The S of SMB is Cisco's next target

Getting the channel strategy right will be the real challenge for Cisco in the SMB arena, says one analyst

Traditionally known as a big enterprise player, Cisco Systems began a strong move into the SMB space in 2007 with a host of new product offerings and channel programs designed to drive growth in the segment. While the technology is in place, an analyst says getting the channel marketing strategy right may be the real key to success.

The past year saw Cisco very busy on the SMB front with the launch of Smart Business Communications Services (SBCS), its SMB-centric network platform of solutions, as well as its Select Certification program for SMB-focused partners. On the Linksys side, the Linksys Connected Office platform targeted at SMBs was re-launched as well as a revamped Linksys partner program designed to better leverage the Cisco relationship.

In an interview at C-Scape, Cisco's annual press and industry conference, Rick Moran, vice-president of solutions marketing Cisco Systems, said 2008 should be less busy from a news perspective, with the focus being on tweaking and enhancing the new programs based on partner feedback.

"We'll be focusing on better integration of the different divisions that sell to the SMB, as well as pulling together the channel programs and messaging,"said Moran, including showing a partner that starts with Linksys, for example, how they can advance to the next stage. "It was rather segregated before."

That process has already begun with the recent re-branding of a number of previously standalone brands. New marketing is being developed to tie the previously standalone Ironport, Linksys and Webex brands more closely to the Cisco brand name while still maintaining their own individual identities.

"Tying these together is a critical part of where we're going and where we're going to be,"said Moran. "We think it's very important to get a uniform look and feel."

In its research on the SMB space, Moran said Cisco does have a challenge becoming known as a company that plays in the SMB market. They've also identified storage as a key interest area, and learned that the type of partner SMBs like to buy from is different from the partners enterprise companies prefer to work with.

"We found a definite division, a lot of SMBs like to buy from VARs that are also SMBs," said Moran, adding that means the support Cisco needs to give those partners is different.

The way those partners need to sell to SMBs is also different, he said. While technological talk is already on the outs at the enterprise level with business value becoming the preferred conversation, for the SMB it needs to be drilled down even deeper and made relevant to the SMB owner. Talking about disaster recovery won't fly.

"We're actually rewriting hundreds of documents in our organization to make them more SMB friendly," Moran said.

Cisco is already a multi-billion dollar business in the SMB, but while it has 40 percent penetration in the M segment of SMB that rate falls off significantly in the S component. The challenge for Cisco, said Moran, is how far down to segregate that business, and along what lines to take distinct approaches. The need is for both volumes of channel and channels of volume.

"I don't know how far we're going to micro segment it," said Moran. "Right now the big thing is showing we've got our bases covered and showing we've got something that suits your needs at this point in time. The opportunity for us is to make those small partners feel we can make them money and grow their business."

The challenge more Cisco in the SMB is two-fold said Jon Arnold, a Toronto-based analyst with J. Arnold & Associates. They have the technology in place, but the channel strategy will need to be a very different model from what they've been used to in the enterprise space.

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