Channel Insider content and product recommendations are editorially independent. We may make money when you click on links to our partners. Learn More.

Cisco Systems on Nov. 6 is launching the second phase of a revamped partner program that aims to make systems integrators and VARs specialists in their chosen fields of expertise.

The second of these “master specializations” focuses on what Cisco executives point to as a growing and lucrative field for partners: unified communications.

The idea behind the master specialization, executives at the San Jose, Calif., company told The Channel Insider, is to create highly specialized partners in the unified communications field and use that expertise to market themselves to potential customers.

The company also said it wants specialized partners to think far into the future, rather than perpetuate the traditional channel model of pushing more volume to get better discounts and rebates.

“This allows a partner to develop a long-term relationship and a long-term revenue stream,” said Edison Peres, Cisco’s vice president for worldwide channels. “Through these partnerships, we see our partners leveraging this specialization into a greater opportunity.”

Cisco launched the first of its Master Specializations on Sept. 11 for the company’s security-focused solution partners. The company has also has been considering offering these master designations for wireless communications, data center consolidation and other fields, it said.

Click here to read more about Cisco’s Master Specialization program.

For Cisco’s partners with the unified communications specialization, the company is offering additional discounts and rebates on its equipment, as well as priority access to technical support and new products.

Cisco executives say this new channel approach will benefit partners in the long run.

Peres explained that partners will benefit from becoming a customer’s “trusted advisor.” As businesses’ needs change over the years, these customers are likely to turn to Cisco’s partners for consultation and unified communications solutions.

Partners, Peres said, need to offer both breadth—general knowledge of all of Cisco products—and depth—such as unified communications technology—to their customers.

“This allows a partner to develop a long-term relationship and a long-term revenue stream,” Peres said. “Through these partnerships, we see our partners leveraging this specialization into a greater opportunity.”

Paul Moncrief, regional sales manager at Berbee Information Networks, a system integrator based in Madison, Wis., said his company can better position itself with customers by talking up the master certification and developing that long-term relationship.

“The value to our customers is that we match and implement their business strategy,” Moncrief said.

The Channel Insider asks: Can Cisco be cool again? Click here to read more.

Under Cisco’s Channel Partner Program, which started earlier in 2006, VARs and solution providers can qualify for three different levels of expertise: Express, Advanced and Master.

To qualify for the Masters Specialization in Unified Communications, partners have to possess several Cisco and industry certifications, demonstrate the ability to prepare, design, plan and implement Cisco’s life cycle services, and then offer a comprehensive sales program for customers.

In the spring of 2006, Cisco announced its plan for a Unified Communications system, which provides enterprise customers with a single platform for voice, data and video that is integrated with a company’s IT infrastructure.

This new platform now allows Cisco’s partners, as well as its customers, to create a number of communications applications and then integrate these applications across the infrastructure.

Richard McLeod, director of Unified Communication Solutions for Cisco’s worldwide channel, said the need of businesses for the type of unified communications applications that Cisco and its partners offer will continue to grow.

Click here for exclusive channel research from Amazon Consulting.

Right now, companies are spending about $13 billion per year on these applications, such as IP telephony, messaging and video streaming, and that number is expected to grow to more than $33 billion by 2010, said McLeod, citing a Cisco study of the field.

Partners need to move away from being just system integrators to offering themselves as specialized solution providers to take advantage of this growing field, McLeod said. In Cisco’s study, those who offered more services were 76 percent more likely to retain their customers.

“Customer retention, along with other factors, combine to form a much more profitable relationship,” McLeod said.