"We've gotten good at market transitions over the years," says Sue Bostrom, Cisco's CMO. "Market transition" may be a charming euphemism for meltdown, but Cisco's real transition has been to use technology to connect with prospects. Bostrom, a twelve-year veteran, made a bet two years ago that the web could provide the information customers need about Cisco products, but also research for their own business needs. "People are coming to the internet to search, coming to find experts and expertise," she says. "We needed to embrace that." That embrace has turbocharged Cisco.com from an expert resource for about 15 million visitors a month into a lead-generation engine of real power.
In the past nine months, Cisco's site has rolled out a "virtual account manager," an online system that does all the things that expensive salespeople do—chat up prospects, make them comfortable, and build relationships. "The key is personalization," says Mike Metz, Bostrom's senior director of Web marketing and strategy. "We pay close attention to what people do when they come to Cisco.com, from how they got there to what they click on." Usability testing has increased the amount of targeted information they’re able to deliver. Now nearly 40% of visitors get helpful information based on their searches. "If we figure out that you live in Chicago, are interested in health-care information, and need to learn about wireless, we can direct you to a healthcare and wireless seminar near you."
When a prospect is ready to make a decision, the site cinches the deal. Let's say you're an IT manager from upstate New York, shopping for a phone system for four offices. A phone call, or click-to-chat feature, connects you to a person who knows your history as well as the details of the specific product you need. You can then be connected on the spot to an authorized Cisco reseller in your area to schedule an in-person consult. "It can all happen in real time," Metz says. Cisco has introduced the virtual manager in 35 countries and 14 languages. "We're converting about 15% of those prospects," he says, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. "There aren't enough salespeople in the world for what we need to do."