Cisco Partner Summit: Q&A with UKI partner lead Richard Roberts

At Cisco Partner Summit 2014 in Las Vegas, MicroScope discussed Cisco Cloud Services, the Internet of Everything and evolving partner opportunities with Cisco UKI partner lead Richard Roberts

With the launch of Cisco Cloud Services and the Intercloud, the push towards the Internet of Everything, to software and app development, mobility, services and more, not to mention major changes to partner requirements and certifications, the agenda at Cisco Partner Summit 2014 in Las Vegas was packed to the gunwales.

MicroScope took some time out from the hustle and bustle to sit down with Cisco UK and Ireland partner lead, Richard Roberts, and find out how these market trends and evolutions will affect Cisco's channel back home.

There have been some big announcements this year at Partner Summit. It’s a lot for the channel to take in.

There has been a real variety of topics discussed here, and I think many of them have been inspired by our partners bringing the challenges that they are seeing. These include customers demanding a greater level of consumption neutrality and also scale, many customers are looking for scale that partners are struggling to do on their own.

In some cases it’s fair to say that in the UK – although we are ahead of most other theatres in terms of cloud consumption, for example – there are areas that are not moving at the pace that they could and our partners have indicated that Cisco’s brand behind their value and their differentiation could really be the stimulant to get the market moving at the pace that we really believe it can, and should, so it’s been a fascinating few days.

You say areas are not moving at the pace they should be. Why should that be?

I think there are still some concerns if you look at the midmarket, which is actually an interesting area within the UK.

Midmarket and small business customers are perfect candidates to absorb consumption neutral services because they have very little IT expertise; they need to focus all their resources on their core business rather than the technology to support that.

However because they have very little IT expertise their knowledge of security is not at the same level as some of our larger customers, so there’s a fear there that is born out of a lack of knowledge and awareness of how security and data sovereignty and integrity are managed. Larger customers who have been absorbing cloud incredibly strongly in the UK obviously have IT professionals and are more in tune with the way the technology has evolved radically over the last few years.

So the messaging for small, midmarket and commercial segment partners is that this is an opportunity for them to start educating?

Absolutely, it’s about education on the viability of our solutions and the secure delivery, at scale, across a whole host of different applications and content. That’s a critical thing for all of us, including partners, to accelerate.

I think the other thing that our customers in midmarket specifically have been challenged with is to understand how they can get the best of all worlds. Again, because in the past cloud may have been seen as a binary – you’re either all in or you’re all out – the difficulties of understanding and executing on hybrid cloud held people back.

Now I think there is a much greater appreciation that hybrid cloud is viable and incredibly flexible, and the announcements Cisco has made this week both in support of our partners and the technology our partners need to support customers brings that to reality. That’s important, so you don’t have to bet the farm on cloud. Instead you can transition workloads, as it makes sense to your business, and where you believe it’s more appropriate and efficient to keep the workloads on-premise, on your own equipment, you can.

Some have accused Cisco of being late to market with Cloud Services and it is hard to deny that other offerings are out there ahead of you. How can Cisco win over partners and customers who’ve dipped their toes in cloud with other vendors?

It comes back to the choice I was just talking about, the ability for a partnership between Cisco, our partners and customers, to pick and choose where particular applications, workloads and outcomes move between cloud and on-premise. That’s a wonderful opportunity, so wherever they are placed now, if they believe there is bigger opportunity the technology and solutions we provide allow them to take that workload and seamlessly transition it to one of our partner networks, or the InterCloud.

The InterCloud offers incredible fluidity, flexibility and agility, and I think the ability to provide that in today’s dynamic, and significantly growing market is really important. I also think that coming to market with an ability to deal in true business outcome is more important than coming to market first.

We have a fabulously differentiated and diverse set of partners in the UK and they have created some wonderful customer transformations and some real success, be that collaboration infrastructure as a service, telepresence-as-a-service, contact centre-as-a-service – that’s happening fast, so we need to be aware that there are other players out there, but also aware that they can contribute and participate in InterCloud with our partners as well.

So it is more important to take the time to get it right than get it first?

I think we need to be clear on what our value is, our proposition to partners and our proposition to customers, and I think we need to be able to do things totally securely, with an architecture that scales, with an ability to deliver globally – where appropriate – and for it all to be seamless. That takes time for the technology to evolve to a point where it’s right, and for the customers and the market to be in a position where they believe it’s worth investing in the transition, so timing is very important and I think the timing is right for us.

Telstra from Australia was announced as the headline Intercloud partner or node. On what sort of timescale do you expect to recruit main partners in the UK?

There will be a lot of work going on in the next six to eight weeks to define exactly what the footprint will be and also what the diversity of solutions will be worldwide.

In the UK we’ve got a wonderful set of opportunities across public and private sector, and high-end enterprise and commercial midmarket, and I have no doubt we will have several choices available within the marketplace.

As the model evolves there will be opportunity for other partner offerings to be brought in as well, so we’re at the start of the journey, it’s a long term investment for us but it’s also an investment with real substance; it’s really important we provide something that’s a solution that businesses can bet their long term future on. A billion dollar investment over the next two years is a significant contribution. So I think you’ll see in the next six to eight weeks a little more refinement around the messaging and the commercial landscape, and I also believe we’ll see acceleration in terms of some of the partners that are contributing, participating and collaborating with Intercloud, either as resellers or contributors to the Intercloud itself. It’s a fabulous opportunity for partners, and we have such diversity and richness of partners in the UK. There’s a lot of pioneering cloud and managed service delivered in the UK that is then exported, so we see this as an accelerant to that.

Cisco talked about new modes of selling into lines of business (LOBs). You recently put out a survey with Intel suggesting there was danger that the channel would be challenged to engage with LOB buyers who may not know what resellers are. It now seems Cisco wants to help partners take control of that conversation. Is it fair to say that’s a key feature of the LOB discussion?

It’s an interesting point, but I don’t think it’s taking control back for the partners, no, I think our aim is totally and utterly business outcomes for the customer.

One of the things that is very difficult to do is to mandate customer behaviour around using whatever services are out there to test a particular VM or storage delivery service, for example. But the great thing is that we do have a very well-defined role for the partners to play in that and a huge opportunity for them to put their own differentiation into it.

Every morning there are several thousand resellers in the UK who have the opportunity to educate customers with us, for us, to complement and amplify the message and ensure the value around customer investment in a Cisco Powered cloud, or managed service, is worth it.

So how does a successful partner approach and sell into LOBs? Is it a different beast to the CIO or the IT department?

I think it is and I think there’s a real need to listen first and talk second, and I know that sounds simple but in terms of understanding, walking a mile in the shoes of the LOBs within your customer is incredibly important, because then you can understand what their true pain points are and where the business value really does reside.

In many instances our partners have been doing that for years through and with the IT community and up through to the CIO, but it’s much more important to put yourself in the user’s shoes when dealing with LOBs. I mean, how does a day feel to them? How does the business operate for them as an individual and therefore, how can we make the experience better for them, be it more productive, competitive, etcetera?

That’s why we have business technology and business transformation certifications that we’re bringing to the channel, that’s why we’re looking to invest in those business architect skill sets with partners, because we believe there is massive return on that level of investment. We also believe that our customers see huge value in that kind of conversation.

So although many of our partners have the skills we do recognise that we need to help each other get to the point where more and more of our partners feel more and more confident about having a very specific business relationship and business conversation. And the certifications will help.

Similarly, do partners need to change their mindset or practices to get involved in the Internet of Everything?

The great thing about the opportunity the IoE creates is that it is potentially limitless, so the ability to keep an open mind and understand the full potential of what the technology can deliver, and keep yourself availed of the evolution of, for example, sensor technology and all the other outlying elements of the IoE is a requirement of every partner right now, because our customers businesses are starting to see it from the consumer point of view, exactly how connected they could be, and it’s not a huge step for them to take that connected consumer experience into  the supply chain, their customer interactions, even the physical world.

So I think we have customers that are incredibly more ambitious than they ever were and their expectations are significantly higher. Now that’s incredibly empowering for partners but it does mean often that the first interaction with a customer traditionally was more about limiting the conversation to a point that you could deliver a solution to. With the IoE it’s about keeping the conversation as broad as possible, so you look what at the ambitious outcome could be, because the technology is now available to deliver against that like never before.

It makes for more interesting conversations too, doesn’t it? Everyone always talks about fridges and appliances going online – so in a similar vein you can really talk about the possibilities. Not that the channel is selling fridges, of course.

Yes, the real challenge is can you keep the context there at least and then once you understand what the true opportunity is, can you relate that back to how you would execute in terms of meeting the customer’s demands?

That’s where the business transformation skill set comes in; so it all converges on the same point in terms of how and what we sell, the ambition we can make real for our customers, and the expectations they have. All of that is an opportunity for partners, first to differentiate and second to look at their service capabilities, but also I think to change the world one little piece at a time.

Turning to the substantial changes made to the Cisco Partner Programme and how that will impact on the UK. What are your thoughts on the future for Silver Partners?

Well, partner certification and training has always been a journey and we have to keep refreshing and keep responding to the needs of the market and our partners.

A lot of what we do is a direct result of feedback from our partners, as a result of the interactions we have at our Advisory Boards worldwide – so we’ve never stood still. Everything that was announced here is a natural evolution based on where the market is going and the needs of our partners to serve that market.

Now, Silver is a relatively popular category in the UK and we have almost a dozen silver partners. However they have also chosen to specialise in particular areas, be that collaboration or some of the other architectures. What we announced was a timeline that we can work through together, and that’s important because depending on where the partners want to take their business there may well be significant return on them making that specialisation investment up to Master, or stepping up on a broader footing to Gold.

With the Master accreditations being as good as Gold and the branding of those specialisations being as good as Gold and the reward structure being in line with that as well, there’s no downside. Simplifying the program and making it far more even in terms of value is exactly what we should be doing.

If it’s as good as Gold, why not just make it Gold?

Gold carries a fantastic brand value in the UK around a real breadth of your business – the ability to deliver true end-to-end solutions with all the core attributes and skill sets around the technologies, architectures and so on. That is a phenomenally potent and valuable certification.

However in many cases a real depth fits better with partner business models, so if you want to sell, let’s say, collaboration then an ability to focus all of your efforts – and it’s a significant investment and focus to become a Master – needs to and should be rewarded to the same degree.

That doesn’t mean we’re comparing one end-to-end broad business certification which shows real breadth versus a specialisation where the investment is from a depth point of view; it’s still the same level of investment, still the same value to the customer, it’s just the business model that is different. Both have absolute value and the rewards associated with each deliver significant value as well.

When Cisco removed the lower limit to Gold customer satisfaction metrics at Partner Summit, it was said, paraphrasing, that all Gold partners had to do was delight their customers. What does that mean? What’s the baseline of delight for a Cisco customer?

Well, it is a very subjective view. You can measure it in customer satisfaction terms, you could put 4.5, whatever you want on that, and in fact we still – the UK is a great example of this – have a CSAT score with our partners that significantly above the 4.5 figure you’d see as excelling and generating customer delight.

But customer delight isn’t just about satisfaction; it’s about, are we together, delivering on the customer’s ambition? Do we have a strategic engagement with the customer? Are they transforming at the pace they want to transform?

My interpretation of delight is that CSAT is absolutely the centre and that’s a good indicator but that’s all it is. Removing the lower limit is testament to the fact that it does give you an indication. However it is also about rounded and strategic engagements with a customer, and delight flows through our ability to execute on that. Customer satisfaction will always play a central role in account planning and partner performance review. It runs deep in our DNA and has been there since day one and we will continue to be strong. But I think right now we need to help our customers go on these journeys that we’ve talked about earlier, around consumption neutrality and some of the other challenges such as IoE. The delight I think needs to be picked up on many different points.

Any final thoughts on where the UK channel is going for Cisco?

We’re lucky in the UK. We have a very vibrant market and there is some significant growth – the economy is picking up, the indicators are positive. I think we’re an innovation culture and our partners show that every day for us. A lot of what is happening now plays to the behavioural strength of our partners in the UK, so these are exciting times for us.

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