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Cisco customers are willing marketers

Cisco is getting clients to speak on its behalf -- without ever "pitching" its brand.

There's nothing quite like the impact of customers willing to speak out about a brand -- especially in the B2B arena. The challenge is to grow a corps of evangelists in a customer-centric way.

That approach has paid dividends for Cisco Systems, whose senior communications manager, Rob Lopez, formed The Capstone Customer Group about a year ago. CCG specializes in forming deeper relationships with Cisco's customers by developing visibility programs that advance the customers' messaging objectives while validating Cisco's network-centric vision.

"Many CIOs and their IT organizations are seen as cost centers," Lopez said. "We look at them in the reverse, that CIOs are innovators and business drivers. We want to build long-term relationships with those customers and teams, give them a stronger voice in industry conversations. We want to set up our customers to shine."

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Having worked at Cisco for more than six years in a product PR position, Lopez felt that the standard procedure of launching a product and then trying to find a customer to say good things about it to the press and analyst communities was limiting.

"It was apparent to me that our customers around the world have so many interesting stories to tell, but they would generally not be comfortable in the role of 'validating' a vendor's product," he said. "To gain access to those stories we needed to change our approach with customers."

B2B companies need to focus on what their clients have the most passion for, he said. "If [customers] aren't talking about something they're passionate about, nobody will be listening at the end of the day," Lopez says. "It's about putting customers first." Such was the case last spring when Lopez attended a CIO forum and heard Louie Ehrlich, vice president of services and strategy and CIO for Chevron Global Downstream, speak about how CIOs are evolving into becoming more strategic, right-hand persons to their CEOs. Cisco's CCG then asked Ehrlich to give a similar talk at its own IT forum in mid-December.

"We invited him to speak in a forum that's outside his role at Chevron, to talk about something he and we care about," Lopez said. "It's not easy to get someone like him, who's extremely busy, to commit to something like this. So what's in it for him? He's very keen on CIOs getting exposure.

Tips for using customers as marketers
Create connections
Customers want to hear from and interact with their peers. "[CIOs] want to listen to other CIOs, not your VP of marketing," said Mike Barlow, coauthor of the book Partnering With the CIO. "They want to hear from someone who's had the same experiences they have."

Keep it real
"Once you've built the relationship, you need to maintain that trust with customers," Lopez said. "Do what you say you're going to do, and stick with the plan. Let them tell their story, the way they want. The temptation is to do a kind of bait and switch -- once you have them on board ask them if they can just give us a quick quote for a press release -- but you must maintain that trust and respect of the customer."  

Don't expect outright endorsements
"We have PR people who try to get nice things said about a given product or service, and that's fine and good," Lopez said. "But you can't rely on your customers doing that all the time. We try to take it to the next level."

"It so happens that Louie is a Cisco customer," he continued, "but this is a more sophisticated way of having our customers speak about what they care about. We win because it's not a hard-sell endorsement, but in the course of his talking about what's important he may mention his relationship with Cisco or his use of our products and technology. We don't need to underline our involvement -- that's implied."

Tangible benefits are hard to measure, Lopez says, though he does note an instance last spring involving Churchill Downs.

"About a month before this year's [Kentucky] Derby, we brought an eWeek reporter and a couple of industry analysts down to see the technology that would be in place for the race," Lopez said. CIO Jay Rollins gave the observers a complete tour, including how Churchill Downs is using Cisco wireless technology to allow enthusiasts to place their bets from around the track. The result included an eWeek article and podcast, a mention in The Wall Street Journal, and positive remarks from the analysts.

"Then about a month later, accounting called me to say they'd closed a deal with Churchill Downs to sell even more wireless gear," Lopez said. "We can't say definitely that that sale was tied directly to the visit…but it didn't hurt."

Reprinted with permission from 1to1 Media. (c) 2006 Carlson MarketingWorldwide.

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