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Meet the Channel: PlanetOne's Ross Thompson Educates the Telco Channel About Managed Services

Five years ago, the telco partners Ross Thompson worked with were all about networking and voice. When the cloud opportunity came along, they required a whole other kind of education: how to capitalize on the IT channel opportunity.

Meet the Channel is a recurring Channel Futures column that leaves the C-suite and focuses on how channel trends impact the day-to-day job functions of employees "in the trenches." This week, we sat down with Ross Thompson, who has worked for the last five years to help the telco channel capitalize on the managed services opportunity. How have the conversations with agents and other telco partners changed over the last few years, and what areas of the managed services business model need the most education?

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Channel Futures: What brought you into the channel?

Ross Thompson: PlanetOne is what brought me in. I got into technology back in 2001 working in business-to-business sales as an account executive. I worked there for four-and-a-half years, then took a role out of telco altogether. But when PlanetOne won the AmEx Business for Business Program project, I spoke with [CEO] Ted [Schuman], then came on at PlanetOne, which ultimately was my first role in the channel [in 2012 or 2013]. I was selling as a client services manager to some of the AmEx Business for Business project customers. From there, I transitioned into a channel-manager role supporting partners and helping them transition from the traditional telecom services they’d been used to selling into the more cloud-based services available in the space.

CF: What was going on in the channel at that time?

RT: At that time, most of the partners I was working with were selling nothing but traditional telecom services — we’ll call it network and voice. About that time, UCaaS started to make a really big play, so people were moving their PBXs into the cloud. From there it transitioned into Office 365, and then rolled all the way up into infrastructure as a service, managed services, etc. It’s continued to grow exponentially. Every year there’s a new technology, emerging technologies and next-gen technologies coming to market and making a big splash.

Ross Thompson

CF: Ongoing managed services have been a big part of the IT channel for quite a while, but not so much in the telco channel. Tell me about what that culture shock was like as you educated these partners in the managed-services opportunity.

RT: My traditional guys had never sold into the IT space at all. I think the initial shock was, “How do I have this conversation? How do I even get my customers to come to me when they’ve relied on me for so long just for their network and traditional telecom services? How do I get my customer to open up and talk to me about what they’re doing on the IT and LAN side of that?” The conversations initially we had with our partners were how to go in and have a business discussion on how they’re using technology today to create efficiencies and get an edge against their competitors that are in this space. [It was] getting them over the fear of not knowing everything about the actual product and tailoring it into more of a business conversation on what [their customers are] doing, how they’re using technology to advance their business, and how can [partners] help them do that.

CF: How do you go about essentially giving a little MBA education to partners who have gotten so used to just slinging boxes? How do you even start that conversation?

RT: You really start it plain and simple. The first question I tell my partners to ask is, “Do you have a cloud strategy? What are your plans over the next three to five years to move to the cloud, and what applications and workloads are you running today that we could look at moving to the cloud?” Once you get that question out, you can sit back and let the customer start dictating where that conversation is going to go. They’re going to start telling you. 

CF: Have those conversations moved from generalities to specifics such as vertical or LOB solutions?

RT: They have. It’s definitely partner-specific. Some have grasped it a lot faster than others. They’ve evolved more quickly, and they’re able to talk almost completely through the entire stack, from layer one all the way up to the application layer in order to further do deep dives with their customers. A few of my partners who have been around for a long time and are kind of old-school have gone out and hired a younger generation that grew up in this space to help them have those conversations with those customers, as well to get further into that spend for newer, cloud-based technologies so they can leverage that relationship while using the expertise not only of PlanetOne and the providers in our portfolio, but having someone in house as well to help further those conversations.

I think internally we’ve taken measures like hiring a cloud solutions architect that’s played in this space for the last eight to 10 years that is now a resource for all our existing partners that may not have grasped it quite as quickly, or may just need that added depth on the bench. We’ll pull them along until they feel they can have these conversations on their own. Obviously for the others, we don’t need to worry about them so much because their education level should stay high, even as newer technologies come out.

CF: What do you see coming down the pike in the next year or two that will have a big impact on partners?

RT: It isn’t so much technology as all of the acquisitions and consolidation we’re seeing. When that happens, there’s a lot of disruption in the marketplace. You have people on the direct side moving companies. You have reps being assigned to different accounts. The customer is kind of left holding the bag. The one constant that we have in this industry from a channel perspective, whether MSP or a traditional telco partner, is they’re always the constant in that customer relationship. They’re always the trusted adviser, and they aren’t going anywhere. They have the biggest opportunity to grasp hold of this relationship and be that one sole source for any telecom or IT problem to assist that customer. That in itself is a huge opportunity in our space.

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