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Windstream Channel Chief Q&A: Prepping for EarthLink Integration

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Edward GatelyWith its $1.1 billion purchase of EarthLink now complete, Windstream plans to launch a new, consolidated partner program this summer.

That’s according to Olen Scott, Windstream’s new channel chief. He previously was EarthLink’s vice president of partner channels. Jason Dishon, Windstream’s former channel chief, has left the company to pursue other opportunities. Windstream announced the changes after the merger closed Monday.

Scott will be responsible for designing, operating and supporting Windstream’s channel sales organization. During his tenure at EarthLink, he led the company’s indirect distribution channel, focusing on agent and VAR partnerships in managed network and cloud services.

Windstream's Olen ScottThe two service providers announced their plans to merge in November after rumors swirled about a potential deal and both companies reported decreased third-quarter earnings.

In a Q&A with Channel Partners, Scott talks about the process of combining the two companies’ channel strategies and programs, and what partners have to look forward to in the coming months.

Channel Partners: As Windstream’s new channel chief, how is the scope of your job going to change?

Olen Scott: The scope of the job in terms of what the role entails doesn’t really change terribly much. The opportunities that we have to bring to the partner marketplace and our combined customers I think grow tremendously, and we’ve been celebrating that and looking forward to it since the day we announced the definitive merger agreement. We just fit together extremely well. We’ve got very similar corporate cultures. On the other hand, Windstream’s got tremendous network assets, four-and-a-half times the fiber route miles that EarthLink had (and) 40 markets with fixed wireless. Those are things that EarthLink couldn’t bring to our partner community. Meanwhile, EarthLink has a highly developed and mature enterprise accounts program and process, and products, so those two things marry up very well. So our charter now is to go evangelize those benefits to our partner community and to put them inside of an ecosystem that makes the most sense for them.{ad}

CP: How do the two companies’ channel strategies compare? Do they differ much? Will it be a challenge to align them?

OS: Will it be a challenge? No. I mean it’s work, right? But no, because we have tremendous executive support and sponsorship from Windstream. We had very similar channel strategies, but EarthLink was probably four to six quarters further down that path. We started it a little sooner. Both companies had strategies that are aimed at the enterprise markets, they’re aimed at the larger distributed enterprise, multi-service kinds of customers. We’re just a little further ahead and so we’ve got some time-tested strategies that we know work well; they resonated really well with our partner community when we did them at EarthLink. So now we look to employ those, but not just that. We’re taking a fresh look at everything to see what makes the most sense for the partner community. And excitingly, we’ve got our …

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… Partner Advisory Board members actively providing input. Tony Thomas, our CEO, and I have already sat down and spoken with a dozen-plus members of the advisory board soliciting their input to see what a best-in-class channel program means. So they can help shape the program.

CP: Can you give an example of how EarthLink’s channel strategy is further down the path than Windstream’s?

OS: To be fair, it’s simply because we were smaller. It’s a lot easier to move faster when you’re smaller. So we made the decision to start pushing up marketing into the enterprise space and to the multi-service kinds of customers. We just made the decision a little earlier. And we made some mistakes; everything we did wasn’t graceful. And we solicited feedback from the partner community and they’ll let you know if it’s not the right thing. So we worked through some of those mistakes, and so the nice thing is we can bring some of that insight and knowledge to the Windstream program and just make sure that we’ve got the right ecosystem in place for these partners right out of the get-go.

When we sat down with partners shortly into this process a year and a half ago, one of the things the partners told us was if you’re going to have a program that is largely focused at the enterprise space … if that’s where you’re going to ask us to go and enjoy success in, then you’ve got to have tools and a program that provide support. And an example of that would be, what does your partner quoting portal look like?  Does it support multi-site bulk uploads, multi-service including video diagrams and the like? And it does. We went and developed that at the demand of the partner community. We’ve invited them into the process and when they give us feedback, we move swiftly to go build the things that they’re asking for, and you can’t do that without consistent senior executive engagement. So having the engagement like we do from Tony Thomas and Jeff Howe (Windstream’s executive vice president of enterprise sales), it’s pretty critical to run a successful program.{ad}

CP: What will be the process and timeline for consolidating the companies’ partner programs?

OS: Our message to our partners is from day one it’s business as usual. We want our partners to continue to work with their existing channel team using the existing channel tools and process, and nothing different. And we’re going to spend the first 100 days getting the two programs combined and integrated so that we can enjoy the best of what both programs have to offer. But there [are] still some things that we’re sorting out. We’re going to move as fast as we can and we’ll communicate actively and often, but it will take 50, 75 to 100 days before all that’s done. So business as usual today and integrated program by mid-summer.

CP: Have partners expressed any concerns about how existing client relationships, contracts, etc., will be impacted?

OS: There are partners that have contracts with both providers … and in each particular instance, we’ll just …

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… urge our partners and guide [them] to leverage the relationship and the contract, and the product that matches the customer’s needs. So if you’ve got an agreement with both companies, then you’ll leverage whichever one matches the products that the customer is using. Again, that’s day one, and then in the first 100 days we’ll integrate this.

CP: Beyond day one, how will you be engaging with partners on a daily basis?

OS: We want to hear from our partners. If partners have questions, be vocal and ask. They’ve all got channel managers; there [are] a lot of resources aimed at the channel. We’re creating forums for partners to provide their input both to me and my bosses — the senior executives up to, and including, Tony. So we’re soliciting that feedback and we do intend to communicate often. We don’t want our partners to have to speculate about what’s in store, so we’ll share information about the program as the integration efforts are under way. But there’s not a lot to share today, so I just say stay focused on business as usual, and as we integrate the two programs, we’ll communicate. They’re involved in this. We’re not going behind a curtain and creating this and bringing it back out. Clearly you can’t involve 1,000 partners, but you can certainly pick a couple dozen that are representative of the channel community and make them an active part of the program’s creation — and that’s what we’re doing.


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