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Cisco's TelePresence, collaboration channel partner strategy

Cisco is pushing collaboration in a big way, with its TelePresence solution and its strategic purchases of WebEx and Pure Digital, not to mention advertising collaboration on TV. But will this pay off for Cisco's channel partners? During the Cisco Partner Summit, met with Geoff Fancher, vice president of U.S. Field Channels at Cisco, to find out how collaboration and consumer advertising fit in with the networking giant's channel partner strategy.

Cisco, I think, is a company known for projecting a very strong roadmap and executing on that vision. How does Cisco's channel strategy tie into that of the company as a whole?

It's completely aligned. If you think about the strategy that we've laid out, there are a couple of things we've talked about here at Partner Summit.

The first one is Navigate to Accelerate, which is all about really making sure we help our partners through this economic time; making sure they're focused on the right activities, and at the same time getting ready for the upturn that's going to come. Don't know when that's going to come, but it's going to come, and we want to make sure we're capturing that.

The second thing is the architectures that we launched publicly. It's not just a channel strategy; it's not just a sales strategy. It really is a Cisco strategy, so we'll be looking at internal alignments to map to those strategies -- and in channels we're absolutely going to do what is required to make sure we're supporting those.

The great news for partners is that if we align to those strategies, we'll actually simplify and streamline a bunch of things for them, from sales go-to-market to profit and so on, so that it's really a much better environment for them going forward. One of the big messages recently has been about collaboration, and we've seen several examples of how video can be the ultimate vehicle for collaboration. But for companies just concerned about their bottom line, the likelihood of implementing a video solution seems dubious. How do partners convince their customers that the TCO of video is worthwhile?

It depends on what business process they're looking at and what the real issues are for the customer. It's not just about technology for technology's sake -- there has to be a real reason and a real ability to drive a business process or capability in a more cost-effective and productive manner.

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Cisco CEO John Chambers talks about TelePresence on 24 in our blog.

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For us, collaboration isn't just video, it's a lot of different technologies. The lowest-cost way to do that with us now is WebEx. Video is a piece of WebEx. It's a very cost-competitive way to share not only video but documents; you have your audio; it's a fantastic tool that I use quite a bit. I'm probably on WebEx at least 20 hours a week, and that'd be a light week for me using WebEx technology. It's easy to use, not very expensive, and customers tend to see the value very quickly. How is collaboration a partner-to-partner play?

A number of technologies make up the collaboration architecture. Not all our partners have certifications in all of those technologies. We were talking about TelePresence. Some of our partners don't have TelePresence certifications, but they want to provide a solution to customers and give them the whole architecture. So we see opportunities where partners might have a primary customer relationship, but then they need to engage with a TelePresence partner to be able to go deliver the rest of the solution.

To enhance that even further, we see the need for the bandwidth conversation to come into play. Customers typically want to look at the bandwidth requirements to make sure they're getting bandwidth at an optimal cost, and that's where we engage them with a service provider that has the low-cost offer with the quality of service that they need. This can really help round out the total solution, and our partners can gain extra margin from that. TelePresence has been shown on episodes of the television program 24. Product placements are typically the domain of consumer goods, like soft drinks and cars. Do you think technology decision makers are getting the message in that forum? Or is this part of a broader strategy to make something that seems vaguely futuristic into a household word?

Our marketing people are very smart and good at what they do. I've spoken with customers who've seen those ads, and they're decision makers. If it comes up in conversation, they'll say, "Hey, I saw TelePresence on 24." By the way, TelePresence looks a lot better in real life than it looks on 24, so if you haven't seen it, you need to see it. It's actually higher quality than what they display on TV.

I also know that we want to make sure we're broadening the perception of Cisco across a wide spectrum of potential customers. Because we're in the consumer space; we're in the small business space; we're in the commercial space, enterprise space, service provider space -- if you look at that gamut of brand awareness, it really does span and target anybody that can buy a Pure Digital Flip video camera. Having that Cisco logo, having people go, "That's cool," that's important to us.

My kids actually think we're cool now. Is "Cisco" a household word now?

I think it depends. It's definitely more of a household word than it was five years ago. Will this broad-spectrum brand recognition help partners?

Absolutely. They ask us to do more and more of it all the time. I was very glad to see the Cisco logo in some of the NBA playoffs I was watching; they had this banner on the front of the scoring benches. Many companies' experience with video conferencing has been poor. And technical problems are still an issue. How is Cisco overcoming that hurdle with technical improvements to its collaboration solutions?

Speaking specifically about TelePresence: If you think about comparing that to traditional business video and the remote controls and having to pick the right sites and all that stuff -- it's a very different experience. You set up the meetings using Outlook. It does the scheduling for you. It's integrated with our unified communications architecture. When I walk into a room to have a meeting, the meeting that I am attending shows up on a Cisco phone display. I touch it; I'm connected; it brings up the site. It is absolutely simple, so we've truly removed complexity from the end user.

So the average senior leader, many of them do not like to play with technology. That's not in their DNA; they just want it to work. It works. The phone actually tells you: "Touch here to launch the call." In my experience with it, they've been happy many, many times. And on the perception side?

One of the things we're doing is demonstrating it quite a bit. If you use it, you absolutely have a renewed view on what it can be for you. We have it in most of our locations around the country, and we actually have a program called "Have a meeting on us" at Cisco. So we allow customers to come in and have meetings at no cost across our network. We have meetings that they run globally; they might be cross-country; they might be cross-town, depending on what the customer wants to do. That really does help to get rid of the complexity. They also see how immersive the experience is, and they tend to walk out of there wanting it for themselves. Whether they buy it or not, they want it, and that's a good thing.

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