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Cisco finds virtual savings, but at a cost

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Ever since the event started in 1991, Cisco Systems' Global Sales Meeting, a gigantic internal content marketing initiative, has been a big deal. For the meeting, the networking giant would fly in 15,000 or more of its sales staff to a single location, such as Las Vegas. After days of sharing best practices and recognizing top salespeople, the GSM might peak with a concert by Aerosmith. But in 2009, the economy's demise affected everyone—even Cisco. (And maybe even Aerosmith.) “There was a paradigm shift,” said Dannette Veale, a digital engagements and technology strategist at Cisco. She outlined the changes the company has made to the GSM at the Custom Content Conference held in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. Partially in response to economic pressures, Cisco decided to make the annual sales meeting a completely virtual event. It also renamed the event as the Global Sales Experience (GSX). In 2009, the new virtual version of event delivered in one key area: cost savings. Veale said the new format represented an 80% cost saving over that of the last GSM in 2008. The event was also greener, because 15,000 Cisco salespeople didn't get on airplanes. But the event, designed to communicate to salespeople as well as motivate them and recognize top performers, also had its drawbacks, Veale said. In particular, the salespeople complained that they missed networking with their international peers. Additionally, the virtual congratulations of top sellers wasn't as powerful as an in-person handshake from Cisco CEO John Chambers, Veale said. Cisco found the salespeople's ratings of the GSX was 2.69 on a 5-point scale. That was down from a peak of 4.52 for the GSM. In 2010, Cisco altered the GSX again, making it a hybrid virtual/in-person event. Bringing together salespeople in five locations around the world helped keep costs down but also resurrected face-to-face networking as central to the event. Other changes, however, weren't as effective. Comedian Steve Martin's performance, for instance, wasn't universally praised. “Note to self,” Veale said, “humor doesn't translate in some areas.” Nonetheless, in part because of the restoration of networking, ratings for the event increased to 3.36. Last year, Cisco continued to make changes. For example, the virtual congratulations were improved, allowing salespeople to send virtual animated “pats on the back” to top performers. Veale said the number of virtual congratulations sent during the meeting increased from 1,600 in 2009 to about 62,000 two years later. Veale said the ratings increased to 3.51, only a little shy of the 3.63 rating the final GSM pulled in 2008.
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