Zeus Kerravala
Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his...
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Zeus Kerravala | June 09, 2013 |


Line of Business Is The Key To Winning the Cisco Versus Microsoft Battle

Line of Business Is The Key To Winning the Cisco Versus Microsoft Battle Who can arm their sales force and channel with the tools to be able to talk the vertical talk, and then walk it when confronted with the tough questions?

Who can arm their sales force and channel with the tools to be able to talk the vertical talk, and then walk it when confronted with the tough questions?

The Microsoft versus Cisco contest is one of the most hotly debated battles in our industry. One of the reasons why is that both companies have loyal--in fact you could almost say overly loyal--customer bases that have made careers off implementing and managing products from the respective companies, and this now includes unified communication products.

Cisco's road to dominance was an interesting one. They have a market-leading position in UC by dominating the voice market. The company accomplished this not by winning the voice business from the voice buyer but instead by making the network manager a key decision maker in voice purchasing. Over time, the network manger actually wound up having more influence over voice decisions than the traditional telecom manager. Now that Cisco has established itself as the number-one VoIP vendor, it has turned its attention to the next frontier, which is chat and presence with its Jabber client.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has established a leading challenger position in UC, and the company is hoping to take a similar approach and do to Cisco what Cisco did to everyone else. Microsoft is establishing itself as a UC vendor by attacking from their area of strength, and that means tapping into the Exchange or Windows buyer to put Lync on desktops.

If you've been following the product development cycles for both companies, this is actually pretty easy to foresee. Cisco dumped its old presence and chat engine in favor of a much better Jabber client. In addition, Cisco has made procuring product easier and has improved the multi-operating system capabilities of Jabber, particularly on mobile devices. The next phase for Cisco is to try and make the product easier to use, to create some greater end user appeal.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has spent the better part of the last few years making OCS, now Lync, a better voice product. The company has improved the 911 capabilities, attendant console and overall reliability of Lync voice. While Lync can't fully replace a PBX on its own, Lync plus partners like Polycom can.

So here we sit at a crossroads. Cisco has established itself as the dominant VoIP vendor, and it's trying to use that might to take the desktop business. Microsoft dominates the desktop and is attempting to pull a Cisco on Cisco by leveraging the desktop and Exchange managers to do voice.

Which approach is better? Well, frankly I feel neither is really a winning approach.

No matter how easy to use and how easy to procure Jabber is, I really can't see it appealing to the desktop manager. On the other hand, no matter how great a voice product Microsoft Lync becomes, it's hard for me to see it gaining much ground, since the network buyer already has a preferred vendor in Cisco. Oh sure, we'll hear about the odd win here or there where a big customer has replaced all of their Lync desktops with Jabber or a company ditched Call Manager in favor of Lync voice, but I think these will be more the exceptions than the rule.

What may change the balance of power? Cisco and Microsoft need to step out of their comfort zones and end-around each other by selling to line-of-business (LOB) managers.

This may look easy on paper, but it's not. Both Cisco and Microsoft have done a great job of marketing and selling to IT individuals, and one could argue they've done it better than any other company. In fact, with Microsoft, early versions of Windows, Outlook and Office were far from easy to use, but there was so much IT loyalty that these became the de facto standards even in the face of usability challenges.

Selling to LOB decision makers has many advantages. First, and most importantly when it comes to this battle, it allows the vendor to usurp the network and desktop manager positioning, as the solution is more important than what makes it up. I'm not advocating Cisco and Microsoft alienate their traditional buyer, far from it. Use the LOB buyers to help strengthen their case.

Second, I believe selling to LOB keeps deal margins higher, as there is far less haggling over the cost of this widget versus a competitor's. Lastly, it raises the value of that vendor within the company. Saving a few bucks on moves/adds/changes/deletions (MACDs) and long distance costs is great, but there's only so much savings to get. Uncapping some productivity by enabling new functionality has a much higher ceiling as far as value returned goes.

Making this transition to LOB selling isn't as simple as it sounds. Microsoft and Cisco need to do more than just align some generic messaging towards the vertical. They need to be able to go a few layers deep in conversation, and this is where both companies tend to get stuck today. They have big enough names and enough gravitas with IT leaders to get the meetings, but when the tough questions are asked about solving procedural or regulatory problems, both vendors fall down.

Much of the reason is they both have spent so much time marketing to the IT buyer that it's just a natural desire to quickly want to get back to why Cisco VoIP has better QoS than Lync or why the Lync interface with Exchange is better than Cisco. That may be true, but that doctor or head of sales they are selling to will not draw the lines to understand how to connect the technical points to business issues.

The opportunities are there, but right now, from what I've seen in the field, I think the sales forces for the respective companies fear these meetings more than they look forward to them, because many may feel they're always one question away from being in over their head. And this is the challenge that lies ahead for both competitors. Who can arm their sales force and channel with the tools to be able to talk the vertical talk, and then walk it when confronted with the tough questions?

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