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After joining Cisco just before the dot-com bust, Wendy Bahr, the company’s new channel chief for North America, is ready to take on new challenges. At the top of the agenda is a Web 2.0 system for partners, as those same partners look at new business models and the technologies they require. Bahr sat down with The Channel Insider’s Jessica Davis to talk about the year ahead. 

You joined Cisco seven and a half years ago and have served in several roles since then, from direct sales to the commercial business to federal system sales. 

I came at an interesting time in Cisco’s history, November 2000. It gave me ample opportunity to experience a lot of segments of the business, starting with network service providers, dot-coms and CLECs [Competitive Local Exchange Carriers], transitioning over to service providers for a few years, then moving into [the] federal space working on civil agency accounts and then coming into the channel first from [a] commercial and then U.S. field perspective. Those roles let me appreciate the similarities and differences in the way we go to market, our customers’ needs and, perhaps most importantly, what our partners need to be successful.

My past experience helped me articulate what partners need to be successful. Not only in selling our products and services to end-user customers, but helping them navigate within Cisco to build the kinds of relationships that help us be successful together.

There are a lot of people looking at managed services, software as a service and these new kinds of business models. What trends and opportunities are top of mind for you now? 

We have a wealth of opportunities in looking at new biz models and partners’ business practices and how they can best optimize their practice to take advantage of a whirlwind of new technologies that are available to be built out as a managed service, software as a service or in the traditional business model. Part of what I feel like our agenda moving forward will be [is] continuing to be focusing on great partnership and profitable partnership [and it also] will be to help provide guidance to partners on what kinds of business models have greatest opportunity for success, certainly in conjunction with the type of technology Cisco brings to bear.

We are going to be very focused in upcoming months on collaboration and Web 2.0 tools. It makes a lot of sense for a variety of reasons, most of all scalability, optimization [and] the ability to touch more end-user customers and communicate better with our partner community by utilizing those tools. The tools in and of themselves don’t necessarily gain you the benefit. You have to change the business process behind the tools in order to maximize productivity; as John Chambers has often said, it’s as much the process as it is the technology. We will be looking for ways to continue to innovate our partner programs, to innovate the business models that we can [use to] help partners in terms of supporting our new technologies and practices.

I think that is very true in a small to medium-sized business place. Also true as we look at higher-end opportunities in the customization and integration that is required so that end-user customers have the outcome that they intended when they put their request for new technology in place. It’s definitely a challenging time, but I think it’s rich with opportunities for the companies that can get that part of the equation correct.

What plans are on the drawing board going forward as you look to help partners take advantage of these opportunities? 

We’ll be looking [in the] immediate future at taking advantage of our own technologies to build collaborative tools, to create communities of partners with similar interests. Especially around certain advanced and emerging technologies. The speed at which business is being conducted is just exponentially expanding, and the ability to use these collaborative tools to better facilitate communication between our best experts inside of Cisco and our partners’ best experts in terms of crafting the right solution for an end-user customer is critical, and timeliness is critical. You’ll see in the next few months a real emphasis on Cisco … being able to make that experience for our partners the most efficient, the most scalable and the most optimized that we can, using a lot of technology that we’ve either acquired or put together in-house.

What technology specifically do you mean? 

Certainly we will be looking to WebEx, a very great product in our product portfolio [that] has provided success to a lot of our customers, and we will be looking to take WebEx internally in terms of better communicating with our partners and communicating inside Cisco with our employees to better facilitate that. We are looking at ways to better put those tools together to better optimize the partner experience.

What specific communications do you want to improve? 

Partners will tell us all the time [they are interested in] the ability to make their organization more efficient in terms of how much time they spend looking for data points, or help with configurations or expertise on a particular vertical market. Clearly time is money.

Our ability to help them to be as efficient as possible goes to interest in their continued partner profitability. Being able to connect them to a virtual expert on our engineering team dedicated to supporting our channel partners via video so that it shortens the time to give them the kind of data and answers they need to provide complex configuration or any level of assistance. Our virtual expert program that we are working on here inside the channel in the United States and Canada is an example of using a collaborative tool, WebEx, for example, along with video to better improve the communication, timeliness and quality of communication with our partner community. We think that in turn will make Cisco and its partners better able to capture more revenue by spending more time in front of customers and less time on planes and organizing calendars.

Initially this is something separate in pilot form. Our virtual expert is in pilot now in the United States. We are getting an awful lot of feedback from partners on what they feel about the experience.

We are looking at click-to-chat capabilities, at being able to create virtual expert communities. We are looking at a lot of partner-to-partner peering on our more customized technologies.

It’s all evolving rapidly because technology continues to evolve and change. At all times we want to keep the partner experience, the ease of doing business and partner profitability at the forefront of all we are trying to accomplish.

Will this be built on existing partner portal? 

In pilot form it starts off as something separate, but we’d love to get to the place where partners have just one place to go.

Are there any products that you believe will be hot for Cisco in 2008? 

Certainly the data center is an interesting space now for Cisco. We will be announcing many products built for our road map for Cisco in the data center space in the coming months. It’s an exciting time for Cisco and for our partners. Unified communications continues to be a very hot topic and hot market for us at the moment.