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  • Writer's pictureAlison Conigliaro-Hubbard

The Power of Listening: A Look Back at Andiamo's Customer-Centric Approach to Dominating the Storage Networking Industry

Last week I shared a post about what it takes to gain buy-in – whether on ideas, a company vision, a product we’re selling, even making a new connection with another person, a co-worker, or a team (especially if we’re a manager).


Today, I want to share a story about one of the greatest examples in my tech career around gaining buy-in. I was incredibly fortunate to be an early member of the extraordinary team behind the Andiamo storage networking group that became the foundation of the Cisco Data Center multi-$B business.


In the early days of this Cisco-born spin-out, we were out to bring the expansive lessons of LAN-networking to the world of SANs, an industry previously led by Brocade and McData. There would be a storage networking evolution as (Cisco’s) Andiamo brought its platform to market, and that would entail a great deal of training before enterprise storage teams could feel confident enough to buy-in to the new methodologies.  Many enterprises balked at the cost of training.


We came up with a number of strategies to entice and connect with large enterprise IT teams, and one was the specific approach toward Customer/Technical Advisory Boards (CAB/TAB).  IT leaders from the largest financial firms and service providers were selected for this board that would be held in person over 3 days – they didn’t have to be customers yet.  They just had to have expansive networks and influence amongst their peers.


Oftentimes at company Customer Advisory Boards, customers get presented at for several days, without much time allotted for listening and interacting. We had a very specific approach to the Andiamo Advisory Borads, and LISTENING was one of the most critical elements.  Mind you – for those who know the people who led the Andiamo team, these were STRONG personalities. BUT – we all agreed that real listening was critical to success.


There were several components that made up the three-day event, several elements baked in to make guests feel appreciated.  But on Day 1 and part of Day 2, invited guests would sit with tables set in a circle, together with product leaders. Instead of PowerPointing nonstop at guests about all the amazing new features and functions until they were glazed over, something else happened. 


Product and Engineering leads would each bring up a list of key, open-ended questions.  They would listen (more than talk) as attendees shared their unique perspectives on whether an idea would work, how it could work, and what they would need for it to work in their complex data center environments.  This sharing and listening elicited new questions.


Now, if you’re reading this and you don’t understand storage networking, you might note that the technology was mission critical for enterprises at the time, because it involved the safe keeping of data.  And of course, data is a lifeblood of any enterprise, especially for the top financial institutions, utilities companies, and government entities participating in this particular Customer Advisory Board.  I share this to underscore the significance of gaining customer buy-in, even if a feature seemed like the coolest thing an engineer could imagine.


Here's the kicker and what made this approach even more powerful.  Approximately 6 months later, the Customer Advisory Board would reconvene in person with the same product leaders and engineers.  NOW, the first part of the sharing from each product leader was a readout reflecting what they heard during the last session:


·      This is what we heard from you last time (usually a long list).

·      This is what we have done with that information.

·      This is how YOU as a group of valued IT leaders are contributing to the evolution of this business.

·      Here is what we are considering next. 

·      Now, new questions would be brought up for discussion and input from the guests.


How could a potential customer not feel valued when their inputs were directly impacting the roadmap and build-out of a product line?


If I recall correctly, over the course of a couple of years every one of those advisory board attendees became a $multi-million account for what would become the Cisco Storage Networking business.  And as influencers in the IT world, these individuals would then share the trust they had built with this new storage networking business with their peers, who then became customers and believers.


In about 3 years, the Andiamo spin-out went from $0 to $500M+ in revenue and was officially integrated into Cisco Systems, to be the foundational product family in the multi-$B data center business.


This was one of the most meaningful experiences of gaining ‘buy-in’ that I have witnessed, and I will always feel so privileged to have worked with such an outstanding team of leaders, engineers, product managers and sellers, and to have been a key contributor to the way this played out.


You see, you can be an individual looking for buy-in from another individual.  Or you can be a whole business looking to build trust and buy-in from large enterprises.  But it works the same way.  When we focus outwardly with curiosity and interest in what someone else has to offer, instead of just TELLING someone all the great things we have to offer, THIS is how we gain BUY-IN.


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