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Cisco Systems on Oct. 16 took the wraps off Vertical Select, which gives VARs a crash course in marketing and sales tactics to tackle vertical markets.

Vertical Select, which also includes tools to help VARs in their efforts, is essentially a booster program for partners who are interested but not yet involved in vertical market penetration, said Luanne Tierney, Cisco’s senior director of U.S. Channels.

Through Vertical Select, the networking vendor aims to provide interested and qualified partners with an understanding of the business issues and opportunities within one of four verticals: financial services, education, health care, and state and local government. Once VARs commit to the vertical approach, they can tap Cisco marketing and sales support.

“This is not a fluffy program. It’s not just a dating service providing leads,” said Tierney. “What partners are [telling] Cisco is, ‘I’ve had some success in this particular industry, but I don’t necessarily have the expertise to go after it. I want to understand more.’ Training is number one: Understand the businesses. Then, those who want to go after that market with aggressive marketing, we’ll give them serious support.”

Cisco expects the program to fortify more VARs with in-depth business process knowledge to place business issues at the fore of the sale, something many partners already practice, Tierney and partners said.

“We have found that it’s critical to move beyond the technology itself to understanding how the technology will help our customers address the issues and concerns relevant to the financial industry,” said Dan Holt, principal consultant and CEO of HEIT Consulting, in Sunnyvale, Calif. HEIT upgraded a voice network at Delta National Bank and Trust Company, which had asked Cisco for a partner that understood the technology behind networks and financial business issues, such as compliance and security.

HEIT now invites banks to “Branch of the Future” seminars, where potential customers can learn more about the role of self-defending networks, unified communications and managed services in bank operations.

Cisco has contracted consultants to advise partners in the first step, understanding the vertical of choice, and is exploring the idea of vertical-specific channel account representatives and managers trained in specific verticals, according to Cisco statements. Eventually the verticals will likely evolve into a partner badge designation.

Cisco will help VARs put together industry specific direct-call campaigns and seminars with industry speakers. HEIT’s most recent seminar included a keynote by Paul Reymann, co-author of the Graham-Leach-Bliley Act, data protection rule.

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The financial services group was launched first and has been the most populated (70) because a large class of VARs had already been approaching that market vertically. Since January, 116 other VARs have been participating in Vertical Select as a pilot. Cisco expects to add retail as the fifth vertical in the coming “years,” according to Tierney and Cisco statements. Partners may participate in multiple verticals.

To qualify for the program, VARs must have five customers in a vertical and can work with account managers to develop those customers.