Carriers Roll Out Partner Certification Finally

Kelly TealThe increasing complexity of cloud and IT services is driving providers to do something theyve never done before: implement certification programs. Throughout 2013, expect operators, from ILECs to CLECs, to roll out credentialing platforms that ensure channel partners are equipped to sell products that surpass the simplicity of integrated T1s. Much of the curricula will remain works in progress for a while as providers, not accustomed to offering accreditation, tweak their content, requirements and delivery methods in response to agent and VAR feedback. However, dont mistake that willingness to act on partner input as whimsy. Service provider certifications are not a fad they are here to stay in a move that some observers argue is long overdue.

Its past time, they say, for operators to catch up to equipment manufacturers such as Cisco Systems and Avaya Inc. that for years have enforced certifications to make sure partners sell the right products, the right way, to the right clients. Indeed, the results of a Channel Partners poll indicate that agents, in particular, are ready and willing to earn certifications. Thats compelling. Until now, agents have not been subject to certification, as standard carrier voice and data services do not merit such effort. But cloud and IT technologies are changing everything about the traditional telecom marketplace, including the verification of partners ability to sell those services.

As J.R. Cook, vice president partner channel sales of EarthLink Business, put it, its time to face facts. There is a perception that many agents are just ‘T1 slingers’ and that they are the cause of all customer expectation issues. While we know that is not true, a certification process would change that perception and would further improve the value the partner channel brings to the carriers and their customers.”

This spring, at least four operators are rolling out certification programs, joining CenturyLink, which introduced its credentialing platform in late 2012. EarthLink and Verizon both timed the launch of their certifications to coincide with the Spring 2013 Channel Partners Conference & Expo, while MegaPath set its introduction for the second quarter. Another company, a large ILEC with a business focus, was not prepared to talk at press time, although it intended its certification to go live in the early part of 2013. As such, these carriers stand out as the early leaders of a trend one expert predicts soon will permeate the industry.

And if your preferred provider does not jump on the certifications bandwagon, said MSPAlliance Co-founder and CEO Charles Weaver, you might want to use caution. I would be extraordinarily leery of a carrier delivering an IaaS offering that did not have two basic elements: a technical standard that must be met by [partners] and transparency,” said Weaver, whose organization is working with global carriers on certification. With that in mind, the point about transparency pertains to government oversight. In the United States, regulators in charge of the health care and financial services markets would have very serious concerns if they could not have visibility into IaaS models where they couldnt track whos touching the device, who has access, whose data is being mingled, if any,” Weaver said.

The issue is not an assumption of partners or operators behaving badly, he said. Rather, its about making sure end users have plenty of information to relay to regulators, during audits, for example. If carriers cannot produce specifics, the feds will prohibit regulated firms from doing business with those operators, Weaver said. It may not be next year but they will be weeding out those providers,” he said. Thats because cloud and IT services contain too many moving parts to leave to chance. With server infrastructure, routers, storage, security, multitenancy, scalability, data and more involved in carrier deployments, the chances of compromising confidential data grow.

But the carriers rolling out certifications do not seem to be acting out of alarm over government pressure they already employ their own safeguards for stringent quality assurance. Thus, their rationale concerns partners abilities to handle intricate technologies. The days of selling an integrated T1 are just gone. The complexity of the products we sell today requires so much more technical support and understanding,” Cook said. “Once you start adding more complex hosted VoIP and managed IT services, the risk of not having someone certified on your services represents a risk that can impact customer expectations and experiences.”

Blake Wetzel, vice president of sales, CenturyLink Channel Alliance, agreed. Weve been talking about cloud for a long time but most conversations have been extremely amorphous, not tactical and detailed,” he said. The widespread adoption of cloud and IT services, then, is forcing providers to examine the level and depth of knowledge they impart to partners.

To that point, the Technology Channel Association (TCA) hopes to get all service providers with indirect channels to adopt its Certified Telecommunications Professional (CTP) credentialing program, which does not address cloud or IT services. TCA wants to add CTP to providers curricula, not replace their plans, thereby creating some standardization among the various certifications. The CTP targets telecom agents not versed in advanced services, as well as brand new agents, which now tends to include VARs unfamiliar with the carrier world. Dave Wallace, president of Aligned Communications and a TCA trustee, said the associations efforts on that front continue; by the end of January, 128 people were designated as CTPs.

In the meantime, here is what we know about the providers debuting certification programs:

CenturyLink Channel Alliance. Spurred by its purchase of colo and hosting provider Savvis, CenturyLink in 2012s fourth quarter released a certification program for its cloud and IT services. The platform is tiered and applies to indirect and direct salespeople. After all, when talking with customers, throwing cloud out there is not necessarily a great thing if you dont know what youre going to offer,” Wetzel said. The difference with CenturyLinks program, said Bob Hollander, senior vice president of channel enablement for Savvis, is that it doesnt focus as much on cloud technology as on the use cases for cloud and the business problems it solves. The differentiated approach is really on the business side,” he said. So, while other vendors go to market with that cool technology, were bent on delivering a technical skill set.”

Subject matter experts on the CenturyLink and Savvis sides developed the initiative and they continue to adjust to partner feedback. Content and testing is delivered online; there are opportunities for some larger partners to get training at their facilities. At press time, about 300 partners had earned the first level of certification, which is offered at no charge. CenturyLink and Savvis were creating other certification levels at press time. Wetzel aims to certify 1,000 partners by the end of the year. And so far, CenturyLink is not demanding that partners get certified. The caveat is that, if they dont, there will be products theyll remain unable to sell. That leads to another point. Right now, CenturyLink Channel Alliance does not plan to increase compensation for partners who achieve certification. But revenue promises to grow indirectly because certification will allow partners to sell products they otherwise would not be able to offer.

EarthLink Business. EarthLink designed its certification in-house, with Cook and Sherry Turpin, vice president of channel strategy, leading the charge. The curriculum covers hosted and IT services, including managed cloud hosting, managed premises firewall, MPLS, email archiving and encryption, data center colocation and a range of virtualization capabilities. It will include several tiers, for which partners will garner additional recognition, introduced over several phases. Higher levels will focus on technology such as VMware, for example. Yet, EarthLink also was talking about compiling a Telecom 101 course for new agents and VARs new to carrier services. EarthLink is most concerned that agents and VARs understand the products involved, their nuances and how to position them with customers.

At press time, EarthLink had not nailed down the delivery method; Cook suspected it would emulate EarthLinks internal training, which is cloud-based, on-demand, features a timeline of PowerPoint presentations and issues tests that can be taken more than once if participants dont get enough correct answers. Meanwhile, Cook said EarthLink will gather feedback from partners along the way, so the company can tweak and expand the program.

As for rewards and consequences, EarthLink had not cemented those specifics at press time. However, Cook said, Do you draw this hard line that says, You cant sell this service if you dont do this? Im not sure we have that luxury.” As a result, EarthLink was eyeing some type of certification mandate but not so rigid that youre actually driving people away who want to sell for you,” Cook said. The company further was formulating ideas for recognizing partners who set themselves apart with certifications. Ive never been a big fan of the hammer that makes people fearful but theres got to be some type of reward,” he said. EarthLink was toying with paying certified partners more money, especially if certification proves to reduce EarthLinks support costs.

Verizon Enterprise Solutions. As part of a larger partner program overhaul, Verizons enterprise division is instituting certification expectations for its agents and VARs. Details of that revamp were planned to be unveiled at the Spring 2013 Channel Partners Conference & Expo; certification is just one of the changes. Like its peers, Verizon is not charging partners for its certification. Thats my investment to make,” said Janet Schijns, vice president, alternate channels and vertical solutions at Verizon Enterprise Solutions.

Of note, Verizon is requiring its partners to complete the new certification within 180 days or it will cut them off from products they are not certified to sell. Be aware that the certification difficulty and time investment varies depending on your partner commitment to Verizon. So, certification could take as few as five hours per track or up to 20. There are five tracks: advanced communications (such as VoIP), networks, cloud/IT, M2M and mobility.

How you partner with Verizon determines how deep you need to dive into certification. When selling with Verizon, for example, partners will spend less time on certification. But as an agent or reseller, the commitment increases. However, Verizon is willing to credit partners who already have earned certifications from suppliers in the areas its focusing on; in other words, if you hold a Cisco networking credential, for instance, chances are you will get credit toward Verizons curriculum. These partners are really stretched right now to evolve their businesses into a new model,” said Schijns. The last thing they need is for me to be so onerous in certifications that the investments theyve made previously are not honored.”

Verizon used a team of in-house and outside experts to craft its certification. Schijns developed certification for Motorola, as one example, and thus was instrumental in creating Verizons. The company spent about 18 months on the project. Its field tested, customer vetted and ready for prime time,” Schijns said.

Partners will study online, although Verizon also will offer in-person training to select partners. The carrier is increasing its focus on the SMB sector and looking to partners to help it gain traction in that market. Certification will help both sides achieve that goal. Customers are asking questions partners frankly cant answer,” said Schijns. Thats not good for their business. We need to make sure we help our partners, theyre the lifeblood of the small and medium business in the United States.”

There are incentives to attain certification. The higher you go in the program, the more rewards come your way. Rewards include marketing development funds, more lead registration and a top spot at the top of Verizons partner locator tool.

What Agents Think

For agents, certification marks a game-changer. And those who dont get on board will face big challenges. Its going to take a much greater volume of the old transactional business because prices will continue to erode and clients will continue to see [these partners] as selling a commodity,” wrote Marko Spremo, co-founder and vice president of sales of independent agency Telapprise Inc., in a blog for Channel Partners. Fortunately, CenturyLinks early success, plus partner feedback relayed by Verizon and EarthLink, all indicate that serious agents, of which there are plenty, are eager to distinguish themselves from their legacy peers. Underscoring that is a Channel Partners poll, conducted in January. The outcomes show nothing but support for service providers certification efforts.

Of interest is that no respondent checked reasons from the cost/time involved or the lack of necessity they might not support certification. The lack of detractors in this informal poll seems to show that agents will embrace certification. Anecdotally, two master agents told Channel Partners on background they will do their part to ensure agents get certified. Their salespeople then will have greater selling power, one master said. I think if [providers] put a little oomph behind certification, it gives the agent the ability to put on their card that theyve gone through something, gone through an education process and know what theyre talking about.”

Of course, that remains the unknown. Do service providers certifications merely reflect their existing training or do they contain more meat? That question is difficult to answer without greater visibility into the curricula so, agents, keep an eye out for these factors:

  • Did the provider invest a significant or substantial amount of money and time in creating the certification?
  • Did subject matter experts and credentialing experts craft the program?
  • Does the curriculum surpass existing training and product description materials?

If the answers to those questions are yes,” sources say, then the programs are worth pursuing. Besides, providers offering certifications are going to be scrutinizing agents, too. These carriers have more of a VAR mentality,” said TCAs Wallace. In other words, theyre becoming less willing to pay their channel managers and sales engineers to spend time on declining-margin circuit services. Verizon serves as a prime model of this. While a partner works toward certification, the operator will continue to dedicate a sales engineering team to that partner. But afterward, the company expects its more knowledgeable agents to take over the sales engineering role. Verizon still will keep its sales engineers available to partners but the idea is to cut down reliance on those internal resources. To be sure, preventing work overload on sales engineers is a byproduct of certification for EarthLink, Cook said; the trend also can justify additional partner commission expense, he said. MSPAlliances Weaver said this philosophy is common, that all channel-centric suppliers absolutely” aim to alleviate burden on their staff.

Third-party efforts by TCA and others before it notwithstanding, provider-driven certification promises to elevate a demographic within the indirect channel that has gone for years without some kind of sales acumen gauge. The timing may finally be right. Telecom services have grown complicated and at last, after years of forecasts, converged with the IT world. As such, certification appears inevitable. It will be a major disruptor and rightfully so,” said Weaver. The old model of doing things in the dark, without peer review, without transparency, is coming to an end.” And so, the time has arrived for service providers to deploy certification, Schijns said. This is the minute that matters,” she said. This is the year.”

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