Cisco Systems--A Case Study

The author looks to Cisco Systems as a case study. Since the company deals in routers, switches, and hubs for computer networking, its customer base is already online, and the company is in the middle of a market that is going haywire, in terms of the growth in demand and the changing nature of its customers needs.

Cisco's competitive advantage is its customer support: not merely pushing boxes, but providing technical support to customers who need to install, configure, and debug equipment. All of these tasks take place on the customer's premises, and the correct completion of them is critical to the customer's satisfaction with the product Cisco sells.

Before the Web, Cisco provided support via dial-up connection to a BBS that contained a vast amount of documentation in digital format. Since its customers were primarily computer technicians (network engineers), they were comfortable with that channel; and since they were problem-solvers by trade, they preferred self-service to being spoon-fed by a telephone operator.

Moreover, digital support was necessary to provide up-to-date information on a changing product line. Manuals changed very frequently, and it was not feasible to send (or receive) them as hard-copies by mail or fax.

Cisco's Web site began as a transformation of their BBS system into Web formats, which was a simple step for them because their documentation was entirely digital to begin with.

They did not, however, discontinue the dial-up service, as some customers preferred that venue - in that many customers, especially in the computer field, tend to stick with a solution that works, even when a newer technology is available. The company therefore had to develop a way of managing content in multiple channels (which was done using a central content database to feed both the web site and the BBS).

Even with a sophisticated content management system, there was a lag in keeping the site up to date, and some topics were overlooked. Being open to customer feedback (and responsive when it was received) meant that the customers assisted the company in keeping its site up to date - an army of editors to help identify mistakes, outdated information, and suggest better explanations.

To keep customers abreast of changes, the company published a newsletter called "the packet," which was available in print, on the BBS, on the Web site, and via e-mail - a customer could choose one or more channels according to their own preference.

An early problem was the number of calls, at all hours, from customers who had lost their passwords, for which Cisco developed an e-mail address that would send lost passwords via e-mail (using the recipient's address as proof of identity). This is common practice today, but they were among the first to implement such a system.

Another problem that arose was that rapid growth led to an influx of new technicians, both inside the company and without - so they were getting more calls and e-mails with questions, and their own technicians were less skilled at providing answers. To remedy this, Cicso created "open forum," a database of customer questions (and answers) for internal use - such that an inexperienced tech-support rep could reference answers entered by more experienced ones.

Eventually, the company made this forum interactive, to enable customers to search it for themselves (although there was a step involved to "polish" the raw answers before making them available to others) - but at the same time, the ability to ask questions directly was not taken away.

In cases where a problem was sticky and an employee with sufficient expertise was not immediately available, questions were queued for later response. The problem was that customers were told only that their question would be answered "later," and not given a specific date and time (which was impossible to predict with much accuracy). Eventually, Cisco gave customers access to this queue, so that a customer waiting on an answer could monitor his place in line and know when to expect a response - not precisely, but relatively. This decreased the number of call-backs from customers who assumed that they had been forgotten.

For the internal staff, the pressure mounted. "Once our customers could see X an the net, they wanted Y and Z," said one channel manager. The company made a point of being responsive to these customer demands, recognizing that if you ignore the customer, they will go away - and that's never a good thing.

The company's efforts thus far had been in serving customers (who had already purchased equipment and needed support) - but they recognized that much of the same information would be appealing to the prospective customer, and help them in the task of identifying products to purchase in the future.

The company also turned to the Internet as a distribution medium, providing hundreds of downloadable software files to customer, which increased the speed of service and decreased delivery costs.

Also, since its systems were already open to the Internet, it was a fairly simple matter to share data, on the fly, about order status with customers, as well as share data with its vendors to help automate the ordering process.

Being completely open to everyone, however, was seen as a problem - and some of the information provided in Cisco's databases could be used by hackers. As such, Cisco set up varying levels of security: information that was safe for the general public, information for which a user would have to create a login account, information for which a login must be attributed to a known (legitimate) customer, and information that could only be accessed if the user was coming from a specific IP address.

As a result of their emphasis on providing customer service via the Web, the site's traffic doubled each month between 1992 and 1996, and the company's sales also increased exponentially (though a direct connection would be difficult to prove, there is a strong correlation of the data).

There was also a mass of inbound e-mail, for which the company developed an automated mail-sorting system that analyzed the content of messages and routed them to the appropriate personnel. Users who sent questions via e-mail received a response from an individual person, not a department mailbox.

A precipitating problem was that customers began to contact employees directly. While the company did not discourage this, it did create a problem because employees only work certain hours, and take vacations sometimes, which would leave customers hanging. And so, the company developed a system to send an automated response to the sender when an employee was not in the office, giving them alternative contacts for more timely assistance.

It's also worth noting that Cisco gave priority to corporate accounts and larger customers. This is a common practice, but what is uncommon is that Cisco was forthcoming about this, by giving individuals a "priority code" and being open about what that code meant. The author breezes past this, but what's significant is that it didn't create widespread resentment.

Cisco also kept files on their customers by login account. Much of this was the standard contact information (name, contract number, phone, e-mail, etc.) - and while the company generally looked at aggregate data for information about its Web site usage, it could also drill down to the individual customer to track their individual behavior online - though the author doesn't indicate how they used such information.

While the number of phone calls continued to increase (largely, because the company was growing at a high rate of speed), it was remarked that the nature of the calls had changed: people were asking a "higher tier" of question when they called in - the assumption being that the Web site answered a lot of the low-level questions (cutting off a stream of additional calls).

The author switches briefly to the perspective of one of the company's major customers, who is unequivocally pleased at everything Cisco has done: the volume of information online, the ability to get timely assistance through multiple channels, etc. When asked about how his life would change without the online resources, he indicates how difficult it would be to do his job, and that he'd probably look to switch vendors.

Cisco could not put an estimate on the amount of money it spends on Web site operations - not because it was being evasive, but because the Web channel is married to its business at the molecular level: a manual available online would need to be written for print distribution; the Q&A database would need to be maintained for its phone staff; questions answered by e-mail would need to be answered via other media. All things considered, it would be a fairly large expense, but the company does not feel that there is an objective and meaningful way of tracking the costs to specific channels - it's all customer support and service, regardless of the medium.

Asked "what does it take" to provide this level of service, the company remarked more on the cultural prerequisites than the technical requirements of getting online. The company must put customer service first, and recognize that satisfying the needs of the customer, by the criteria of the customer, is critical to success.

There is also a list - because isn't there always - of six keys to customer service success:

  1. Listen - Your customers will tell you exactly what they want, need, and expect from you - if you'll only listen.
  2. Steps, not leaps - Being dynamic and nimble requires a lot of fast, minor changes. Bigger changes take more time, and complexity undermines both speed and efficiency.
  3. Be attentive to change - What's true of your customers today may not be true tomorrow. New customers will enter, old ones leave, and even the ones that stay will change their habits. Business as usual is no longer an option.
  4. Stay Flexible - Especially in your back-end architecture, you must facilitate change by avoiding complexity and the need for process and procedure to get minor things done. The same is true of your business processes.
  5. Support Your Efforts - In many cases, companies see the Internet as a way to reduce staff - in truth, it merely shifts the load from one channel to another. You'll need the same number of people to answer e-mail as it takes to answer the phones, and while the number of calls may decrease, the complexity of the questions will increase.
  6. Manage Growth - Build with an eye toward the future. If your business doubles each month, the system you implement today must handle twice as much traffic next month, eight times as much next quarter, and 4,096 times as much next year.