Solutions Marketing Success Story: Simplifying How Customers Buy and Manage Complex Products

Technology-based products are, almost by definition, complex and difficult to install, operate and maintain.  Many of us, for example, have personally experienced the change in buying a television.  The analogue television of 20-30 years ago simply required the buyer lug it into the family room, put it on a stand and plug it into the wall socket.  Today’s digital-based televisions, however, will likely come with a 100-page manual and need substantial programming and wiring to operate properly.   Now multiply this shift in technology complexity by 20-30x for the type of sophisticated products purchased in most B2B transactions.

Cisco’s Challenges in Selling its TelePresence Systems

Cisco Systems, one of the world’s leading companies in designing and manufacturing networking equipment, decided that they could leverage their technology to provide a superior video conferencing experience, “where everyone, everywhere can be face-to-face and more effective through the most natural and lifelike communications experience available”.  These sophisticated systems, called TelePresence, were truly breakthrough it their ability to allow individuals at different locations feel and behave as if they were in the same meeting room, leading to higher productivity at a lower cost per meeting.

The challenge in taking TelePresence to market, Cisco discovered, was that customers raised a number of concerns.  Some of the most common ones were:

  • Who will be responsible for the installation?  How do we know that your system will even be compatible with the related technologies and systems that we already have in place?
  • Who will be responsible for maintaining and operating the system?   What do we do in the event of a malfunction?  Do we need to learn how to maintain the system ourselves?
  • How do we get our employees to understand how to use it?

While customers were quickly converted to the potential impact of TelePresence and its ability to deliver a superior remote meeting experience, they needed to be convinced that it would operate smoothly and seamlessly and provide the benefits that were advertised.  Some customers were also interested in a “white glove” experience.  This higher level of customer service evolved Cisco from a pure product delivery approach to a solution approach as Cisco built this service out to directly respond to customer demand for executive level support. Today, Cisco delivers this service as Live Desk, a “concierge” option for TelePresence.

Remote Management Services Delivery

 Cisco’s Response: A TelePresence Solution

Cisco quickly realized that it couldn’t be successful if it just focused on selling the TelePresence hardware.   Customers weren’t interested in the Rolls-Royce of meeting technology if it either wasn’t reliable or was too complex and difficult to operate.  It became clear that they needed to integrate a complete life-cycle of services around the hardware.

“We realized that we had to make the shift from selling an amazing piece of technology to selling the end result of using the technology – a better remote meeting experience, resulting in a measurable business benefit”, said Mike Flannagan, Sr. Director / GM of Cisco’s Integrated Brokerage Technology Group.   “With this type of technology, we couldn’t just sell, deliver, shake hands and walk away.   We needed to be a very engaged and transparent partner throughout the lifetime operations of TelePresence.  We looked at it as creating a “Happy Meal” for our customers – the full suite of required services stacked together, including financing.  Our main focus was to make TelePresence easy for our customers to use and our partners to sell and manage.

“The old model of selling our products and services a la carte just wouldn’t work anymore.  Networks and networking equipment have just gotten too complex.  Our customers typically had 3 choices – maintain and support their systems themselves, outsource all IT services to a single vendor, or contract with the best company for each specific type of technology.  Given the skyrocketing increase in the complexity of networks today and the fragmentation of outsourcing models, we quickly realized that our customers want to retain control of their network, but need comprehensive and proactive support that  is simple and affordable, with an impact that you can track and measure.  The door was open for us to offer out-tasking via Remote Services Management as part of our TelePresence offering.

 “From our point of view, shifting to an integrated TelePresence solution meant that we were no longer in the fire-fighting game.  From the customer’s point of view, our customers could use their in-house IT talent to focus on other issues that were more core to their business”, said Flannagan.

Making the Transition to a TelePresence Solution

What did it take to move from a disjointed approach of offering the TelePresence product separately from the services that the customer might be interested in purchasing to support the product?   The main change that needed to be made was in how Cisco positioned the offer, and how the sales force engaged in the TelePresence conversations. The sales force transformation was centered on:

customer conversation were now based upon business problems and expected benefits.  The discussions were moved from the state-of-the art technology to improved meeting outputs and reduced costs.   The sales force had to spend more time in the upfront customer problem analysis than before.
since most of Cisco’s sales go through partners, it was important that the more robust, integrated TelePresence solutions offering would be perceived as in fact easier to sell.   Marketing had to package the new offer in such a way that it was easy for both the channel partner to absorb and then describe to the end customers.
Cisco identified a specific market segment that it felt would be interested in a full TelePresence solution.   These customers were called “transformational” customers.   They were looking for Cisco’s offerings to help them shift how they did business.  The sales force had to understand how they were different, and what it took to engage them.
The Key Takeaways

In making the transition from a “product-push” to a customer-centric, holistic solutions approach to marketing and selling TelePresence , Cisco learned several important lessons:

By creating an offer that had so many elements to it – different product options, a full range of services, financing, etc.  – it would be easy to overwhelm the buyer.  Simplified messaging became essential.  There was almost a direct negative correlation between the complexity of the solutions and simplicity of the messaging.
The sales force went from perceiving nearly every type of company of a certain size as a prospect to identifying only the ones that exhibited "transformational" traits.
By combining the services with the products, Cisco had to re-align its services and products sales teams so that each prospective customer only dealt with one primary sales contact.  This required an overhaul of the “rules of engagement for the sales teams.
Final Thoughts

What’s my takeaway from the Cisco experience?  I continue to be surprised at how difficult the transition from a product to a solutions marketing and sales model can be.   Even companies as sophisticated and successful as Cisco realize how important it is to make the shift, but getting from Point A to Point B takes an organization that is used to change and adaptation, leadership and focused discipline.  Cisco scores high in all of these categories.


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