Cisco and John Chambers: In Search of a Solution

Thursday Dec 13th 2007 by Rob Enderle
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At the Cisco analyst conference, the company lost a major opportunity.

I was at the Cisco analyst event this week and, if you’ve never been to one of these things, they’re kind of a love fest between a vendor and the analysts that cover them. The bigger the vendor the more analysts, and this one was done better than many I have attended.

However, it struck me in watching John Chambers’s opening pitch that, for a communications company, Cisco should be held to a different standard with these things because enabling communicating is what they do, and communication typically is done badly at events like this. This is because communication is a two way street with folks on both sides participating but, by nature, analyst events are executives waxing eloquent on how brilliant they and their companies are, while the analysts sit back and whisper to each other the long form of “BS.”

In almost all cases, at some point, the vendor spokesperson will use the word “solution,” as in, they have one. But it is rare that this statement really means anything because the vendor hasn’t asked the audience what the problem is.

I had a large vendor in the other day that represents itself as a solutions vendor. When their offering didn’t work right, they blamed Microsoft, which clearly communicated to me they were a parts supplier and no one owned that solution.

Let’s talk about that this week and use Cisco as the example, both because they are actually better than most, and because that is like reading “has great potential” or “has a great personality” on an employee or blind date recommendation.

What Business is Cisco In?

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Let’s be clear at the outset, John Chambers is no Steve Jobs. But he did a really great job of entertaining and representing his company.

That alone is rare in an industry that is often defined by CEOs who could, when they speak, put rocks to sleep. He moved through the crowd, he made eye contact; he even called out some analysts by name. All excellent practices but, all the time, going through my head was: what business does he think he is in?

This is because we saw Cisco through his eyes as a series of products (not unusual) that spanned a number of areas. But we never really saw Cisco as a complete company. Analysts, for the most part, specialize and tend to focus on the area they cover and tend to focus on that but, at an event like this there is the opportunity to get them to see how what they follow fits into the bigger picture. That is where the heavy lifting comes in. Few do this well.

In stepping back, Cisco is in the communications business and if we were to step back and think about this, an event like the one I was attending would be an ideal place to showcase how Cisco is enhancing communication. But, I think, at their roots they think of themselves as a network business, kind of a huge enhancement over the can and string “solution” we played with as kids. This doesn’t convey either the strength of their initial offerings or their potential going forward.

What is a Communication Solution?

One of the differences between a good and a bad salesperson is the ability to communicate with their potential buyer and fit their product into the real or imagined needs that the potential buyer has. To do this they have to communicate at a deep level because, if they guess wrong, the buyer won’t see the purchase as valuable to them and the sale will be lost.

Large vendors, particularly at events like this, position themselves as solutions providers but spend little or no time trying to understand what the audience’s needs might be. Here Cisco had a room full of analysts and reporters who, for a living, are paid to communicate and should have a tremendous affinity to the tools Cisco has to offer. But Cisco didn’t think of them as customers, only attendees, and lost a huge opportunity.

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In addition, people don’t communicate with machines, networks, or software, they communicate with each other and often rather poorly. You would think part of a “solution” from Cisco would be to improve the accuracy of the communication and not just the speed of the data or the sharpness of the picture (both contribute to accuracy but unless positioned properly aren’t seen as addressing that specific problem).

Staying off planes is important but that doesn’t speak to communications accuracy and implies the firm is in the transportation business. Yet that was the only memorable proof point provided for Cisco’s video conferencing solution.

The Importance Of A True Solution: the iPod Lesson

I’ll stop picking on Cisco now because they actually did a much better job than most at their event. But I think we all need to step back for a moment and look at both our companies and our vendors to ask whether we, or they, really understand what a solution is.

With the iPod, Apple stepped outside the view that an MP3 player was just hardware for music and thought through a solution designed for folks who wanted to listen to music. The end result was a mix of software, hardware, and on-line services which, in its time, went so far beyond anything else in the market that Apple both dramatically expanded that market and emerged as dominant in it.

That’s what a solution truly looks like. And the measurement is the market reaction which can, when done right, be incredibly powerful. Few, even Apple with other products like the iPhone, think through what a complete solution is and instead focus only on the part they provide, believing it to be complete.

We truly need solutions providers, and one that could truly provide a complete communications solution would probably be the most valuable of all. I left the Cisco event still wondering who that will likely be.

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