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Virtual Sales Expertise Case Study: How Cisco Supports Virtual Access to Technical Experts

Cisco solutions for collaboration and unified communications increase the productivity and reach of product experts.
In This Case Study

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Like many companies that sell complex products, Cisco relies on a relatively small number of technical sales specialists to support a much larger number of salespeople, such as account managers and channel partners. Historically, Cisco’s sales specialists focused on specific market segments and technology areas, and were assigned to work with all of that segment’s sales teams in a local area.

This way of working had several drawbacks, both for the specialists and for Cisco as a company.



  • Improve the productivity of highly in-demand sales specialists.
  • Increase collaboration and knowledge sharing among technical experts.
  • Reduce the need to hire additional experts to keep pace with sales growth.
  • Support access to deeper levels of technical expertise for sales personnel.


  • Virtual roles and work tools through the Cisco SOAR program.
  • SOAR sales engineer teams to perform research and other sales support tasks.
  • Expertise Locator for access to the best available technical sales specialist.
  • Self-help tools to help salespeople answer customer questions quickly.


  • Higher sales productivity and increased interactions with customers.
  • Revenue growth from top customers.
    More sales opportunities.
  • High customer satisfaction with sales responsiveness.
    Improved work/life balance for sales specialists.
  • Lower growth rates of expert staff levels
    Better resources for sales teams.
  • Reduced travel expense and impact.


  • New tools that enable different levels of virtualization improve collaboration efforts.
  • Process changes require support from all levels in the sales culture.


  • Expand the SOAR program to more regions and market segments.
  • Add new  tools to support virtual work.

Huge demands for assistance. Account managers routinely contacted their sales specialist for any question or resource need that arose in the process of making a sale. This meant each specialist was constantly trying to respond to many queries, ranging from technical questions, to research for customer references, to traveling to a customer’s site for a sales discussion or product demonstration. As a result, the specialists would devote much of their time to tactical tasks such as locating information or resources. They spent only 30 percent of their time on strategic activities such as interacting with customers.

Limited tools to support the specialists’ work. Frequently used information such as documents and customer references were not available in a central location, and specialists would need to ask other people for help. The specialist’s time was often consumed by the inefficiences of searching for the right people or the right information, then preparing a response to the salesperson’s inquiry, which also meant a delay in responding to the customer. “Instead of using highly-paid specialists to do information research and basic product demos, we knew there would be huge benefit from providing tools to improve information access and transferring routine tasks to more appropriate resources,” says Patrick Romzek, senior director, advanced technology for United States and Canada, Cisco Sales.

“Our salespeople are no longer dependent on their own knowledge. Instead, they can respond to a customer’s questions with the expertise of the entire company.”

– Patrick Romzek,
Senior Director, Advanced
Technology for US and
Canada, Cisco Sales

Product demonstrations were scheduled as an on-site presentation for individual customers or partners, which often meant a wait of several weeks for an available time in the specialist’s schedule. However, “As the systems engineers who support the sales process, most of the time we don’t need to be present at a customer meeting,” says Ife Stewart, a systems engineer for Cisco SOAR (Specialist Optimization Access and Results). “Now we can present a product demo and participate in the meeting via an audio or video call or a web conference.”

Difficulty finding the right expert. Cisco did not have formal processes or tools for finding the right technical expert for each issue. “If a specialist was unable to answer a customer’s question, he or she would usually rely on established relationships with certain experts or resort to broad calls or email blasts to locate someone with the necessary knowledge,” says Romzek.

Infrequent knowledge sharing and collaboration. There was no easy way for the specialists to collaborate or share knowledge and resources with each other. Over time, each specialist collected documents, contacts, and knowledge as necessary. Lack of a central knowledge repository meant that it was particularly difficult for newly hired specialists to access the information and resources that they needed to begin work successfully. In addition, because the technical sales specialists were expected to be the single knowledge source for their sales teams, there was little reason to collaborate with other experts.

Lack of scalability. If Cisco continued to scale the number of sales specialists to the number of account managers as it had done in the past, it would mean hiring three times as many specialists in order to meet the company’s sales targets by 2011. Given that hiring this many technical specialists would be costly and perhaps not even possible, Cisco needed ways to improve the availability and scalability of the specialists and other technical experts.

Support deeper levels of expertise. As Cisco products and technologies become more sophisticated and complex, the company needs specialists who can focus on sub-areas, such as contact center and video solutions within the Cisco Unified Communications product line.

Support better work/life balance for sales specialists. Cisco technical sales specialists found themselves constantly in demand for immediate answers to technical questions and product demonstrations to customers. They each covered a large regional territory and spent a lot of time traveling, which reduced their ability to do other work.

It became clear to Cisco executives that the sales specialists needed ways to work more efficiently, collaborate easily with other experts, and develop more focused product expertise to keep pace with an increasingly competitive marketplace.


The Specialist Optimization Access and Results (SOAR) program at Cisco aims to increase sales productivity by enabling the company’s sales specialists to do more work virtually. Steps toward this goal include finding innovative ways to leverage employee expertise by using Cisco solutions for virtual access, Cisco Unified Communications and WebEx® collaboration tools, as well as Web 2.0 tools.

Table 1. Key Elements of the Cisco SOAR Program

  • Virtual Specialists
  • Technology Sub-Specialists
  • SOAR Sales Engineer Teams
  • Account managers can use self-help tools to find many answers themselves
  • Central SOAR sales engineer teams provide a first-line resource for more help
  • Virtual tools allow specialists to work from home, office, or other location
  • Knowledge wiki
  • Customer reference database
  • Expertise Locator
  • Virtual demos
  • Virtual community space for specialists

The SOAR program encompasses new roles, new ways of working, and new tools for Cisco’s technical sales specialists and the sales personnel they support. (Table 1)

Figure 1. SOAR Program Resources for Cisco Salespeople

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New Roles and New Ways of Working

The biggest changes produced by the SOAR program are in the roles of the sales specialists and how they conduct their work. Instead of serving as the single, first person to call for any and all sales questions, the specialists now handle fewer routine inquiries and tasks, and can focus on more complex and strategic activities. This change is enabled by key elements of the SOAR programs, including self-help resources, the SOAR sales engineer teams, and virtual access to the right specialist for each sales situation. (Figure 1)

Self-Help Resources. Through the internal SOAR website, a Cisco account manager can access self-help tools and information that address the questions and issues that frequently arise in a sales situation. These self-help resources are kept in a virtual workspace within WebEx Connect, and include issue discussion forums, a technical knowledge-base wiki, useful file libraries, competitive information, and links to Cisco training and other internal websites that support online product demos. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. SOAR Program Workspace on Cisco WebEx Connect

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Using these resources, sales personnel can often find the answers that they need without contacting a specialist. When they do need more help than is available in the WebEx Connect space, they click on the Expertise Locater, a mash-up of Google maps with a listing of all Cisco experts that shows their location and current availability, how they prefer to be contacted, and links for connecting immediately by phone, email, or instant message.

SOAR sales engineers. A group of Cisco sales and systems engineers operates as a global, virtual contact center to provide a next step for getting answers if the self-help tools do not meet a salesperson’s needs. “The SOAR engineers help the specialists respond to a customer’s question immediately or in just a few hours, where before it might have taken a few days while we tried to find the right person or information,” says Jon Grady, a Cisco systems engineering manager.

Cisco sales personnel can access the SOAR sales engineering team by clicking on a “Live Help” link on the SOAR website, or through instant messaging, an email message, or telephone call. All requests submitted to the team are queued by a Cisco WebEx ACD (automatic call distributor) application, then routed to the next-available sales engineer. The requests are also tracked through a case-management tool and against committed service-level agreements (SLAs).



  • Cisco WebEx Connect
  • Cisco WebEx ACD
  • Cisco WebEx Meeting Center

Unified Communications

  • Cisco Unified Personal Communicator
  • Cisco Unified Presence platform
  • Cisco Unified Application Environment
  • Cisco Unified Video Advantage

Security and VPN

  • Cisco Virtual Office

Services provided by the SOAR sales engineers include answers to frequently asked questions, product research and presentations, information about competitive products, and help in responding to customer requests for proposals (RFPs). If greater technical expertise is required, the engineer or the account manager can access a virtual specialist as needed. “We conduct all of our work using virtual tools, but we want to deliver the same quality of interaction with customers as if we were there in the room with them,” says Fatima Razvi, a Cisco systems engineer.

Virtual Sales Specialist. With so many routine requests handled by the self-help tools and the SOAR sales engineers, Cisco sales executives were able to consider transforming the roles and assignments of the sales specialists. By disconnecting the specialists from a relationship with a specific local area or set of account managers, virtual specialists can be pooled together for better utilization, to serve multiple regions and account teams. This meant that virtual specialists were more available to sales executives the moment that they were needed, speeding the sales process. For example, a salesperson can add a virtual specialist to a Cisco WebEx Connect session with a customer when needed to answer questions and share presentations and documents over the web. Team spirit in the sales organization has risen as the account managers and sales specialists understand that they are now working with colleagues who can be better enabled and more responsive in the sales process.

New Tools

Cisco solutions and Web 2.0 technologies provide tools that enable more virtual and collaborative work by the sales specialists.

Cisco unified communications and collaboration solutions. The sales specialists can use a variety of Cisco solutions to conduct all or part of their work virtually. By using these solutions and other SOAR tools, each specialist can cover larger geographic areas and support more sales personnel while working from home, a Cisco office, or other location. The Cisco solutions include the following:

  • The Cisco Virtual Office Solution provides a secure VPN connection to the corporate network from an employee’s home. Many virtual sales specialists prefer the flexibility of working from home, and the virtual office solution allows them to conduct video calls and product demos as easily from home as from the office. People spend less time driving, and their perceived quality of work is improved.
  • The Cisco Unified Personal Communicator application simplifies access to various communications tools such as voice and video calls, instant messaging, web conferencing, and voicemail. It also provides real-time presence information for the user, which is visible to other Cisco sales personnel through an Expertise Locator tool.
  • Cisco TelePresence™, Cisco Unified Video Advantage, and Cisco WebEx Meeting Center allow the sales engineers and sales specialists to participate virtually in meetings with colleagues and customers.

Knowledge wiki. A key self-help tool for all Cisco sales personnel is the online, centralized knowledge wiki. This knowledge base contains a wide variety of commonly requested information, such as answers to product questions and technical documents. Any sales engineer or sales specialist can update the wiki with new information, which helps ensure that this resource will grow in both content and value over time.

Customer reference database. A common activity for sales people is finding Cisco customers who are willing to act as references and discuss the value that they have gained from Cisco products. In the past, an account manager or sales specialist had to phone or email others to find an appropriate reference. Now customer references are listed in a central database that is accessible to sales personnel through integration with sales applications. Users can search for customer references based on criteria such as product, industry, reference rating, and business size. An automated mapping feature helps users identify customer references within a geographic area.

Figure 3. Location Display in the Expertise Locator Application

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Expertise Locator. The Expertise Locator tool allows a Cisco salesperson or sales engineer to find the right sales specialist to address a customer need or question. When viewing the expert’s profile, the user can click to connect with that specialist in real time through an online chat session, a telephone or video call, or email. The availability of the specialist is detected through real-time presence information provided by the Cisco Unified Personal Communicator, the Cisco Unified Presence platform, and the Cisco Unified Application Environment, as well as location data provided by Google maps. (Figure 3)

The sales specialists list their areas of expertise in their employee profiles, which are stored in Cisco’s online employee directory. The Expertise Locator application integrates with the directory to display each specialist’s profile as the user searches for people whose expertise matches keywords, e.g., security for wireless. Employees also use this application to include other important areas of expertise such as vertical industries, competitors, system integration and language support. Because this information is searchable, these entries produce an additional benefit for the application by allowing searches for multiple areas of expertise. For example, a sales team can access someone who is an expert for a particular product and who speaks the customer’s language, knows the vertical industry, and has experience with a similar integration.

Virtual demos. Previously, delivering product demos to customers was a responsibility of the sales specialists. This activity was very inefficient because the demos were delivered individually for each customer, and were often delayed until the specialist was available. Additionally, the tasks of arranging and delivering demos took a lot of time for the specialists.

Today, many product demos are delivered virtually by the SOAR sales engineers. The demos are scheduled as weekly, predictable events that can serve multiple customers. Demo information is integrated with Cisco’s sales and product marketing applications. This program is now expanding globally so that demos are available at the right local time and in the right language for Cisco customers and partners worldwide.

Figure 4. Online Community in the SOAR Portal for Cisco Sales Specialists

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Online community for specialists. The SOAR portal gives the sales specialists their own online community for sharing information and resources. The Cisco WebEx Connect platform is central to this portal, which enables the specialists to post technical information, access the Expertise Locator, participate in discussion forums, and add information, documents, and links to the knowledge wiki. (Figure 4)


Cisco initially implemented SOAR as a pilot project within two sales segments, then made the first full program launch in Canada. The program has since been launched in all of Cisco’s U.S. and Canadian sales segments and, as of early 2009, deployments are planned around the world.

“The combination of virtual tools and the SOAR sales engineers help our account managers answer customer questions faster and move forward with closing the deal.”

– Vanessa Scott,
Sales Engineering Team Manager

Accelerated Sales. Participating specialists report an increase of 40 to 50 percent in their interactions with customers and other external parties (depending on the region and sales group measured). Cisco has found that more customer interactions, even virtually, help to increase revenues and accelerate the sales process.

“The combination of virtual tools and the SOAR sales engineers help our account managers answer customer questions faster and move forward with closing the deal,” says Vanessa Scott, a Cisco sales engineering team manager. “We discovered that the salespeople who used the SOAR team the most had the highest levels of meeting their sales goals.”

High satisfaction with the SOAR sales engineers. A survey of account managers who used the services of the SOAR sales engineers indicated satisfaction ratings of 4.9 on a five-point scale for service quality. Describing one typical sales call, Jim Chase, a Cisco account manager, says, “The sales engineer knew which experts to bring into the customer conversation, who I wouldn’t have been able to find on my own.” Adds Brian Denton, a Cisco systems engineer, “Customers feel special because they are now connecting with experts they might never have met in the past simply because that person wasn’t located in the customer’s local area.”

Says Scott, “The virtual tools also make it easier for other Cisco technical experts to support our sales activity, because it is easier for them to communicate and share information with us.”

Higher productivity and improved work/life balance for technical experts. Participating specialists report time savings of 6 to 15 hours per week while working in the SOAR program. “By working virtually, I am not losing time in traveling from one customer meeting to another,” says Derrick Kea, a Cisco systems engineer. “I can go from one customer conference call or WebEx session to another with just a few minutes of transition time.”

Higher productivity also creates a better work/life balance for the specialists, with more than 70 percent of specialists surveyed reporting improvements in their quality of life. One account manager, responding anonymously to an internal survey, said, “With young children and a working spouse, working virtually has helped me tremendously in sharing the morning and evening childcare routines.”

Lower growth rates of expert staff levels. Higher productivity for existing sales specialists means Cisco will be able to reduce the number of additional experts it will need to hire as the company’s sales continue to grow. “As an example, we have set a target for overall productivity gains of 12 to 15 percent in FY 2009 for the United States and Canada sales organizations,” says Romzek.

Better resources for sales teams. Account managers can find answers and obtain help more easily through the SOAR tools. They can also request assistance from a SOAR sales engineer or find and connect with the sales specialists who have specific expertise. “It’s easier now for an account manager to find the best expert to answer a customer’s question, not just a ‘good enough’ resource,” says Grady.
More experts in the sub-areas of Cisco’s advanced technologies means that individual specialists will not need to maintain in-depth knowledge about every product, and can focus their training in one area. “Our salespeople are no longer dependent on their own knowledge,” says Romzek. “Instead, they can respond to a customer’s questions with the expertise of the entire company.”

Reduced travel expense and impact. Virtual availability through audio and video conferences, Cisco TelePresence meetings, and Cisco WebEx Connect sessions means specialists are physically present at fewer customer meetings. This reduced travel yielded cost savings of 50 percent for Cisco in the pilot program as well as the lower CO2 emissions and environmental impact from 37 percent less time that specialists spent commuting to a Cisco office or customer site.


As Cisco expands the SOAR program to additional regions and market segments, the company will apply the lessons learned from the pilot project and early implementation.

Different levels of virtualization. The particular ways in which the SOAR model is implemented will vary according to geographic region and sales organization. The impact of the SOAR program is greater in the sales organizations that can adopt a higher level of virtualization, such as the small and midsize business segment. Many of these customers can be served entirely through virtual tools such as email and voice calls, with no need for a specialist to visit the customer site. In contrast, the complex requirements and product orders of large enterprise customers means that more in-person meetings with sales specialists are appropriate. Still, for either environment, it appears that with the right collaboration tools, sales specialists can be less geographically organized, and pooled into larger groups. This organization improves the utilization of the sales specialists, and brings them together with each other and with the salespeople they support into a much closer and better-working team.

Support the necessary changes in the sales culture. Because many account managers have developed relationships with certain experts over time, they may be reluctant to change how they work with those specialists or bring in new specialists to resolve questions for their customers. Cisco sales executives addressed this hesitancy to change by making the SOAR program a key initiative for the sales teams and helping them understand the link between the new tools and the expected positive impact on Cisco’s business.

Other activities also helped to encourage acceptance of the virtualization. Sales specialists who were early adopters of the SOAR tools promoted their value to other specialists. Operational changes in the Cisco Sales department integrated the new SOAR tools into routine procedures. And new performance evaluation criteria include a measure of how the sales specialists make use of the virtual tools.

Develop standards. Creating standard definitions and procedures is important for helping ensure that virtual tools can be truly useful. For example, the Expertise Locator requires users to enter keywords consistently in order to respond correctly to the user’s query.


Cisco plans to eventually extend the SOAR program across all sales segments and regions, which will improve access to specialists across the company. For example, a worldwide Expertise Locator will help Cisco account managers find specialists who speak a certain language or are available in other countries for multinational customers.

Cisco will also expand the SOAR program to include technical experts from Cisco’s product groups into the SOAR collaboration spaces and Expertise Locator tool. The collaboration tools and virtual resources available through SOAR will be enhanced and adapted for other Cisco business processes.