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FEATURE

Services Are Key to Small Business Support

Cisco's New Offerings Help Small Businesses, Partners

December 1, 2009

By Margaret Steen

Small businesses can't do it all themselves. With newer and more sophisticated technologies at their disposal, it's becoming increasingly difficult and impractical for small businesses to manage and control every aspect of their growing IT infrastructures. Most businesses with fewer than 100 employees don't have an IT department, so they turn to an outside partner – a value-added reseller or service provider – to provide and manage their technology solutions, including hardware, software, communications and support.

This services market is becoming a more important resource for small businesses that have big ambitions, but lack the technical know-how or hardware expertise to bring their infrastructure in-house. This has created additional challenges for partners, as they must stay up-to-date on new technology offerings in an effort to better understand and respond to their customers' needs.

To that end, Cisco has rolled out two new services that directly and indirectly address the critical issues that small businesses face to remain productive. These two solutions – a rapid-replacement plan for fixing critical equipment and presales help for partners developing proposals for their customers — are tools in a growing technological environment that's changing the way resellers and small businesses approach services as a whole.

Services' key role

Services offered by resellers tend to cluster into three distinct categories, says Ken Presti, principal analyst at Presti Research & Consulting.

  • ID: Identifying technologies that are best suited to customer's needs.
  • Install: The physical installation of technology in the customer's workplace.
  • Support: Services for assisting customers if a piece of technology malfunctions.

Resellers generally offer these and other services as part of a larger solution to help their small business customers. It's critical, however, for resellers to be able to customize the services they offer, because small business' needs vary widely.

"We try to act as a one-stop shop for small business customers who are looking for a complete communications solution," says Ryan Halper, president of Cynnex Networks, a Cisco partner that specializes in helping small businesses turn technology change into competitive advantage.

Technology Essential for Small Businesses

According to Andrew Sage, vice president of worldwide small business sales at Cisco, three key trends are pushing the concept of services in new and different directions: Technology is becoming more critical to small businesses, the technology choices are becoming more complex and resellers are offering managed services.

Certain technologies used to be expensive and complicated to implement in the small business environment. That barrier has diminished, and small businesses are now demonstrating an increased interest in using technology to expand and accomplish more. As small businesses start using technology in more aspects of their businesses, they need increased help in planning, implementing and supporting technology.

For example, many small businesses are reluctant to expand their physical presence in the face of economic uncertainty.

"We really are delivering this solution as sort of a partner play. If the two aren't working well together, than you really lose a lot of the potential value."

— Ryan Halper, president of Cynnex Networks

"They don't want to open a new facility. They want to manage costs," Sage says. "One way to do that is to have a portion of their workforce working from a home or remote office." To do so, however, reliable technology must be purchased and maintained, lest a business find itself without connection to its remote employees.

Choices More Complex

New technologies such as cloud computing offer small business customers more choices, but they also make selecting and using the technology more complicated.

For example, cloud computing lets small businesses shift their offline applications into an Internet-based environment – think Salesforce.com or Cisco WebEx.

"They're starting to do business in the cloud," Sage says. "But they need to be able to rely on their network to securely connect to the cloud."

Another example: phone-home capabilities for network technology. The idea is that a network device will monitor itself for problems and alert the vendor so they can be fixed before the customer knows there's a problem. When the reseller is between the customer's network and the vendor, the communication can get complicated.

"It's always going to be a team effort between Cisco and the channel partner to the extent that my router phones home and says, 'I've got a problem,' and that information gets bounced to the channel partner, who then fixes it before it breaks," Presti says.

Resellers Offering Managed Services

Managed services represent a new way for delivering hardware and services as an all-in-one package. Instead of buying gear themselves and contacting resellers for assistance, customers simply contract with the reseller to provide a certain level of service.

For example, the reseller could promise to deliver a specific speed of Internet connection to employees' desktops in exchange for a fee. This represents a new way of thinking about services for customers – who no longer own the equipment – and for partners.

 "Managed services for small businesses are a way to get that blanket of assurance – that peace of mind that their technology infrastructure is going to be there to support their business," Sage says.

Enhanced service offerings

In the face of these trends, Cisco is enhancing the services it offers to support its partners' raw technologies and future service options. Its Rapid Replacement Service, developed at the request of its partners, promises a four-hour product replacement for three years for a flat $999 per device. This provides peace-of-mind assurance for the critical hardware small businesses rely on as part of their larger services portfolio, reducing costly downtime as a result of the average, multi-day replacement cycle.

While the Rapid Replacement Service will help small businesses directly, Cisco's new Partner Design Support assists Cisco's reseller partners directly – and, by proxy, their small business customers as well. The new service allows resellers to call Cisco for advice about which technology would be best for a prospective customer.

According to Presti, streamlining the presales process is a major benefit for resellers. "There is a substantial expense on the presales side," he says. "When I come out to your place of business, get acquainted with what you're doing, look at how to make you more efficient — that takes a lot of time and energy before I've gotten a contract out of you."

By helping resellers create better proposals faster, Cisco keeps resellers and small business customers well-served with the latest, productivity-boosting offerings. These partnerships – between customer and reseller and between reseller and Cisco – are essential to the success of services in a small business environment.

"We really are delivering this solution as sort of a partner play," Halper says. "If the two aren't working well together, you really lose a lot of the potential value."

Margaret Steen is a writer based in San Francisco, CA.

 
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