Cisco's Robbins: Customer Opportunity Better Than Ever

The sales opportunity for the types of products and services Cisco offers is greater than it's ever been, insists Chuck Robbins, and as Cisco emerges from a broad corporate restructuring designed to make it a more nimble organization, Robbins' message to Americas-based Cisco partners is a simple one.

"I don't believe we need an incredibly complex strategy," Robbins, Cisco's senior vice president, The Americas, told CRN in an exclusive interview earlier this month. "I think right now we need to execute with partners against the opportunity. That's the message for our team."

To Robbins, Cisco is the vendor best positioned to help customers address data center consolidation, the mobility explosion, the embrace of collaboration and video, and the move from cap-ex-based investment to op-ex-focused operating models.

The goal now, he explained, is to catalyze more partner sales behind that position, and align a slimmer, more streamlined Cisco to the ways partners are becoming more profitable.

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Cisco's ongoing corporate restructuring has been routinely described by Cisco executives as a simplification strategy -- cutting headcount, removing decision-by-committee leadership, and refocusing Cisco on core priorities like routing, switching, video and data center, away from distractions like its ill-fated Flip video camera.

One targeted move was the consolidation of its former nine global sales theaters to three: Americas; Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA); and Asia Pacific, Japan and Greater China (APJC). Americas is the largest of the three, responsible for about 50 percent of Cisco's $43 billion annual revenue pie, and Robbins is now its single chief.

"We'll make decisions as a team but ultimately I'm the one responsible and accountable for those decisions," he said. "I believe that our teams understand how to run their businesses, and we spend a lot of time together looking at opportunities."

Next: Simpler Cisco Means Better Cisco: Partners

Cisco partners have continued to tell CRN that a simpler Cisco will ultimately be a better Cisco, praising both the work Cisco has done so far to streamline its approach, and also the additional channel resources it's brought to bear. Those include the $75 million it is pumping into its Partner-Led initiative, and the launch of its Teaming Incentive Program (TIP), designed to reward partners extra rebate points for the work they do early in a sales engagement.

According to Cisco, deals and partner rewards that had formerly taken days and even weeks to approve will continue to see much faster decision-making. Gary Moore, Cisco executive vice president and chief operating officer, recently told attendees at Cisco's Financial Analyst Conference, for example, that Cisco has already seen an overall 70 percent reduction in the amount of time it takes Cisco managers to review deals.

If true, it means a positive shift from a vendor many solution providers see as bogged down in corporate bureaucracy, with partners vexed by a complex system of committees, executive teams and acronyms and the challenge of sorting through endlessly varying program requirements to meet partner incentive criteria.

"It can get to be a whole lot of red tape," said a top executive at a national solution provider, who requested his name not be used. "Don't get me wrong: you get to Cisco's size, you're not startup-nimble and you have a lot of products and partners to account for. But what I hear from them now is an acknowledgment that it's a lot of work for partners to sort through Cisco bureaucracy sometimes. By changing what they can, it'll be a lot easier."

Robbins agreed that Cisco had become difficult to work with.

"From the channel perspective and the partner community, in our last couple of fiscal years, we've had four different theaters operating within the U.S. alone," Robbins said. "That created complexity. For our partners, whether they were working in the commercial space in the U.S., the service provider space, enterprise or public sector, you had four to five different teams you had to engage with and you might have gotten different messages around priorities from those different organizations."

Resource allocation will be a swifter process going forward, Robbins said.

"In the past, the different organizations would make their requests for resources and investments independently, and what this allows us to do is look at it holistically and move and reallocate resources as we need to based on the opportunity we see," Robbins explained. "If one of our businesses is exhibiting greater growth than others, we have the ability to move resources more rapidly. If we need to, we look at dynamics in the marketplace that require us to tweak certain programs. We can make those decisions much more quickly together."

For solution providers that have known Robbins since his days leading U.S. and Canada channels for Cisco -- a role he left in December 2007 -- he is seen as a partner advocate.

Bob Olwig, vice president of corporate business development for World Wide Technology, a St. Louis-based Cisco Gold partner, agreed that Cisco's streamlining would help it concentrate on the products and services partners care about most, and that Robbins' appointment was a good sign.

"We have a great deal of confidence in Chuck and his new role," Olwig told CRN. "Chuck brings many years of sales, channels, and most importantly, leadership experience that's very much needed at Cisco today."

Andy Cadwell, senior vice president of sales and field operations at INX, a Dallas-based Cisco Gold partner, said Cisco seems aware of what its challenges are. The decision to bring sales and channels in the Americas under Robbins was already making it more "nimble," he said.

"First off, acknowledgment that there needed to be change is a great start," Cadwell said. "Cisco is feeling like a much more nimble organization these days. We are waiting for some of the more impactful changes, many of which are in the pipeline. Having sales and channels roll up as a start has been big though, as Cisco is feeling more internally aligned than ever."

Next: Cisco Targets HP And Juniper

One thing that is also changing about Cisco is how it publicly addresses major competitors. Cisco has long been viewed as an intimidatingly aggressive vendor as far as day-to-day, in-the-trenches sales and deals are concerned. But the company has traditionally shied away from explicit public attacks on its direct competitors, especially to the press.

That changed this year. Regarding HP, Cisco has shifted from veiled criticism to more direct engagement, looking to debunk many of the claims HP's made about gaining networking market share at Cisco's expense and paint HP as a commodity pusher, competing on price. In a recently circulated internal memo sent to Cisco's global salesforce from Lloyd, Cisco lays out how HP's potential PC business spin-off and executive turmoil will harm its other businesses, hamper its channel and weaken its overall brand.

Regarding Juniper, Cisco's been particularly vicious as of late, with Chambers himself recently describing Juniper, at the Financial Analyst conference, as "the most vulnerable I've ever seen them." Cisco launched a full-on viral campaign, featuring everything from a tongue-in-cheek video to a Web site, attempting to paint Juniper as having over-promised and under-delivered for customers in the edge router segment.

According to Robbins, the more public competitive posturing is indeed deliberate on Cisco's part.

"I think that when I view what our competitors have said about Cisco for the last few years, I think our employees, our team and our partner community have been frustrated with the commentary and some of the public attacks we've taken," Robbins said. "So we're trying to be balanced but crank up the competitive spirit of the business with our employees and our partner community."

Robbins acknowledged the stepped-up competition with the likes of HP and Juniper but brushed off the idea that HP and Juniper are making any substantial gains against Cisco.

"My perception is that HP's ultimate objective is to drive commoditization because that plays to the only proposition they have for the customers, which is not good for our partners," Robbins said. "As it relates to Juniper, I think Juniper has classically been more of a service provider infrastructure player, and while they've made attempts over the last probably 10 years to move into the enterprise, and had some success, they've not had great success in penetrating our enterprise customer base nor our partner community. We don't see them as a major channel competitor, to date."

On Huawei, which Cisco CEO John Chambers recently described as "a very tough competitor over the long term," Robbins and his team are taking a wait-and-see approach, he said.

"Primarily we've seen them with strength in emerging markets and particularly in the service provider space," Robbins said. "They have a limited presence in North America and we haven't seen them much to date. At this point they do not have a strong channel presence. So we'll see how it plays out, but obviously we're watching them closely."