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Cisco Systems on April 3 introduced a new layer to its channel program with a designation for partners focused on the small and midsize market.

Calling the SMB market a huge opportunity worth about $10 billion, Cisco executives acknowledged the networking and security vendor traditionally has focused primarily on enterprise and midmarket companies while getting limited penetration in businesses with a maximum of 250 employees.

To change that, the company introduced the “Select” designation for partners that qualify as SMB-focused solution providers. To qualify, partners must successfully complete sales and technical training focused on routing, switching, security and wireless.

Cisco’s SMB business is 100 percent channel-driven already, but the vendor wants to widen its reach in a segment of the market that is expected to surpass the enterprise space in IT spending within a decade.

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Cisco executives were adamant about the company’s reliance on partners as the customer’s “trusted adviser” to reach the SMB market.

“It is the partner that really drives the customer experience,” said Andrew Sage, senior director of worldwide channels marketing for Cisco, speaking during a presentation to press and analysts during Cisco’s Partner Summit, taking place this week in Las Vegas.

The “Select” designation adds a layer to the three-tier Cisco partner program, which until now consisted of the “Gold,” “Silver” and “Premier” designations.

Before adding the new designation, Cisco surveyed some 2,500 partners globally to learn their needs in addressing the SMB market, said Sage.

The company found Cisco makes up about 15 to 25 percent of the business of SMB-focused partners, something the company wants to change, Sage said. The goal is to encourage partners to triple their Cisco business.

The survey also found that partners wanted more incentives, marketing support, demo equipment and training, all of which are benefits that Cisco has now made part of the Select partner designation, Sage said.

To deepen its penetration in the SMB market, Cisco is launching a series of unified communications products that handle voice, data, security and video. The “Smart Business Communications Architecture” integrates a range of technologies Cisco offers into plug-and-play devices for small offices, Cisco executives said.

In addition to the technology, Cisco also is launching an enhanced Web-based partner locator that takes advantage of Google maps and search capabilities.

“We think that will make it a lot easier for our customers to find our partners when they are looking for a solution,” Sage said.