EP 53: Navigating Tech Partnerships

Insights from Fusion Connect's Senior Channel Manager Ashley Cole

Join us on Tech UNMUTED as we introduce a new format with special guest Ashley Cole, Fusion Connect's most tenured Channel Manager. Ashley shares her journey, the importance of strong Partnerships, and the latest industry trends, including the transformative impact of AI. Discover how Fusion Connect's commitment to people over products sets them apart. This episode offers valuable insights for tech professionals looking to stay ahead in a rapidly evolving industry.

Watch & Listen

Tech UNMUTED is on YouTube
Catch up with new episodes or hear from our archive. Explore and subscribe!

INTRODUCTION VOICEOVER: Dive into the world of innovation with us as we unravel the challenges, breakthroughs, and latest trends that are shaping our digital landscape. This is Tech UNMUTED, your guide to the tech revolution.

SANTI: Welcome everyone to the latest episode of Tech UNMUTED. Today, Terry and I are going to launch basically a new format really, right? Something different.


SANTI: I think it's going to be fun. We're going to have a very special guest today. Joining us today is the one and only Ashley Cole. Ashley, if you could jump on screen? Just like that. All right. Now Ashley happens to be the most-- and by the way, Terry verified this for me, the most the most tenured Channel Manager at Fusion Connect. That means that she's going to have a whole wealth of knowledge on what exactly? On this evolving world of technology and most importantly, Partnerships. Welcome, Ashley, to Tech UNMUTED.

ASHLEY: Thanks for having me. I'm excited.


TERRY: Welcome. Welcome on board.

SANTI: This is your first time on Tech Unmuted, isn't it?

ASHLEY: It is.

TERRY: Oh wow.

ASHLEY: It is. It's not my first time watching, but I'm not watching this time.


TERRY: That's right. It won't be your actual last time. I can almost guarantee that. Were excited to have you on Tech UNMUTED and excited to just start this new chapter of it. The industry we're in, it's constantly changing. The only real constant is that you've got to stay on top of the curve.

SANTI: That's right.

TERRY: It's crucial for all of us to stay on top of the curve. We wanted to take the chance today to just talk to you, Ashley, and deep dive into some of the current trends that you're hearing in the industry, some of the technologies that are shaping the market, and really help let you guide some of our listeners on the experiences that you've run into and what you're hearing in the market today. First and foremost, just tell us about yourself and your journey to get here. I know it because you and I have worked together for a decade.

ASHLEY: 13 years.

TERRY: Yes, over a decade. Tell us and our listeners a little bit about you and your journey here.

ASHLEY: Absolutely. I don't know how much I love it, but a term that I've been deemed is a Channel unicorn. I've been with Fusion Connect companies for over 13 years, but really, my entrance into technology was with Ernest Communications. I went from Ernest to Birch to Fusion, then the emergence of Fusion Connect. Really, all of my experience in technology has been with the Fusion companies. I started in margin assurance. Crazy little--



ASHLEY: Yes. I started in margin assurance and we'll put it this way, when I worked at Ernest, I didn't know what a POTS line was. I knew what DSL was because I had it in my house, didn't know what a PRI was. I did wholesale billing audits. When Birch acquired Ernest, I was the only one that knew the billing software, so they had to keep me.

SANTI: That is funny.

ASHLEY: I moved to Birch and they were like, "You're going to be an enterprise account manager," not just an account manager, an enterprise one. I was going to go from deducing wholesale bills to being customer-facing in an industry I knew nothing about. It speaks to the people. They did crash courses with me on technology, what a central office was, what a TDMP PRI was. Crash courses daily with engineers, with directors. Then started doing that, managed about 20 of our largest customers. Pretty much all of our large customers are managed by Partners.

Partners went to our Channel Chief and the VP of Sales at the time and were like, "You have this person in account management we think would be good in Channels." Next thing now Channels started knocking and I thought they lost their minds.


I was known for finding discounts, finding ways to do stuff, and save money. I was like, "How hard up are you guys that you want me in Sales? I'm the opposite of a salesperson." They're like, "Ashley, no, you take care of people. You have a genuine concern with how they are and their experience. You're going to do perfect." I came over to Channel, came over to the dark side as a Support Manager, supported four of our different Channel Managers. Again, I didn't even know that voice could work over the internet when it came to sales.

TERRY: You spent a lot of those first years with my team.

ASHLEY: A lot. I became their best friend every day because what doesn't work for me is regurgitating what I hear. I have to understand how it works, why it works. What if this, what if that? I was on the phone with Terry's team every single day and I'm not talking 10 minutes. I'm talking hours like, "Okay, tell me how this works." Then next thing they were like, "We want you to be a Channel Manager," because I was doing great as a Support Manager. I had my own organic sales and they were like, "Support Managers aren't supposed to have that high of sales. We need you to be a Channel Manager."

Even then I was like, "Absolutely not." After a little bit of coercing, I gave in and I am so glad I did because I absolutely love it.

TERRY: We are too.

SANTI: We are too. We really are. It's not just us.

ASHLEY: Some days.

SANTI: I know for a fact that our Partners love you and that you have a great relationship, which is why Terry and I wanted to bring you onto the podcast because I just think it's interesting to take a time-out from all the stuff we used to do in this podcast and go, "Why would people Partner with us anyway?" That's a great question for you. Why do Partners, Ashley, decide that they want to do business with Fusion Connect? What's that one thing that stands out for you? Why do they want to do that?

ASHLEY: Unpopular belief, it's not our products. It's really not. Do we have great products? Yes. Do we install them well? Yes. It is truly our people. It's our people and the people that become resources. I will say there's not a lot of companies out there that post an escalation list up to their CEO on their website. I think that speaks wonders to the type of resources we want available and the type of experience we're ready to offer not only our end users, but our Partners too, because Partners are our clients. They're bringing us business, they're entrusting us with their clients.

I think the biggest thing it boils down to is our people. We've got from Marketing. We have the marketing resources to help people co-brand, and do campaigns in a box. We've got Terry's entire team that makes sure the solution's perfect from the get-go, all of our wonderful Channel Managers that are there to assist. Then we've got Support teams that have won awards. I really think it's our people.

SANTI: I could not agree more with that answer. Only because even though you and Terry have me beat by a couple of years, it'll be 11 years for me in August, I'm right behind you guys, I can tell you--

ASHLEY: Not far behind.

SANTI: Not far behind. Right there.

ASHLEY: We've been here a while.

SANTI: Oh, yes, we have. We come with the furniture. It depends.

ASHLEY: We are the furniture.

SANTI: It's either the green furniture or the orange. Remember that?


ASHLEY: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

SANTI: Actually, one of the things that I think would be great because, again, you bring a lot of insight, there might be actually Channel Managers for Fusion Connect who are going to watch this podcast. While we want to hear why Partners do business with us, we also want to hear what are some of the keys to your success. What are some of the things that maybe another Channel Manager can take away? This industry we're in, as you know, it's super fast-paced. It changes all the time.

ASHLEY: Very. Absolutely.

SANTI: To Terry's opening statement, the one thing that's constant about us is that it's always changing and so we're always changing.

ASHLEY: Absolutely.

SANTI: Any tips around that? How do you keep up with this fast-paced world? Anything that you can tell them about your abilities to network and make connections and just share advice literally based on your experience with other Channel Managers that they could probably aspire to. Something around that area, that would be great.

TERRY: How does it help the Channel Manager and how does it help the Partners work with us better? Understanding what would make you and other Channel managers better for them helps those Partners know how to better deal with us so that they get the best experience.

ASHLEY: Absolutely. It is ever-evolving. I think one of the biggest pieces of advice I'd have is never stop learning. Don't just know your products, know the industry products, know industry trends. The biggest thing is being a resource. My Partners know they can text me, they can call me, they can ask me questions. I'm not going to have to defer to an engineer every single time. They know that when I make a statement, that I know what I'm talking about. Now, yes, we absolutely bring in our CSAs in those conversations to make sure the solution fits, but when it comes down to knowing the technology, I know the technology, I know how it works.

They can trust me in that. Not just being able to regurgitate what you hear someone say. It goes back to all my conversations with our engineers when I came over to sales. It's know your product and be a resource. If you are of no value to your Partners, they are going to find someone that they do consider valuable. Gone are the days where they look for, "Who's going to take me to lunch today? Who's going to buy me coffee? Who's going to buy me dinner?" All that stuff's nice, but if they do not consider you a resource, what place do you have?

They can go and find another supplier that does it great, that has that Channel manager, that is a resource that they can rely on. Really being that extension of their team and helping them grow, helping them learn the technologies and really being an asset to their team. I want my Partners to literally not imagine doing their day-to-day without some type of engagement with me. I want to be that valuable to them.

TERRY: We want to be their trusted advocate or trusted advisor or Partner advocate. Really, we want to be the one there to help those Partners. You said it wonderfully, that's what we're all here for.

SANTI: Yes, I love that.

ASHLEY: Absolutely.

TERRY: When we gain that trust with our Partners, they can feel comfortable giving that back to their clients.

SANTI: Absolutely. That's where networking comes in too. Santee brought up networking. I'm a great example of this. If I were to just work my day-to-day Fusion Connect, I would only know our technologies, but yet I can start talking about some data centers. I can start talking about the actual install process. I can talk about more advanced-- I can talk about so much of the technology because I network with my peers and I learn what they do and I learn how it works. I learn different ways of doing things because do I know it all? Absolutely not.

I don't even come close to thinking I do. The Channel's fabulous. You're literally surrounded by a bunch of really smart people. If you're not learning from them and growing from them and leaning into the resources you have on your friends, you're not taking advantage of the network you're in.

TERRY: That's a great segue into what are some of the industry terms, the buzzwords, that are coming out that you're hearing? I hear them all the time and I'm an engineer. I've been one for over 30 years. It's hard to say that.

ASHLEY: [laughs]

TERRY: I know.


TERRY: What are some of the things you're hearing in the market? I know what I hear, but coming from you, that's going to be a difference because, "Oh, that's just an engineer talking." What are some things you're hearing?

ASHLEY: I hear a lot about DSL and Copper-- No, I was kidding.


No, honestly, it is AI with a little bit of AI, some added AI, and then utilizing AI for-- It's AI.


ASHLEY: It is the buzzword. It's applicable in every facet of your life. It is what people are intrigued about, want to know more about. They're scared about it, but they're excited about it. Every single event I do, every single conversation I have, AI comes up in some shape, form, or fashion.

TERRY: As it should.

ASHLEY: It should.

SANTI: As it should. Every time there's something new, and Terry can vouch for this, there's always what's called a hype curve. It's like there's a lot of noise, a lot of noise, a lot of noise, and you hit that hype curve, and at the top of that hype curve, two things happen. Either it becomes mainstream, or it starts to fizzle out. It was all hype after all, right?

ASHLEY: Absolutely.

SANTI: AI, in a very short time, has surpassed that hype curve, is becoming quickly mainstream in many assets, not just the communication pieces, just everybody's looking, "How can I adopt it?" Everybody has it in some fashion already. It's on your phone, right?

ASHLEY: Absolutely.

SANTI: Do you feel that the Partner community is truly-- because I know you embrace it because you have no choice, or you embrace it because you absolutely see the value, and you bought into it. What are you feeling from the Partners? Is it a mix of both, or do you--

ASHLEY: Both. Absolutely both.

SANTI: I feel that's normal.

TERRY: I know we have the ability here to not just offer AI, but we can help Partners and clients dip their toe into it-


SANTI: Yes, that's a good point.

TERRY: -so they don't have to go in, that's the fear, and interrupt the people being so worried about it, is, "Oh, well, what's it going to open up? What's it going to bring that security risk? What are those concerns?" Really being able to do things like just adding Teams Premium and getting meeting summaries.

ASHLEY: Recap, yes.

TERRY: That recap is fabulous, and it doesn't open up the rest of your network, and it's an inexpensive way to dip your toe into AI.

ASHLEY: Absolutely.

TERRY: People use GPT online, and if you're running a Windows machine, you've got a co-pilot icon now. It says free, but you've got a co-pilot icon. The ability to create documents, to creat just a quick, "Hey, help me write this," is there for people to touch their toe in.

ASHLEY: Absolutely.

TERRY: I hear it at every conference we go to, Ashley, and you and I go to a lot of them together.

ASHLEY: A lot.

TERRY: We're out in the field. It's that time of year. Really coming up on starting that, isn't it?

ASHLEY: Absolutely.

SANTI: Actually, that's a good point. You guys are getting ready. This is the season. Is this not the season for the Channel? Don't you guys have major events scheduled for the rest of the year?

ASHLEY: It is.

TERRY: Next five months.

SANTI: Walk us through that. I want to know what--

ASHLEY: In fact, Cam Olson called it wedding season, and that was just so funny to me because it's true.

TERRY: Oh yes.

ASHLEY: Right now, I am in not-so-sunny Fort Lauderdale, because I have an event tomorrow, and it's about to storm. It is event season. It's very, very busy. It's absolutely exhausting, but it is probably some of the most valuable time we have. It is on so many different levels, valuable from, you're networking, you're building new relationships, you're recruiting new Partners, learning. The amount of workshops, and different speaking opportunities-

TERRY: Education.

ASHLEY: -that are there, it's phenomenal. It always surprises me that you meet a couple of people that don't evangelize that. There's so much you can get out of it, and it's everything. We have the national events that everyone knows about, where all the TSDs go, and all the suppliers and--

SANTI: Those are the big ones.

ASHLEY: Those are the big ones. Then we have your big TSD events, or TSD, TSB, and those are also huge. All of them are a little different, but the value is just priceless.


TERRY: It is. Getting the opportunity, like you said, to recruit those Partners, to bring them in and show them the value, and to educate.

ASHLEY: Oh, absolutely.

TERRY: You talked about being on panels for us to be able to help educate, not just in our products and service, and I've been asked this more and more as a participant on panels often, and I know you're on panels all the time too, is, "Don't come in and necessarily say, 'Here's the products we sell.' Come in and help give us a thought leadership, an education on this particular industry, or this segment of the industry. If it happens to coincide with what you do, that's great, and you can bring that up, but really be a thought leader." We get that more and more.

I really think being able to give that, but also take that in, sit in and listen to some of those thought leadership, because like you said, we're always learning. If we're not, shame on us.

ASHLEY: We are. Yes, absolutely. We're in an industry where we're-- put it this way, if technology didn't advance, we wouldn't have a job.

TERRY: Of course.

ASHLEY: Then you have clients and Partners leaning on us to educate them. If you're not educated yourself, it goes back to not being a value, not being an asset. A term I use often is I want to be able to educate my Partners enough to make them dangerous, to where they're confident to start the conversation, but they don't have to be the expert. To where they're confident to start it, they can gauge interest with their clients, and then once they have that interest, then they can bring folks like myself in and Terry's team in to really take on that expert role.

I want them to be confident to have that conversation. A lot of these events is where they can start building that confidence and speaking about the products in the industry as a whole.

SANTI: I was laughing when you said that because I was thinking to myself, as you said, if technology did not evolve, our jobs would be boring after a while.

TERRY: They would.

ASHLEY: We wouldn't have one.

SANTI: Honestly, one of the things that I know Terry and I love about this, it's the same burden, the whole thing about changing all the time, but at the same time, every time it changes, man, it's better and bigger and faster and smarter. It's like, "Whoa." I just love that about our industry.

ASHLEY: It's so exciting. It's so exciting to be at the forefront of that.

SANTI: What is this Fused thing I keep hearing about? What is this? Tell me.

ASHLEY: I'm so excited for the Fused series. Traditionally we try once a year in all the major markets to do a Partner Academy. The 2024 Partner Academy is being deemed Fused. Now it is literally what it sounds like, just taking anything and everything we can offer as a resource and highlighting it. It's for all of our Partners in the territories and it is just a Fusion event. It's not co-sponsored. It's not a couple of suppliers coming in. It is Fusion Connect in the major markets and it gives all the Partners the ability to come in-- Here's what I love about the Fused series as a little teaser.

Historically, when you go to an event that's put on by one supplier, it becomes-- Sorry, other suppliers. It becomes a snooze fest. You're sitting at a table, usually being talked at for an hour. Who wants that? Nobody. We've been really good about doing little around Robin, around the room and stuff, and keeping it interesting. This time we're doing-- For Atlanta, I'm calling them pit stops because it's at the Porsche experience, hint-hint, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, for all my Atlanta Partners. I'm calling it a pit stop, but it's going to be the same theme nationally.

We're setting up different stations and the stations are going to have some executive or C-level leadership. We're going to have our solutions architects, our CSAs there. We're going to have sales and sales leadership there. Marketing's going to be present. What that does, it gives the ability for the Partners to spend time where they see most valuable. If they are coming in and they have so many questions about how something works technically, the ins, the outs, they can spend the entire time with a CSA and be perfect. Terry and his whole team are going to be present here.

If they want to know more like trends and roadmap and like, "Hey, what's coming in the future?" not only can you actually get that from the CSAs because they know all kinds of stuff that's coming in down the pipeline, but our executive leadership is going to be there. If they want to spend time with me on the go-to-market strategy and how to make money and the conversations we're having, how do you actually sell it? They can spend the time with me. They can split their time everywhere. It's really meant to provide as much value as humanly possible to our Partners and our major markets. I am so, so excited.

SANTI: It's awesome.

ASHLEY: I don't know what each market has planned. It's not going to be the Porsche experience in all of them, but I will say that Fusion's going big with Fused.

SANTI: Nice.

TERRY: Absolutely.

ASHLEY: They're going big. I've heard some of the different spots they're looking at and they're going big.

SANTI: That's awesome.

ASHLEY: It's impressive.

SANTI: That's actually pretty cool to hear.

ASHLEY: I'm excited.

SANTI: This is the part of the podcast I hate because I could talk for an hour. [laughs]

ASHLEY: Oh no, I couldn't talk for an hour at all.

SANTI: No, of course not. No. I know Terry can't for sure.


SANTI: Now, seriously, Ashley, Thank you. We were switching up the format. You're our first guest in this format. It was awesome having you. I really love your insight. I love your energy. Most importantly, I love that our Partners love you, honestly. For those of you who are interested in number one, connecting with Ashley or talking to her about becoming a Partner, you can look her up on LinkedIn, look for Ashley Cole on LinkedIn. She'll be there. I think she's wearing pearls on LinkedIn.

ASHLEY: Probably.

TERRY: Probably.

SANTI: Probably [laughs]

ASHLEY: I wonder if people can find a picture of me without pearls, as long as I'm not fishing. I don't always wear them fishing.

SANTI: Yes. I can see that. However, if you are interested in becoming a Partner with Fusion Connect, all you have to do is go to www.fusionconnect.com/Partners, and that will be the beginning of your Partnership journey with us. Ashley, thank you for joining Terry and I. It was awesome having you. Now that I know you're in Florida, I'm going to see if I can figure something out to catch up with you. [crosstalk] Folks, until next time, please remember to stay curious and stay connected. Take care.

TERRY: Thanks, everyone. Bye.

CLOSING VOICEOVER: Thanks for diving into the tech world with us today. Don't forget to subscribe and hit the bell icon to never miss an episode of Tech UNMUTED. Stay curious, stay connected.

Episode Credits:

Produced by: Fusion Connect

2023 TMCnet Best Tech Podcast award winner

Expert insights, exclusive content, and the latest updates on Microsoft products and services - direct to your inbox. Subscribe to Tech ROUNDUP!

Tech UNMUTED, the podcast of modern collaboration, where we tell the stories of how collaboration tools enable businesses to be more efficient and connected. Humans have collaborated since the beginning of time – we’re wired to work together to solve complex problems, brainstorm novel solutions and build a connected community. On Tech UNMUTED, we’ll cover the latest industry trends and dive into real-world examples of how technology is inspiring businesses and communities to be more efficient and connected. Tune in to learn how today's table-stakes technologies are fostering a collaborative culture, serving as the anchor for exceptional customer service.

Get show notes, transcripts, and other details at www.fusionconnect.com/techUNMUTED. Tech UNMUTED is a production of Fusion Connect, LLC.