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Mark Buchanan of Cisco Systems USA tells us how listening to their customers helped Cisco re-write the language rulebook.


This is a story about language and the way we use it at Cisco.

It’s a story that started with a comment from a customer. It became a story about how we write and speak. It’s become a story about how we are changing the way we work – across our $130 billion business and around the world.


A little background, first

Customers come first at Cisco. They always have. Creating long-lasting customer partnerships is deep in our DNA.

We started in the computer help desk at Stanford University. The aim was to help people use technology to get their things done. We knew we’d done the job right when they were successful. They had problems, we had solutions and we were happy to help.

And when the problem was getting networks talking with each other so that people on campus could be connected wherever they were? Well, we created the multiprotocol router to get those networks talking – and the Age of the Internet really took off.

Since then, we’ve shaped the future of the Internet. We’ve created unprecedented value and opportunity for our customers, employees, investors and our ecosystem partners. We’ve changed the way people live, work, play and learn. Today, we are the worldwide leader in networking.

And, as a result, we grew. Quickly.

In fact, in about 15 years, we went from startup to being the most valuable company in the world. We didn’t hold that spot long but we’re doing just fine, thank you. Still, it makes the point – we didn’t just grow, we exploded onto the scene.

That’s great, of course. But explosive growth can create customer experience problems for even the most customer-focused businesses. Across Cisco, we developed some bad habits with the way we use words.


Turning trouble into opportunity

We used a kind of internal code to talk with each other. It saved some of us time, but not all of us. And worse, customers didn’t understand us. It was bad for them, bad for our business, bad for sales and for our brand.

The good news is that we recognized the problem. And set out to fix it. We developed a program to tackle this head on. It’s a communications program. It’s also a culture change program, a thinking program, a customer service program, an employee engagement program. You might say it was an everything-we-do program. And it was all driven by WORDS.

Mostly, it’s a program to help our people use language that’s simpler and more distinctive. But as an added bonus, it made us all a little bit better at things we were already quite good at.

Here’s the deal. We needed to be simpler – to make sure that our complex ideas are communicated clearly and understood by all.  So that people pay attention when they are inundated with ideas and messages. And so that they really understand the value we offer.

We needed to be more distinctive – so that we stand out in the market. So that people recognize us in the way we write and speak. So that people choose us, again and again.


How we did it

We defined a voice for the company. We created guidelines for how to write and speak on behalf of the company. We created playbooks to help people understand what this all looks like in practice.. We translated the guidelines and playbooks into 14 languages. We developed a curriculum and a training program. We trained leaders and key influencers, content creators, corporate communicators, marketers, sales people, engineers, lawyers, policy makers, and executives.

We rolled the training out using our own collaboration technology to powerful effect. We’ve trained more than 2500 people worldwide.

Because the scope was so broad – affecting everything from emails to executive presentations, sales proposals to technical documentation to campus signage, we needed to be both broad in our thinking and specific in our application.

We needed to be practical and relevant so people could walk out the door and make a difference right away. So we trained them in small group sessions that focused on what the change means for their team’s business.

And because we needed this change to stick, we didn’t just train them and abandon them. We’ve created tools and resources for ongoing support. We’ve kept the message alive by presenting at thought leadership forums, global corporate events and in worldwide television broadcasts.


A deep change and the power of proof

We’ve proven the value of the program again and again. In astounding marketing results, in enormous sales deals, in success with strategic business initiatives, with outlandish operational improvements. We’ve proven that we can use language to work together better, to serve our customers better, to sell more and to paint a brighter vision of the future.

And it has taken proof to drive the change.

This is a deep, powerful, fundamental change. At Cisco, we had never looked at anything so simple, so basic as the words we use, to transform our entire business. The change has implications for everything we do, but it was never something anyone really considered possible.

Now, whenever we write or speak on behalf of Cisco, we think of our audience first: who are they, what do they care about, how can we connect with them and inspire them to act.

The great innovation of the program is that we’ve taken an overlooked and fundamental skill (language) and used it to drive a cultural change across 75,000 employees, a nearly equal number of contractors, vendors, and agencies in supporting roles.

And in the process, we’ve rewritten our own story. And that’s our happy ending.


Mark Buchanan is the Brand Language Program Lead at Cisco Systems USA.