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Cisco Collaboration: A Problem of Perception

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Photo of Cisco execs Gerri Elliott and Amy  Chang

Cisco execs Gerri Elliott, EVP of sales and marketing (at left), and Amy Chang, GM of Collaboration business unit, kick off last week's industry analyst summit

As evidenced at the Industry Analyst Collaboration Summit Cisco hosted last week, the company is quite serious about collaboration. If you think otherwise, you couldn’t be more wrong.
 
During the two-day event, Cisco provided a deep dive into its collaboration strategy, including discussions on products and marketing, with insight from many partners and customers sprinkled in. Cisco Collaboration EVP & GM Amy Chang was on hand, of course, and she brought along her entire collaboration management team. Corporate big guns made appearances, too: CEO Chuck Robbins popped in over video, and EVP of sales and marketing, Gerri Elliott, spent some time doing a Q&A with analysts. Both Robbins and Elliot were more than bullish on the industry right now.
 
Setting the Groundwork
From a high-level perspective, Cisco’s collaboration product portfolio and roadmap have never been better, and the company has stepped up its marketing efforts to get more eyeballs on the Webex brand. Despite this, Webex continues to lag in mindshare behind the likes of upstarts such as Zoom, Slack, and RingCentral. This is nothing new to Cisco, as an entrenched vendor, the newest, hottest companies are always gunning for it. Looking back, companies like BlueJeans, Vidyo, and ShoreTel were supposed to take a chunk out of Cisco, only to fade away like so many others.
 
Staying ahead of this new group of industry darlings will require Cisco to play at its strengths and address some other areas. It’s worth looking at those in closer details.
 
Cisco offers a collection of products that includes Hosted Collaboration Solution (HCS); BroadCloud, a carrier-grade cloud service brought on with the BroadSoft acquisition; BroadWorks, also from BroadSoft; Webex; and Unified Communications Manager, available for on-prem or hosted deployments. Just a few years ago you could have argued that such a disparate — and confusing — product portfolio was a huge weakness for Cisco. But today this broad product portfolio, now unified in the backend, is one of Cisco’s biggest areas of strength.
 
Cisco has worked diligently to bring its disparate platforms together in a unified backend with a single client. Today, if you’re a user of Cisco software, you use Webex Teams or Meetings and the experience is the same across them regardless of whether the back end is running on Call Manager, BroadSoft, or another platform. The next obvious step — and it’s on the roadmap — is to bring Teams and Meetings together.
 
In addition, Cisco has refreshed its room systems, personal devices, and other endpoints. At the event, we got to see the new Desk Pro desktop unit, panorama immersive system, updated Webex boards, and room kits of different flavors. The benefit of running Cisco software on Cisco hardware is that everything works seamlessly together, typically with just a couple of cables. Juxtapose this to other room systems built on partnerships that require a myriad of cables, computers, and adapters to get everything to “kind of” work. Cisco has long espoused the value of “it just works,” and now it can deliver it. Software is cool, but great hardware is still needed for a flawless collaboration experience.
 
Cisco has been paying attention to IT’s needs, as well, and has put a tremendous amount of R&D into its administrator dashboard. This helps with what I refer to as the “Pegah problem,” a reference to Cisco Collaboration COO Pegah Ebrahami. While chatting over dinner, Ebrahami told me that while in her former role as COO of global technology banking at Morgan Stanley, she had wanted metrics showing how people were using the collaboration systems, conference rooms, offices, and such, but she had no easy way of getting that information. With the Cisco Webex Control Hub, IT administrators now get a holistic view of all Webex services, users, and devices, along with analytics and reporting for better security and compliance.
 
On the topic of security, this has been a differentiator for Cisco for years. Many of the biggest governments, healthcare institutions and financial services firms use Webex, so only best-in-class security will do. At the event, we debated just how marketable security is. The reality is, organizations for which security is top of mind though likely considering Cisco’s approach to handing security a solid one — even if it has an issue, which all companies do, Cisco takes ownership and responds quickly to minimize risk — they aren’t likely enough to make a decision based on it. They have their own infosec teams for that. So, while security is a clear differentiator for Cisco, it’s just not a very marketable one.
 
Battling Against Perception
The biggest challenge Cisco has today is one of perception. Many IT decision makers I talk to view Cisco as the old, stodgy vendor and companies like Zoom and Slack as offering the hip and cool products purposefully designed for the next generation of workers. The reality is that the newer versions of Webex are just as easy to use and just as high quality as those from the new kids on the block. In fact, the WebRTC-based browser version of Webex comes up almost instantly and provides as feature-rich an experience as the app.
 
For Cisco to succeed, it needs to find a way to create enough excitement around Webex that users are willing to try it again. Once they do, they’ll likely by happy with the Webex experience, and continuing using it.
 
Cisco needs to pour more money into marketing its new platform and portfolio, continuing the path it’s taken with its clever 2018 “Webexceptional” campaign and the more recent fun and whimsical “Best collaboration happens on Webex” marketing targeted at end users versus IT pros. Much more of that is needed, rather than having the majority of Cisco product marketing dollars directed at IT buyers. This IT-focused strategy works for network gear, but collaboration is different and requires a dual-pronged investment. Currently, Webex ads are all over the San Jose Airport, but Zoom ads dominate San Francisco. I understand SFO is a pricier market, but Zoom’s and RingCentral’s successes appear to be directly correlated to marketing spend. Cisco needs to step up.
 
Additionally, Cisco needs to get customers to think more broadly about meetings. As long as it competes on PC-to-PC calling, differentiating itself in a crowded market will be tough if not impossible. Cisco needs to change the perception of meetings to include meeting spaces, board rooms, huddle areas, home workers, and everywhere people meet. Also, many of its upcoming AI features address a broader meeting lifeycle that includes the pre-, during, and post-meeting experience. Most vendors do the meeting itself fine, but Cisco can separate itself with pre- and post-meeting tools.
 
The brand Webex is interesting in that its very well-known but does have a legacy association with end users. Among analyst circles, we’ve debated whether Cisco should create a new brand and ditch Webex. I believe this would be a huge mistake. Brand building takes a long time, and the Webex brand isn’t bad, it’s just misunderstood. Making the investment to re-energize the brand will be faster and more cost effective than replacing it.
 
Cisco’s collaboration business sits at an inflection point. It has a new Webex platform, new devices, and a new attitude — now it’s time to let the world, including end users, know.

Join us at Enterprise Connect and get the latest from Cisco Collaboration EVP & GM Amy Chang, who will be a keynote speaker on Tuesday, March 31, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. You can also visit Cisco in the exhibit hall, booth 200. If you haven't registered, use the code NOJITTER to save $200 off the current rate!