Cisco’s Customer Experience Focus Means More Opportunities For The Channel, Partners Say

Cisco's focus on the customer life cycle under the command of Chief Customer Experience Officer Maria Martinez is transforming the tech giant into a software- and solution-led business, channel partners say.

Cisco Systems isn't being shy about the way it has been transforming its sales strategy by prioritizing the customer life cycle rather than simply selling products.

"It used to be about selling hardware and then going away. Now with so much more software and solutions, customers want us to be there with them at every single touchpoint," said Maria Martinez, Cisco's executive vice president and chief customer experience officer, who has been with the tech giant for the past year helping Cisco zero in on software- and solution-selling.

Channel partners, she said, are critical to the company's focus on the customer experience. "Partners touch customers more than we do, so we can't do this without them."

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[Related: Chuck Robbins On Cisco Cloud: From 'Death' To Growth Driver]

Ken Farber, president of software at Herndon, Va.-based solution provider ePlus, said that from the partner perspective, Cisco's emphasis on the customer experience and life cycle is "gravely important." That's because customers are looking for trusted business partners, he said.

"When we set forth to work with our partners and customers, we want to make sure they are getting the most value from their purchase. We don't just want a customer to purchase some new enterprise agreement or subscription and not use it—that's not the intent," he said. "If they aren't utilizing it, you're not going to get the renewal, so it's very important that we work with Cisco so we can successfully deploy and mentor [our customers] so they can get the most out of what they purchase."

By working closely with Cisco and focusing on the customer experience, ePlus has landed new business by having dialogues with customers that it wasn’t having before, Farber said. "When focusing on life cycle, you have to sit down with the customer and work through with them where they are today and where they are trying to go, whether it’s on-prem, multi-cloud or data center modernization efforts. It’s definitely helped us have different conversations with our customers," he said.

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins brought on Martinez in April 2018 to lead the company's Customer Experience organization, which Cisco said is crucial to its transformation and growth with partners and customers.

Robbins told CRN that the most powerful thing Cisco can focus on right now is innovation with the customer life cycle in mind so partners have the greatest opportunity to create technology that will get customers excited, instead of offering technology that they need to be sold on or have explained to them.

"[Martinez] and her team are doing a phenomenal job of building our customer success model in a way that aligns very neatly with our partner community and provides concurrent profitability for both of us together as we go forward with our [customer experience and life-cycle] model," Robbins said.

Long View Systems, a Calgary, Alberta-based solution provider and Cisco Gold partner that specializes in managed IT and cloud services, has been building recurring offers and emphasizing customer success because its customers are moving away from simply purchasing hardware—they want to see an impact on their businesses, said Kent MacDonald, senior vice president of strategic alliances for Long View Systems.

"It's critical to have a strategy to work with clients to make sure they are adopting all [the features] of the software to enable their businesses," MacDonald said. "Buying the software is great, but until they've actually implemented it to become more secure, agile or collaborative, will they really drive business impact?"

It's an issue that partners like Long View Systems have been working side by side with Cisco to tackle, MacDonald said.

In fact, Cisco formally unveiled its Customer Experience strategy at its Partner Summit in November to demonstrate how key partners would be to its focus on the customer life cycle, Martinez said.

That transformation hasn't come as a shock to Cisco partners, she added. "A good amount of partners are actually focusing on [life cycle] already, even better than us," she said. "We've been learning from partners and we are very committed to working with them to build a model that we can scale so all partners can participate."

Cisco started leaning in on software and solutions a few years ago. The addition of Gerri Elliot, Cisco's chief sales and marketing officer, and Martinez last year proves that the Cisco's evolution isn't slowing down, ePlus' Farber said.

"They've made a lot of changes organizationally when they really wanted to build out the software practice, and they are making a lot of changes as they build out their customer experience and life-cycle practice," he said. "[Cisco] is really expanding on the blueprint they laid out several years ago."