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Cisco CEO forbids salespeople from exploiting Huawei’s problems

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During a press conference at Cisco’s annual tech conference Cisco Live last week, CEO Chuck Robbins was asked to weigh in on Huawei’s problems.

He was also asked if the escalation of trade wars, and possible retaliation by Chinese government, could impact Cisco.

Robbins, ever cool and calm, answered with an almost philosophical view.

First of all, he pointed out that any ban on doing business with Huawei by US companies doesn’t impact Cisco at all. “I don’t do business with Huawei. They are my biggest competitor on a global basis.”

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But he also said that he’s instructed Cisco’s sales teams to “take the high road. … I’ve told our teams point blank: ‘This is not a sales strategy for you.’ I do not want our teams going in and leveraging the geopolitical situation to try to advantage us.'”

That’s a pretty eye-opening point of view because Huawei’s problems should be music to Cisco’s ears.

Cisco has been quite openly complaining about Huawei since way back in 2011. In fact, Cisco’s former CEO, John Chambers, was among the first to publicly sound the alarm on Huawei’s tactics, accusing the company of intellectual property theft, and possible espionage back doors. Things got so testy that in 2012, Congress held hearings on allegations of spying and intellectual property theft by Huawei and ZTE and issued a government report warning that US government agencies shouldn’t buy equipment from either vendor.

So, now that the bipartisan government is onboard, Cisco’s sales teams have been instructed not to use it to their advantage from the top.

While he said there may be some sales teams that can’t resist talking to customers about Huawei, Robbins said doing so is not the company’s official position. Instead, he wants everyone focused on selling based on Cisco’s products, rather than on scare tactics about competitors.

A meeting with Huawei’s founder

As for the impact of tariffs, Cisco execs say they have plans in place to deal with that. Asian component suppliers are shifting where they are making and shipping their components to be able to keep prices as low as possible. And if prices must rise on Cisco from buying from Chinese suppliers, Cisco is prepared to raise its prices to customers, CFO Chief Financial Officer Kelly Kramer told MarketWatch last month. Cisco doesn’t appear to be madly dropping all of its Chinese components suppliers, even if that were possible. Robbins won’t talk about what he’s doing directly and he sidestepped that question at the press conference as well.

Like all US tech companies caught in the emerging tech cold war, Cisco faces a risk of retaliation through Chinese companies refusing to buy its products. Here, Robbins’ attitude sounds a bit like the Serenity Prayer:

“Obviously our business in China could be impacted if the Chinese government decided to do things differently relative to US vendors and we just have to keep operating and see how that plays out. Our job is to primarily focus on the things we can control and do our best on the other issues.”

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Interestingly enough, before the US government ban on Huawei, Chambers told Business Insider that he had actually made peace, at least somewhat, with Huawei’s founder.

Chambers said that the best way to compete is to never do anything to others that you wouldn’t want done to you. “Even with Huawei taking them on very aggressively like we did, right after we solved it, I got on plane and met with Ren Shi Wei,” Chambers told Business Insider in October, referring to Huawei’s billionaire founder.

Given the current state of US-China tensions though, it seems unlikely that Robbins will take page from his predecessor’s diplomacy playbook and arrange a sit down with the Huawei founder.

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