AT&T's Chris Jones: 'Humbling' Partner Feedback Led to Alliance Channel, ACC Business Revamp

"In order to change how we were perceived in the industry, you had to have open and honest and real conversations," Chris Jones told Channel Futures.

James Anderson, Senior News Editor

November 9, 2021

13 Min Read

AT&T took tough but important feedback from channel partners in order to change revamp its channel programs.

Chris Jones, associate vice president of channel Sales for the AT&T Alliance Channel and ACC Business, said he and his team sat down with multiple partner advisory channels to learn about how they could improve their programs. The feedback, Jones said, often challenged him.


AT&T’s Chris Jones

“It required a lot of listening. It required a lot of humility, because AT&T is a very significant company,” Jones told Channel Futures during a sit-down at last week’s Channel Partners Conference & Expo. “We’re a very proud company. And it’s not easy always to listen to things that you don’t do well. And so we very intentionally asked a lot of questions and then tried to listen and not get defensive.”

The vendor realigned its channel programs in 2019 to create an organization that stretches across the Alliance Channel and ACC Business and specifically serves AT&T’s distribution and brokerage (formerly known as master agent) partners.

Jones also spoke to Channel Futures about how AT&T’s efforts to communicate its value as a cybersecurity provider and MSSP to partners.

We have edited the transcript for length and clarity.

Channel Futures: What’s new with AT&T Alliance Channel and ACC Business?

Chris Jones: It’s been a very exciting last year or so with the Alliance channel and ACC business. We understand that indirect is not really a one-size-fits-all approach. So inside of the Alliance Channel, we have three different go-to-market strategies that we’re working with. We have a specialty channel, which is really outbound telemarketing and door-to-door. It’s still inside indirect, but it’s unique. We have what I’ll refer to as the traditional AT&T solution provider channel, which is the the channel that AT&T has gone to market with for 20-plus years and is what most people think about when they think about AT&T. And then two years ago, we built a tech distributor/brokerage organization that I am fortunate enough to lead.

Inside of the Alliance Channel, we have those three focus areas. And it’s been really exciting to build out our program. We didn’t have a lot of relationship with the distibutors/brokerages. We’ve introduced a new compensation model. We’ve had rules of engagement changes. This year we’re seeing more agents participating with AT&T. We’re seeing the distributors/brokerages truly embracing AT&T. We’re seeing AT&T as perceived in the larger indirect space very differently than it has been with the agent community. And that leads to a lot of really positive things from a business perspective and from an expansion perspective.

At the same time, the distributors/brokerages historically are the predominant contributor into ACC business. So we have made significant investments into ACC business. It historically was a dedicated internet-focused part of the industry. We’ve launched colocation, we’ve launched SD-WAN. We’ve made infrastructure investments. ACC Business is a 22 year old business that AT&T acquired years ago, but it hasn’t been invested in a lot. So as we brought together and built the [distributor/brokerage]-focused organization, we realized that in both the Alliance Channel and in ACC business, and we needed to do things to create a two-path approach.

We offer two approaches. In the traditional Alliance Channel you can team with our direct sales force; you can collaborate with them. But then we now offer a second option, which is a non-teaming track for agents that don’t want to team and don’t want to work with a direct seller. From an AT&T perspective, I would argue we’ve gone from being perceived as very rigid and inflexible to …

… being incredibly flexible. I would argue, we’re the only provider in the industry that has two go-to-market tracks the way we do – a teaming track and a non-teaming track – that allow agents to decide what’s best for them and their customers.

CF: I’m interested in delving into the change in perception. As you’re looking at those traditional partners (customer-facing agents), how are you seeing them evolving?

CJ: If you think about our traditional solution providers inside of the Alliance Channel, many of them are former AT&T employees. They’re very bought into AT&T. The bigger opportunity that we had over the last two to three years is really the larger subagent community that’s non-exclusive. That where we’re seeing the biggest change in perception around AT&T. And a lot of that had to do with the AT&T of the past. When we thought about going big with distributors/brokerages and subagents, we believed there were four things we had to look at to be compelling in this industry.

The first thing is, you had to have compelling products and services that customers want to buy and agents want to sell. We believe we always were successful in that space. The three areas that prevented us from being successful had to do with ease of doing business, rules of engagement and compensation. Those are areas we’re we’ve made changes over the last couple of years to really become much more attractive to the [brokerage/broker] community. Obviously the introduction of residual compensation, which we did several years back, was a big step forward. But for the subagent community, just because we changed compensation didn’t mean they were prepared to jump on board with AT&T.

These are people that have been in this space for a long time, and they’ve had opportunities over the years to experience all the ebbs and flows of providers’ indirect strategies. And we had to demonstrate to the indirect channel space that this wasn’t a phase, but that this was a strategy going forward that we were committed to. I think that’s why this year has been so exciting, because we had to hit the road. And very candidly, the first thing we had to do was work with the distributors/brokerages to make sure they understood what we were doing, why we were doing it and that we were committed to it. After we got them to understand that, then we had to go out to the actual community and make sure they understood what was going on.

I think a lot of people in indirect think you just flip the switch and everyone’s going to jump on board with you. The reality is that’s not what happened. That’s not how it works. When we built our distributor/brokerage-focused organization, we built advisory boards. We built executive advisory boards; we built operations advisory boards. And we asked for feedback. We shared what we were doing, and we asked for feedback from the distributors/brokerages about how we could approach the marketplace.

It required a lot of listening. It required a lot of humility, because AT&T is a very significant company. We’re a very proud company. And it’s not easy always to listen to things that you don’t do well. So we very intentionally asked a lot of questions and then tried to listen and not get defensive. And there was an an extended period of time where it was a challenge, because you heard a lot of things that didn’t feel good. But in order to change how we were perceived in the industry, you had to have open and honest and real conversations. But those conversations allowed us to build strategies and models and value propositions to go out to the larger community that I think resonated. I think a lot of people are pleasantly surprised at the commitment that we’ve made and the impact that we’ve made and the changes that we’ve made. But I think a lot of that comes from …

… truly listening and understanding.

CF: I remember when you said that during the panel at Avant Special Forces. I was surprised because I think every large carrier would hear feedback they didn’t like to hear from partners. But to be candid about that and talk about it must gain you some credibility.

CJ: I was very intentional in how we did the advisory board. We had a very small group of AT&T people there. And my guiding principle was that we spend 20% of the time talking and 80% of the time listening. That forces the conversation to be about, “What is happening that causes someone to work with someone else versus working with AT&T?” And it was humbling. But very honestly, I think the industry wants AT&T to be in the industry. I think that customers want our products, our solutions and what we bring to the table. I don’t want to say that people in this building were rooting for us. But I think that people were hoping that we would do these things, which I think is why we’re having the success that we’re now having.

CF: Are there any updates with the people involved in in ACC and Alliance Channel?

CJ: Nothing new in the last 90 days, but one of the things we did as we built this organization was make industry hires. We hired Justin Lyle-Purdy [regional sales director], Nikki Beck [national channel manager], and Jackie Steinberg [partner development manager]. They’re all part of our leadership team. We have channel managers that we hired. We have people that came from legacy AT&T and we have people that came from legacy ACC Business. Also, we have people that came from the industry. And we even have people that came from the AT&T direct sales force.

By bringing them all together, there wasn’t one way to do it. We had a lot of different perspectives that we brought forward. And I think making some of the industry hires that we did really helped us to understand how you succeed in working with the distributors/brokerages and the adviser/broker community, whereas with our minimal relationship over the years, we could make assumptions. But if you hire people that truly do this, it helps you understand how to work with them better.

CF: Where are partners finding success technologically. I know ACC expanded its portfolio. Are you seeing an uptick in a particular technology? 

CJ: Beyond core connectivity, the two areas that are very exciting to us are cybersecurity and 5G. Think about the impacts of the last 24 months and COVID and COVID phase two (wherever we are today). Companies all over the country picked up employees and sent them all over the place. It took the historically very locked-up security profile of an enterprise and kind of turned it on its head, when you have all your employees walking out of the building with their computers and setting up at home or wherever. And I think it created an incredible opportunity for the hacker community. There are so many more endpoints that are now accessible for hackers to hack into. They don’t need to hack into corporate headquarters; they need to find an endpoint that lets them in. Once they’re inside the network, they can get wherever they want to be.

If you think back to that infamous March in 2020, instantly everyone was trying to move to work-from-home environment. There was a lot of migration to the cloud that occurred in 2020, and it created all of these endpoint opportunities for hackers. What we’re really talking to the industry about right now is, we owe it to customers to circle back with them and make sure that in our new hybrid work environment where you have some people in corporate offices and a lot of people still working from home, how do you protect that new network? How do you protect that new design and make sure that all of those endpoints are truly secure? Certainly, if you look at the news, there’s a lot of opportunity to see the value of cybersecurity and the protection that’s required. And we believe that’s a big opportunity for AT&T.

The other thing that I would say is with the advent of 5G, there are a lot of really exciting applications that are coming. And I think that wireless is moving beyond just smartphones and tablets. IoT is not something that’s new. IoT has been around for a long time. But I think that with the rollout of 5G it’s going to …

… speed up some of those IoT applications because of the construction of the network. And we’re seeing some really exciting sales and some solutions that are being put together for customers to use wireless technology in ways that people haven’t thought of.

I worked at Cingular Wireless back in the days when Cingular Wireless was here. When we first started rolling out 3G, customers were the people that came up with these really cool wireless solutions. And 5G is, I would argue, that next iteration where customers are coming up with those solutions. So in the indirect space, the customer-facing individuals that are listening to their customers and listening to their challenges are building solutions leveraging 5G that are going to be incredibly fascinating.

If you think about it, if the community is really focusing on how our customers can increase revenues, decrease expenses or improve customer experience, they can identify for us what the wireless solution is, and then we can then go build it. What I would argue is, what’s gonna happen with 5G and what has happened in the classical wireline space with work-from-home and this hybrid environment make that cybersecurity play that much more important for everyone to think about.

CF: Are you seeing the solution providers finding more and more use cases where customers want to buy cybersecurity services?

CJ: Yes, absolutely. One of the best things about working for AT&T is that everyone knows who we are. We have brand recognition, and no one asks, “What’s AT&T?” The downside of working for AT&T is, everyone has a predisposed perception of who AT&T is based on that knowledge and that awareness. Because of that predisposed preference to what AT&T is, sometimes people don’t realize everything that we bring to the table. And as we’ve started sharing with people the size and scope of our cybersecurity practice, the opportunities that are presenting themselves are significant and really exciting to look at. And in some cases, as we talked to subagents, they had no idea that we even were in the cybersecurity space. We are one of the largest MSSPs in the United States, and what we’ve started to do is really make sure that people understand what it is that we do.

You saw [AT&T Cybersecurity head of evangelism] Teresa Lanowitz do our keynote yesterday [at Channel Partners]. We have more than 2,000 cybersecurity specialists and eight SOCs around the world. We’re a thought leader in the cybersecurity space, but sometimes people don’t know that. Because of our size and scope and scale, the selling community may not fully understand everything that we bring to the table. As we have those conversations, the opportunities that are presenting themselves are amazing.

CF: Is there anything else you want to add?

I would just close with reiterating what we talked about. I think that we’re very committed to this indirect space. We’re excited by what’s happened. And we’re even more excited about the kind of the future and where we’re going. And we really believe that indirect is important to AT&T, that AT&T is important to indirect, and that we’re going to continue to listen. We’re going to continue to look for those opportunities. And I think we’re going to continue really do things that are going to help us grow with the indirect channel and as a result expand our customer relationships to places where we may not have had those relationships historically.

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About the Author(s)

James Anderson

Senior News Editor, Channel Futures

James Anderson is a news editor for Channel Futures. He interned with Informa while working toward his degree in journalism from Arizona State University, then joined the company after graduating. He writes about SD-WAN, telecom and cablecos, technology services distributors and carriers. He has served as a moderator for multiple panels at Channel Partners events.

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