Cisco and the Importance of Empathy in a Technology Vendor

Cisco Live was last week, and this was their first large-scale virtual event. What made this event very different from the other games was the amount of effort they put into socially responsible projects.

I’m not just talking about their Corporate Social Responsibility efforts. Many of the customer projects they highlighted are dealing with a variety of world problems, be they related to the pandemic or not. Let’s talk about Cisco and how they are “doing well, by doing well.”

We’ll close with my product of the week: a personal video communications and collaboration product from Cisco called the Webex Desk Pro.

The Typical Technology Companies’ Approach

Given the tactical focus on revenues being driven into most firms by boards that have way too many hedge fund managers on them and people that only care about short-term profits, top executives typically look at customers like a lion might look at a lamb chop. They want to move hardware, software, and services, and their goal is to convince you to buy, buy, buy.

This excessive focus on revenue is why you often buy something and then find you aren’t getting the help you need to make it work and why so many expensive projects end up either poorly or never deployed.

They want the fastest path from A to B, and B is your firm’s checkbook. Some companies pretty much only exist to supply the top executives with excessive income, and that is why average satisfaction and loyalty in the tech industry is so low. These firms are driven by revenue, and despite lip service to metrics like Net Promoter Score, their scores remain mediocre.

Under Chuck Robbins, Cisco is a very different company. Chuck appears driven to make a difference rather than get rich. He isn’t about pushing products as much as he is about selling ideas and concepts, with one of those concepts being to create a better world.

Chuck Robbins, CEO of Cisco

Chuck Robbins, CEO of Cisco

Their old tagline talked about changing the way the world works and plays, which kind of equates to selling more stuff in that there was no qualitative component to it. The focus was on change for change’s sake.

Cisco’s new tagline, “To power an inclusive future for all,” has a qualitative aspect tied to current events and reflects on making life better, not just different. It also has a subtle focus on making life better for those that are the most disadvantaged.

To do that, Cisco is approaching the market in a relatively unique way, one that embeds Social Responsibility into the firm’s very fabric. For lack of a better term, we’ll call it Integrated Social Responsibility.

Integrated Social Responsibility

Like most companies, Cisco also has a Corporate Social Responsibility program led by Tae Yoo, and it does impressive work. But, unlike most, Cisco’s positive impact on the world extends well beyond its CSR efforts. Often CSR is treated as a way to improve a company’s image. At Cisco, it is part of their culture and core to their way of doing business.

Even in the opening keynote, rather than focusing extensively on new products or services, Robbins spent much of his time talking about Cisco and its customers’ efforts to address COVID-19 challenges.

He went out of his way to repeatedly praise his employees and the employees of customers. These people undertook near-impossible projects designed to shift processes and technologies designed to manage employees and projects on-premise to work-at-home alternatives. They had little or no time to do this transition as the orders to send employees home came with little pre-warning. An impressive number of sites, primarily those that had already deployed Cisco’s remote collaboration offerings, were able to shift over a weekend.

Also, for those customers that lacked the budget but were doing important things like connecting people in retirement homes or hospitals to loved ones, Cisco employees donated the hardware off of their desks to help out. He positioned these people, both inside and outside of Cisco, as superheroes and repeatedly gave them well-deserved praise.

This changed focus doesn’t mean Cisco didn’t showcase its solutions. They did, but they showcased them making a real difference. For instance, they talked about Honeywell shifting rapidly from 35 percent remote work to 100 percent remote work to keep their employees safe; and hospitals that deployed video conferencing products to connect those infected by COVID-19 with their families. This implementation was so those hospitals could keep patients’ morale up and so they didn’t have to die alone. This was repeated for jails and retirement homes.

In the past, Chuck has had programs that address homelessness around his sites, which compares to other Silicon Valley companies that build in high occupancy areas and create traffic problems while driving low-income homeowners out of their homes.

Also, he is working on a program to redesign his sites in the face of the pandemic to reduce commute times and improve both the lives of his employees and those of the people that live around those sites. I think it is likely that with his attitude, he may be one of the first to implement an Arcology-based plant.

I remain convinced that the only way to protect employees, given the coming changes, is with a far more contained solution where you can secure the site and genuinely secure the operation against the variety of threats coming this decade.

Wrapping Up: A Very Different Company

When you commit to a company in Cisco’s class, it is like a marriage, and like marriages, there are different types. There are marriages of convenience, where the reasons are transactional and primarily economic; there are marriages for optics because being single is seen as a failure. There are rare marriages where both parties genuinely care about each other and want what is best for their partner.

Chuck Robbins at Cisco Live this year exhibited the company as one that strives to form relationships of mutual respect and caring. This approach means that, regardless of the technology, the firm will always aspire to have your back rather than merely wanting to mine your pocketbook.

In my mind, this puts the company above most. It explains why the firm is still the most influential enterprise networking firm in the segment, and it remains a powerful example that you don’t have to be excessively focused on profits to be successful. If you treat your customers well, you not only do fine, you won’t have to worry as much about the customers fleeting for a greener pasture.

Heck, I even got a personal thank you note from Chuck for attending Cisco Live, and I can pretty much count all the times that has happened on one hand with four fingers left over. Granted, that likely has to do with Stella Low or Irene Mirageas who put on a fantastic program, but it still demonstrated an unusual level of care.

In the end, we all have choices. I suggest you factor heart into yours. You are far less likely to regret it.

Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

One of the big problems I’m observing during our extensive work from home event is that PCs often suck at doing video conferences. Driver issues take out cameras (mine seems to require a system reboot to keep working way too often); updates and notifications not only distract you they can appear to your audience, which is funny to them, but not so much to your boss if it’s a raunchy instant message from a co-worker; and system updates can end your online performance very suddenly.

Dedicated hardware can make a ton of difference, particularly if you need this hardware to serve people with no technical skills, like those in hospitals and retirement homes. There’s nothing worse for an IT executive than having their CEO giving a speech to a broad audience and having issues that degrade their performance and make him or her look clueless. This last group tends to blame others even if it was their exploration of inappropriate and unsafe websites that caused the problem (you know who you are).

Even for students working from home, a dedicated piece of hardware might make more sense because the teacher will remain resident if they have a problem with their PC, Tablet, or Chromebook where if they are using one of those and have an issue, the stream may be cut off.

At Cisco Live, they showcased their Webex Desk Pro hardware, which is a video conferencing portal using an all-in-one form factor. You can use it as a second monitor. You could use it as your primary as well, but that would mean you really couldn’t work on your PC while conferencing, making it less ideal in that role.

With a dual monitor setup or matched with a second similarly designed all-in-one PC, you get the extra screen real estate when you need it and a dedicated portal when you are attending a meeting.

Cisco Webex Desk Pro, AI-powered collaboration device

Cisco Webex Desk Pro

You can even get it as part of a Hardware as a Service (HaaS) offering, making it more affordable. Capabilities include video conferencing (of course), digital whiteboarding, and cognitive collaboration using the new Webex digital assistant that will do things like automatic transcription, and as I noted, it still works as a monitor, as well.

The Webex Desk Pro is currently priced at US$4,900 and will be available in 3 weeks. Do realize that enterprise discounting applies. So, depending on your discount, your price may be less.

In the end, the Webex Desk Pro addresses an authentic problem for those likely to continue to have to work from home and makes it an ideal candidate for my product of the week.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.

Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2003. His areas of interest include AI, autonomous driving, drones, personal technology, emerging technology, regulation, litigation, M&E, and technology in politics. He has an MBA in human resources, marketing and computer science. He is also a certified management accountant. Enderle currently is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a consultancy that serves the technology industry. He formerly served as a senior research fellow at Giga Information Group and Forrester. Email Rob.

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