help when their business surges, but don't have the capability or need to staff up for 365 days a year. Or product partners who need help from services-only partners. We're seeing a lot more of that. The diversified communications race has become heated in recent years, ratcheting up competition between Microsoft and Cisco partners. As Nortel expands its offerings, it will become even more heated. What does Cisco offer to make partners think they can win with Cisco?
From a collaboration and application standpoint, the power of our unified communications (UC) solution, the experience we have with the platform and the fact that we're a leader in the market are all powerful things that make it easier, not just for the partners, but also the customers, to take advantage of collaborative applications. We created a tool, the Cisco Unified Workplace License (CUWL) that is a bundling of licensing SKUs to make it easier for partners to quote -- and easier and more cost-effective for end users to buy -- unified communications solutions. We're also encouraging partners to use unified communications solutions in their own production environments -- to use UC every day and see for themselves how it impacts productivity. Cisco has become more focused on selling services rather than just products. Can you comment on this?
We're making sure that the product-focused partner programs are more aligned with service-oriented programs. Right now they are quite separate, making it an additional burden for the partners to get certified in both products and services. We just announced an initiative that will take about 12 months to complete, where we are working toward greater alignment and greater interlock between service and channel products programs. What are your goals for when you hit your one-year mark?
Ensure that we continue to provide the best-in-class support for partners, and enable them to profitably grow their business, capturing as much opportunity and market share as is available. We especially are interested in collaborating with them using Web 2.0 tools, to improve the timeliness of our support and improve the speed to sales, and therefore time to revenue -- and we think striving for all of these things will make us more collaborative in terms of sharing best practices and ideas.

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