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Driving Growth Through Partnerships, A Discussion With Bill Corbin, CenturyLink

by David Brock on June 25th, 2017

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Bill Corbin, Senior Vice President, Alliances and Strategic Partnerships for CenturyLink.  We had a wide ranging discussion on leveraging channels and partnerships to drive more effective engagement with customers.  I thought I’d share some of our discussion.

Dave Brock (DB):  Bill, before we get into it, can you share a little of your background?

Bill Corbin (BC):  I’ve been involved in various aspects of “channels” for most of my career—both working in the channel and in roles with major companies like CenturyLink.  I’ve been here the past year, really focused on helping drive growth through more focused relationships with our various types of channel partners.

DB:  I know what you’ve done represents a significant shift in what CenturyLink was doing in the past, what drove the shift in approach.

BC:  I think there were two primary things that have been behind this new approach to serving our customers.  First is the recognition that, as broad as our product and service solutions are, often we only address a part of what our customers need.  They are looking for capability beyond just what we provide—consequently, with our partner channels, we can provide a much more comprehensive solution to our customers, making it easier for them to buy.

Second, while we have long leveraged channels, we had a “one size fits all” approach to our partners.  As a result, we provided the same programs and support to specialized resellers, distributors, s (ISVs), systems integrators, and strategic/OEM partners.

In reality, each of those segments has distinctly different business models, as well as support needs.  We determined we needed to have a more granular approach to our channels.  We needed to work with each segment in ways that maximized our shared success in addressing the goals of our customers.

As a result, last Fall, we changed from a “one size fits all” approach to a segmented approach.  We branded it the CenturyLink Alliance Advantage, with a segmented approach, focusing on

  • Channel Alliance: Traditional resellers and distribution.
  • Software Alliance (SWAs): Building support for our products/services in the Independent Software Vendors.
  • Systems Integrator Alliance (SIs): Building close relationships with a small number of integration partners.
  • Strategic Partner Alliance: Building our relationships with a small number of strategic and OEM partners.

In each of these segments we provide people and resources focused on working with the organizations in their segment.  As a result, we could be much more effective, developing programs that helped both the partner and CenturyLink work together to solve the needs of our customers.

For example, the needs of a specialized regional reseller are very different than the needs or a global SI.  Now we can work with each segment in ways that create the greatest value for them.

DB:  You launched this shift in the Fall of 2016, what are the early results and learnings?

BC:  We are starting to see good traction across the board.  The most important thing is the CenturyLink teams are more closely aligned with their partners and better able to work collaboratively with the customer.  For example, with some of our larger SIs, we have dedicated teams.  Likewise, those Sis have dedicated resource to work with CenturyLink.  As a result of these closer relationships, these teams are collaborating more closely in identifying and pursuing deals with the customers.  We can go into the customer, together with one solution, rather than having the customer focus on aligning two different organizations to get what they want.  Together we create much greater value and make it easier for the customer to buy.

We’ve made it easier for our partners to work with us—both by having focused resources aligned with their business model, and through the establishment of our “Medals Programs.”

These are tiered programs that enable our partners to choose their level of engagement in working with us.  Obviously, we want to make it attractive for those that have chosen a higher level of commitment, for example at the Diamond level, to work with us.  At the same time, we want to motivate those at lower levels to look into “ascending” through the various levels of the programs.

DB:  I’m sure you’ve had some challenges and learned a lot in these early months of introducing the programs.  What have been the biggest things you’ve learned?

BC:  I think one of the biggest things we’ve learned—both within CenturyLink and within our partners is that success requires each of us to change our mindsets.  Internally, it’s really about changing the culture of the whole organization—not just CenturyLink’s channel teams but the rest of the sales, marketing, and support teams.

We’ve focused on very strong awareness, education, and constant communications across the organization.  We’ve made sure people understand this is driven by shifts in enterprise buying and how we most effectively engage the customer.

I think the biggest thing we’ve seen is that we can’t communicate enough—both to our internal sales teams and to our partners.  With a change of this magnitude, it takes time, great openness on everyone’s parts.

DB:  What about with your field organization?  Have there been any challenges in getting them to embrace the channel?

BC:  With any channel organization there is always some level of conflict.  It’s naïve to think it can be eliminated, instead we have to manage it.  We’ve tried to encourage our field sales people that it’s a waste of time and resource to try competing with a partner selling a CenturyLink solution.  They’d be better off looking at other opportunities to grow the business.

DB:  It there anything else you’ve learned or that you would do differently?

BC:  I was fortunate at the beginning of this change to have the right team on board.  Without having the right team—people who really understand their specific segment—we wouldn’t have made the progress we have.

DB:  Thanks so much for taking the time to speak Bill.  I have a couple of things to ask:  Can we get back together in a month or two and continue with our conversation, particularly taking a deeper dive into things other organizations should be looking at to leverage partners and channels more effectively?

Second, if some of the readers want to reach you with questions, what’s the best way to do that?

BC:  Thank you Dave, I’ve enjoyed the conversation!  Of course, I’d love to continue this discussion!  We’ve barely scratched the surface.

The best way for people to reach me is through LinkedIn:  Bill Corbin at CenturyLink.

 

Afterword:  In reflecting on the conversation with Bill, I’m really impressed with the way Bill and his team think about their “customers.”  Too often, I look at channel strategies and see an unbalanced approach to the relationships.  Often, we look at them as the vehicle to get us to the customer, but we care more about our success, forgetting that we won’t be successful unless our partners are.  Or all we care about is dumping a lot of product/solution into the channel and it becomes their problem to sell it.

In building our approach to our partners, we need to focus on what value we create for them.  Unless we can articulate this in terms meaningful to each segment of our partner and channel organization, we will never gain their hearts and minds in reaching our customers.

We have to look at what value we create together for the end customer.  In this case, 1+1=3.  By working together, we can create more value for the customer then by working separately.  This is the real magic of powerful channel/alliance/partner programs—few recognize this, fewer achieve it.

Bill and his team have, clearly, built their strategies and programs around these principles.  It’s fantastic and rare to see.  Kudos to the Bill and his team!

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