What is Cisco Selling Now? It’s Not UC
Over the past few weeks, I’m pretty sure that I was the only analyst who attended two particular Cisco events. One was Connect 2014, their annual Canadian event for partners and customers in Toronto, and more recently, their Customer Collaboration Analyst Day, held in Phoenix. Together, these gave me a pretty good window on their priorities for the UC market, and I’m sharing them here.
We all know how UC poses both challenges and threats, and how hard the vendors are working to find the right value proposition. With last month’s UC Summit barely in the rear view mirror, it’s clear that the channels have a lot of catching up to do with how rapidly things are changing. As we saw in La Jolla, there are plenty of new ways for the channel to add value, but it won’t be easy. Not only are the technologies constantly changing, but so are the go-to-market plans for the vendors.
Given Cisco’s prominence in this space, their roadmap is hard to ignore, and while they don’t always bet right, there’s little doubt from these events that they’ve given UC careful thought and are not leaving things to chance. For the most part, all UC vendors understand this too, but Cisco has a leadership position to defend, and they’re very focused on specific opportunities for growth. In this context, here are two takeaways from these events that channels should pay attention to.
1. Get with the program - it’s not about UC
It’s not even about collaboration. The driver now is “delivering collaborative customer experiences for driving business outcomes.” During these events, UC is mentioned from time to time, but the attention is moving from technology solutions to business solutions. At the Connect event, there were lots of technical tracks that cover the granular details, but that’s not where the selling happens.
While the messaging is generally for the enterprise market, the overall theme for collaboration solutions is to move the conversation beyond the IT people to the business decision makers. The faster you can do that, the better, since Cisco is trying to position collaboration from the start at the top of the value chain. Technology investments are getting harder to cost-justify, and when you can directly link collaboration to business outcomes, executives will pay attention.
During the analyst day, Cisco shared findings from their extensive research confirming this, and we got further support during some of the partner presentations. Cisco is happy to talk speeds and feeds any time, but what buyers really want – for example – is a vendor with strong enough relationships across their organization that can “bridge IT and business stakeholders.”
2. The experience is everything
Nothing really new here, but at both events, we heard a lot about the importance of having a user-centric approach to collaboration, especially when dealing with customers. As was aptly noted in Phoenix, “experience trumps technology.”
Cisco may have a comprehensive and complex product portfolio, but they have also embraced this thinking, and we got some great demos as proof points. Both events featured a demo of the SX10, which truly is a plug-and-play, out of the box Telepresence solution for SMBs. It’s hard to imagine HD video being easier to set up, and they’ve really done their homework to make this fool-proof. When collaboration tools are this intuitive, UC will definitely gain traction – not just because it’s easy to use, but the SX10 is also an affordable piece of hardware that channels can sell without much difficulty.
On that note, I have to mention that Cisco is paying a lot of attention to design in their collaboration products. Aside from the SX10, we also got a sneak peak – under NDA – of another endpoint that will be equally compelling. If you’re seeing a bit of Apple or even Samsung in this thinking, I would agree with you. Cisco may never succeed as a consumer company, but they’ve taken some pages from these players in terms of creating great-looking products that deliver a high-value experience without having to read a complicated user guide.
As a coda, I wanted to mention an analogy that Rowan Trollope used at Connect to describe the buying process for UC. Think about going to the toy store with a young child. They get excited right away by whatever toy (shiny object) that catches their eye, and as the parent, you don’t want to ruin the moment, but you have to make a balanced decision. You’re the economic buyer, but the child is the consumer (end user) who will get all the fun (benefit). I’ve been saying much the same thing for a while now, and a big challenge for UC vendors is to make the product as enticing as possible for end users, but backing that up with a business case that a rational decision maker will understand.
What it all means
Every vendor has its own vision of collaboration, and my take is that Cisco has this pretty well figured out. In Phoenix, we heard about how their sales organization is a “collaborative culture,” not just for internal operations, but also in how they work with partners. If you’re living and breathing collaboration, it stands to reason you’ll be pretty good at selling it.
Their current level of success is validating this, but it’s not always harmonious. A key strength for Cisco is their partner ecosystem, and that was covered at length in Phoenix. While this makes for a complete collaboration solution, these partners have direct selling relationships with Cisco’s customers too, and this type of collaboration requires some nuanced give and take.
There’s a fine line to balance here, and all vendors struggle on this front. For channels, the caveat is to consider how Cisco’s ecosystem might impact relationships you have with other UC vendors. Some partners are all-or-nothing with Cisco, while others are agnostic, so it’s important to consider all the pieces behind a vendor’s UC offering.
Otherwise, my conclusion is pretty pro-Cisco in terms of what resonates with business decision-makers right now. Not every business is ready for such a rich solution, but if you’re looking for collaboration to be a strategic driver rather than a tactical investment in technology, I’d say that Cisco has its finger on the pulse.