Charter Makes ‘Key Structural Change’ to Partner Program

Charter Channel Chief Michael FairAs the cable industry grows more competitive within the channel, Charter Business has recruited a well-known figure Michael Fair as head of its partner program. Fair serves as vice president of channel sales and national accounts, a role he has held since March. Fair takes the reins from David Neely, who was instrumental in establishing the partner program and will continue in a leadership role with both the partner program and national accounts, reporting to Fair.

Fair came to the post after leading the One Communications agent program for three  years, before that company was purchased by EarthLink Business in Spring 2011. Previously, Fair spent a decade with MarketRace Consulting, a firm he founded to provide channel management consulting. As part of his new job, Fair is expanding Charter Business’s two-year-old partner program; his tasks include adding VARs to the company’s sales ranks.

Channel Partners interviewed Fair in early July. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

How is running a cable partner program different from running its CLEC counterpart?

Depending on the functional area, running a cable partner program can be very similar to running a CLEC program, or, it can be very different.

Charter Business only sells services within our chartered franchise geographies. With cable services, there is no resale of local access of another carrier. Effectively, our services are all on-net. Our network is uniquely our own and therefore represents a separate network from traditional telecom providers. We do not compete with other cable providers.

Our program is similar to other programs in that we work with national master agents, regional masters and direct partners. Service availability within our franchised geography is the most unique aspect of working with a cable provider. Due to the nature of our networks, we may or may not have service available at any given location. This is different than dealing with ILECs or CLECs, which tend to resell one another and therefore may appear to have broader service availability.

What types of partners are you recruiting?

We are actively targeting VARs, recognizing that we most likely will sign few to a direct contract. We are proponents of the master agent model and already have contracts and activity with most of the national master agents. Regarding VARs, we will work with VARs through master agents as they are better suited to manage and train the large number of VARs looking to sell communications services as they move toward cloud computing.

Are you planning any changes to the partner program?

Yes, we have recently transitioned into what I call the national/local model.” With the recent addition of eight local channel managers, and hiring of National Partner Manager Don Coufal, we now have the support model in place to centrally manage the largest national master agents while providing local support in each market for their subagents. This enables us to maximize mindshare with each local subagent while properly supporting the masters with marketing, training, events and systems. This is a key structural change, as previously we supported each master agent with only one channel manager. This model is widely recognized within the industry and we have already seen activity increase as a result of this change.  There will be no substantial changes to our compensation or contracts.

Do you have specific goals?

We have very clear goals to rapidly grow the sales of our organization, while we build a world-class program and scalable infrastructure. Ultimately, our goal is to be the fastest growing element of Charter Business while Charter rides the dual waves of increased cloud computing adoption and VAR/SI transition into agency.

How much do you aim to grow partner revenue by the end of the year?

Charter Business 2012 goal is to grow in excess of 20 percent over the previous year. The Charter Business Partner program will be a key element for that growth. Over the past six weeks, the team has grown from four channel managers to 12. This growth will enable us to support partners locally because we now have a channel manager in each geographic area.

What are your key partner-enablement initiatives?

Currently, we are increasing the functionality of our portal to enable partners to get status of opportunities, order progress and commission details. We also have implemented a unique back-office support system for partners. We have a dedicated team in Louisville, Ky., that interacts with our partners in multiple ways. Partners can call opportunities in via a toll-free number, email opportunities in or enter initial opportunities via our portal. The goal is to allow the inside sales team to handle initial pricing and quoting and order-entry details while allowing our channel managers to focus on partner enablement and sales activities.

What products do you think will be successful for partners in 2012?

The majority of our sales today are coax phone and data with fiber Internet being our fastest growing service. I believe our unique fiber assets are the key to our future growth, and seem to be the product which most interests our channel partners. PRI over our fiber infrastructure is a key focus. We recently added SIP trunking over fiber, a service unique to Charter compared to the other cable providers. Future service enhancements coming near term are focused on layering more traditional SLAs over our current services, as well as offering a hosted VoIP service and continuing efforts to expand Ethernet over coax.

What will be the biggest challenge/opportunity for channel partners generally in 2012?

Channel Partners must continue to evolve their business models to add value to their customers. I see two clear trends that all channel partners must be aware of:

  1. Cloud computing is a real trend and is driving VARs and SIs into the space traditionally owned by telecom agents. Not only are their revenue streams being replaced by cloud services, but their customers are demanding that they ensure the reliability and security of their bandwidth connections. The VARs/SIs are, in turn, being messaged about the ability to make money through agency by the master agents and vehicles such as Channel Partners and CRN Magazine. The entry of VARs and SIs into the networking space will continue to accelerate. Traditional agents must be able to understand the cloud space and continue to increase their technical skills in order to compete as well as team with integrators.
  2. I also see the trend of acceptance and adoption of indirect channels continuing to play out. Most carriers are relying on indirect channels more and more as they lessen investment in direct sales. Most ILECs and CLECs have also abdicated the lowest end of the market to the cable providers as they simply cannot compete with the value-priced bandwidth options that cable providers have. This creates both an opportunity and a threat to existing channel partners. The market will continue to rapidly increase but there will be aggressive, technologically advanced partners continuing to enter as competitors.

What is Charter doing with regard to cloud, particularly from a channel perspective?

Charter has long-term plans to offer cloud services, however, today it is not a major focus. Today we are focused on value pricing and high-speed Internet access for customers who need better connectivity into the cloud. In other words, Charter is the on ramp” to cloud computing.

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