When Denny Trevett first joined Cisco’s partner team 20 years ago, the channel program was all about resellers selling boxes. As the company began to move into voice and the data center, software vendors became much more important. Cisco’s move into architectures—essentially a combination of products and technologies that form a solution—the program became about helping resellers grow into managed service providers.

So Trevett has seen a good deal of evolution in the IT channel, and has borne witness to Cisco’s efforts to keep pace. Now, as vice president of ecosystem acceleration at Cisco, he (along with everyone else in enterprise IT) is focused on how to reshape the priorities of Cisco’s partner program in order to navigate the digital transformation (DX).

Trevett says the DX requires another rethinking of what role partners play and how vendors structure their entire channel strategy to accommodate the line of business (LOB) buyer and solving for business outcomes. Today, Trevett’s team is focused on recruiting and enabling a new class of non-reselling partners: independent software vendors (ISVs), digital solution integrators, consultants and digital agencies. These partners don’t sell anything for Cisco; their expertise is not necessarily in the nitty-gritty of the technology.

“They help work with Cisco and our channel partners to really go create new solutions to tap into net new budgets, typically outside of IT, to help customers solve real business problems,” says Trevett. “That's a big transformation…we have to change how we sell and how we go to market with these new players to really tap into the full opportunity.”

We hear this a lot in the channel these days, but Trevett says that Cisco is working on unconventional ways to achieve those ends, namely facilitating alliances between what used to be natural competitors.

Solution provider ePlus has its roots in leasing, a niche that its CTO Mark Melvin says has always relied on teaming with other partners to grow a business. Though the company has evolved from pure-play leasing to providing managed services, Melvin remains adamant that partner-to-partner (P2P) relationships continue to be an integral part of ePlus’s business model and growth strategy. Trying to sell widgets, he asserts, is a sure path to lukewarm sales. Upgrading an offering with software and other IT offerings changes the conversation and steers it toward a path of more lucrative margins.

“These [different offerings] that come together to really change the way that we service our customers have really led us to believe in the program of partnership,” says Melvin. Getting used to partnering with shops that would normally be considered ePlus competitors while operating on the leasing side has led the company to realize the value in P2P alliances.

“We’re willing to partner with our competitors in deals where we don’t have the skills and they might. It just makes sense. Whether it’s another partner and we’re partnering with them, an ISV and we’re working with them to create a solution, we’re very open to doing it and it’s been very successful for us.”

Andy Vandevald, vice president of global strategic alliances at Veeam Software, says that as resellers move from a single-product focus to delivering solutions, innovative P2P relationships are beneficial to everyone involved.

“The drive is to create more value added services, and I think Veeam partnering with technology companies, particularly like with Cisco where we can deliver a more comprehensive solution, is adding to the value that a reseller partner can deliver to the customer.”

And, no doubt, adding to Veeam’s bottom line.

What does the LOB sales process really look like?

Nearly every conversation regarding sales in the channel is today placing heavy emphasis on the LOB buyer. As Vandevald puts it, LOB buyers look far more at what the impact of technology will have on their bottom lines than the technology itself. But Trevett says technology is still the core of any business solution, and the DX requires refreshes to core infrastructure such as network capabilities and the data center. Cisco’s approach is an attempt to reconcile the two: provide LOB solutions that also satisfy IT.

The problem for traditional reseller partners is not that they don’t know they should be selling to LOBs. It’s trying to, as Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins has said, “own the digital conversation.” If a prospect still has an IT budget, partners should absolutely close the deal on the merits of the technology itself. But if they don’t—as increasingly is the case—partners have to find a way to bring LOB buyers together with IT and satisfy both parties at once.

The roadblock for partners, Trevett explains, is that they don’t speak the LOB language. Conversations focused on business outcomes can be unfamiliar and lead to questions some partners are unable to or uncomfortable with answering. Cisco can—and has—provided training on how to sell to LOBs for some time, but Trevett says that approach doesn’t leverage the full power of Cisco’s partner ecosystem. It isn’t how partners sell that’s the challenge; it’s whom they sell with.

“We have relationships with thousands of software vendors, other hardware vendors, different digital solutions integrators or consultants that have the credibility with these line of business buyers. There's a wealth of them, so it's all about leveraging those different partners in that first meeting with the line of business to help build the bridge between line of business and IT and go down this path.”

Most partner ecosystems—especially one as robust as Cisco’s—have so many firms that have solved business problems over the years that there’s no reason resellers should have to go it alone. If Cisco, Veeam or other reseller partners want to move the needle, it’s incumbent upon them to do the upfront work so partners can deliver what their customers are asking for.

Cisco’s iterative approach

Trevett says Cisco has rolled out a couple of different initiatives designed to bring partners together, from Ecosystem Exchanges—essentially speed dating for software vendors or digital solutions integrators looking for reseller partners—to enterprise Partner Connections, which he compares to the reality show Shark Tank.

“We bring five or six or 10 ISVs up on stage. They all have eight minutes to pitch their solutions and how they solve problems with customers and how they partner with resellers. Then we use technology to connect the resellers in the room with the ecosystem partners.”

The events have been a hit with Cisco’s reseller ecosystem, but few partners had the bandwidth to follow through on the connections they made once they returned to the daily grind of running their business. After conversations with partners and Cisco sales executives, Trevett realized his programs couldn’t stop at introductions. Cisco needed to own that last mile of sales execution. He’s still focused on introductions and partner connections, but he doesn’t want to stop there.

“We do things like sales blitzes, where we do the lunch and learn. We train the reps on whatever it is, but then the reps from the software vendor are cold calling side by side with the reps from the reseller to drive customers to an event or the executive briefing or whatever it might be.”

It’s called the Accelerating Cisco Ecosystem Sales (ACES) program, and Trevett says it’s been a game changer for Cisco’s selling process. Vandevald confirms that it’s the same story at Veeam. The ability for disparate partners to aggregate solutions in order to present as one face to the customer has opened new avenues for sales teams.

Cisco rolled out the ACES program to test it with a select number of partners, and Melvin says it’s helped solidify what ePlus has been doing with Cisco for years on an informal basis: identify up and coming solution partners and ISVs that allow ePlus to be on the leading edge of Cisco’s solutions.

“We’re not talking about a product. We’re talking about a business outcome, a value that we can drive for them and with them,” says Melvin. “It’sr really helped us accelerate our sales process.”

Trevett says that Cisco will still be training partners on the LOB sales process with best practices, templates and other tools. But ACES brings in facilitators that sit down with resellers who want to combine offerings from other vendors like Veeam with Cisco products to drive demand and build paths to revenue in a detailed, sales-oriented approach. The ACES pilot tracked numbers from six different partners that were involved. For 59 reps, Trevett says, Cisco found 241 opportunities with 192 accounts. One of the most impressive aspects of the program is the apparent flexibility between the associated partners as to who owns the deal.

“Each deal takes a different tact, especially depending on who owns the customer relationship,” Melvin explains. “In a lot of cases we do own the customer relationship and we do take the lead. But in a lot of cases Cisco or one of the solution partners may have the lead. Or maybe the technical problem we’re trying to develop a solve for is better led by one of the solution providers.”

Vandevald says ACES is an example of a new type of partner program that will gain traction because it gives more motivated sellers a place in the larger sales initiative. Making sure that Veeam is aligned with other technology vendors that are also being integrated into solutions is critical for its own sales revenue, but it also relieves a lot of burden on the reseller to have to try and pull in multiple vendors with multiple salespeople.

“You know, that's a lot of work. Cisco's trying to do that for them through this ACES program, and I think it's a brilliant idea. Cisco's already tested the technology, they're in a unique position to bring those technologies together and then present that as a unified solution to the reseller who can then take that to the customer.”

And he freely admits that the program isn’t just good for Cisco and its reseller partners. If Veeam or its partners can aggregate their technologies before it gets to the reseller or to the customer, it’s good for end users, resellers, software vendors like Veeam and, clearly, Cisco itself.

In case partners need more convincing, Melvin says that ecosystem is critical to developing solid solutions for ePlus’s customers, and that it underlies the company’s continued success.

“Business has grown steadily every year, and it came from moving from just being a VAR that took orders and doing fulfillment to moving toward that solution integrator position where we’re working with the [partner] ecosystem, developing the reference architecture and solutions. We can go to our customers and provide a better business value and outcome.”