Think “master agent” and you probably envision a sales organization, rife with opportunity for commissions, and heady with promotions and golf prizes. But what lies at the heart of the master agent business is decidedly less glamorous: provisioning. Unfortunately, this most fundamental of operations is not without its challenges, and those challenges are growing with the increased mergers and acquisitions activity in the market. Now, agents are implementing fulfillment teams and best practices to better face institutional and operational challenges from the carriers.
“Timely and accurate provisioning is the Achilles’ heel of selling telecom services,” says Emmet Tydings, president of master agency AB&T Telecom. An agent can place as many orders as he or she wants, but receiving payment and ensuring customer satisfaction (and repeat business) hinges on the carrier correctly fulfilling those orders.
“Short of compensation, it’s the most important part of the business,” says Curt Allen, senior vice president of sales at master agency X4 Communications. “There’s no glamour in this, because you’re expected to get it done. But if something goes wrong, everything else falls apart. It’s that important.”
For instance, the customer relationship suffers. “If it doesn’t go well, then they’ll question every tax and fee on the bill, whether they’re getting the right speed of bandwidth, and every little thing,” says Geoff Shepstone, president of Telecom Brokerage Inc. “They will be a lot less at ease if you tell them it’ll happen on Monday and then it doesn’t, especially when they’re moving service. They can’t afford to have their communications down. Plus, you do that a couple of times to a subagent and they’re not going to sell that product anymore.”
Also, agents don’t receive commissions until a circuit is actually installed. “In my opinion, provisioning is of the highest importance to me,” says Glenn Taggart, vice president of AB&T. “Everything else stems off of it. If it’s not installed properly, then we’re not paid. And, we get referrals if it goes the right way and people warned off if it goes the wrong way.”
It’s also key to making the master agency model itself work. “Subs look to masters to help them, and it’s not just to bolster commissions and negotiate good terms and conditions,” says Allen. “It’s also to be the escalation point, because they’re not very loud when they yell. We can and must do that for them.”
Unfortunately, things can go wrong at several points in the provisioning process in the best of times. Muddying the waters is the rash of mergers, be it AT&T Inc. and BellSouth Corp., Level 3 Communications Inc. and Broadwing Communications, XO Communications and Allegiance Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and MCI Inc., Sprint and Nextel Communications Inc., and so on.
“Companies with different systems, products, footprints and processes are coming together and changing rapidly,” says Ken Mercer, senior vice president of TBI. “Carriers may remove the products that can be sold, the network availability changes, there are changes in the quote processes, in the order process. So you’re going back to the customers time and time again with facilities issues, or credit issues. The bill might be different from what was quoted. And for all those things, it’s difficult to know who the right contacts are.”
AB&T’s Tydings adds, “From the big ILECs to the smaller CLEC mergers, the operations snafus that ensue post-M&A have been very hard on the channel because we take the blame for bad information. Customers just can’t understand why things are so inaccurate. [But] I see the vestiges of these post-M&A operational challenges lasting well into or through 2008 for carriers.”
Then there are the issues that exist with or without additional carrier integration complexity. “We all have multiple carriers, some 30-odd in our case,” says Allen. “Everyone’s process and communications are different. Some are detailed and integrated within our PRM systems, so we can automate the process. But many are not. Keeping it all straight is a challenge.”
To boot, many carriers suffer from a lack of communication skills. “A master agent will get frustrated because they’re not getting a timely response,” says Jack Knocke, COO of MicroCorp Inc. “The biggest thing is, if the circuit has a rejection or objection, that we’re notified in time to fix it before the customer gets upset. Often, the carriers don’t let us know for weeks, so we have to seek that information out and keep on top of it.”
Then there’s the institutional challenge. “Good carriers give you a single point of contact that we can go through for all the information we need,” says Shepstone. “Others have a lot more bureaucracy. There might be different people for each step of the process. It’s a goal of taking away the ability for someone to say, ‘that’s not our job.’”
Issues stem from downstream, too. “If someone sells the wrong promo, it’s a lot of work,” says Denis Raue, president of Telegration Inc., a master agency. “A lot of times we’re missing something, we don’t have all the signed paperwork, etc. Time kills all deals, and if you don’t get a quote back in time, you lose it, so sometimes the subagents will get sloppy.”
MicroCorp’s new version of its Nautilus back-office system targets provisioning issues.
Visibility to what the subs are doing is another challenge. “One of the difficulties is we’re almost exclusively removed from the customer,” explains Allen. “There’s not a good solution for it because we have no interest in having direct contact with the end user — that’s the agent’s job.”
Given all these challenges, it’s a wonder that it ever works. “It’s taken a lot of experience and a lot of bruises and scars to amass the knowledge we have of all this,” says Shepstone.
Combating the Headaches
Despite — or perhaps because of — the complexity in managing the provisioning cycle from subagent to carrier, fulfillment has taken center stage for master agents. The approaches are a mixture of machine and man.
MicroCorp, for instance, has implemented a new version of its custom-built back-office system, Nautilus, in order to combine carrier information with information coming up from the subagents via the PRM system, so as to better automate the process. “We are really fired up about this, because we’ve taken each one of the carriers and their processes and translated them to make them fit into our process, with he Nautilus system as the center point,” explains Knocke. “We give subagents one portal for them to manage their leads, CRM information, request quotes, enter orders, and it’s one point of contact, very collaborative. Also it’s a complete view of their sales funnel. Then we can give the carrier access to their data via a partitioned view.”
At Telegration, Raue has built a database to track orders. “We assign every order a master service order number and we match it against the carrier USOC,” he explains. “We’ve incorporated 50,000 of those numbers since 2005.” Program reports track the orders, and Telegration has set time frames for each step. “If we’re not meeting them, the system flags it as an escalation,” says Raue. “We’ve also implemented flow charts on every product, and we’d like to have automated everything. We do have an order entry module that’s task related, so it goes through step by step, and places things in appropriate queues for action.”
Vince Bradley, president and CEO of master agency World Telecom Group, says that some providers offer carrier portals that aid in the information dissemination process. “A top complaint of agents is that they’re not kept in the loop after the orders are submitted,” he says. “Fortunately there are some portals, like Qwest Communications International, Inc.’s QPartner system and PAETEC’s Web Front, that are smart, efficient systems that allow everyone involved to access order information quickly, so you don’t have to hear at the last minute that there’s an issue. Agents should be willing to use those.”
Despite these helpful support systems, master agents still rely on human interaction, such as the need to augment the system information with case-by-case manual reviews of uninstalled orders and open the lines of communication.
“It’s all about getting your hands dirty and getting in there,” says Allen. “I’ve gotten really granular in micromanaging that part of the business. I know exactly what is going on, who has problems, how much certain agents were struggling — or succeeding. You can’t get that from a report.”
Telegration has a customer service and order fulfillment department, which holds biweekly conference calls with carrier reps to “go over all the orders in the funnel, with an overhead projector and we all have wireless laptops out e-mailing people as we go through.” Similarly, X4 has carrier specialists in the operations group that do conference calls to go through open orders on a weekly basis, as does TBI.
Success also is a question of leveraging the institutional knowledge that comes with being so involved. “We have a large back office with human beings that know products and carriers,” says Mercer. “A lot of the time, they know the carriers better than the carriers know themselves. We often deal with carriers telling us we’re wrong, then us having to say that it’s their mistake. There’s no machine that can do that.”
Nautilus augments the manual processes. It lets people within MicroCorp reach out to subagents and “stay on top of them,” says Knocke. A dashboard shows where the order is in the process as it proceeds from one milestone to the next, giving the status and whether it’s within acceptable limits so that agents can take action if it isn’t. “And when you put in or check on an order, you can put in a follow-up note and copy whoever needs to be copied,” says Knocke. “Channel manager? Agent? Information only? So you can broadcast out the information as needed.”
Knocke says that because of the nature of the business, it’s impossible to completely automate everything. “We’re not processing, say, thousands of identical wireless phone orders a day, justifying a transactional connection,” he says. “What we sell requires a much more hands-on approach.”
While provisioning is a complex, challenging area for master agents, some see changes afoot that will ease some of the current pain.
Shepstone says the merger fallout is showing signs of abating, for instance. “While AT&T is still essentially five different companies, we’re starting to see better processes and consistent contracts across the organization,” he notes. “The Verizon and MCI merger went very well and the integration was fast. XO was the worst carrier we had for provisioning problems a year ago. But then they convened an advisory board and now they have one of the best programs. It took about nine months for people to take a chance on XO again.”
Many master agents are pushing for tighter systems integration. “Increased electronic bonding between the master agent and the carrier is going to rise up as one of the top two or three strategic imperatives to make channel sales more efficient,” says Tydings.
Bradley says he would, at least, like to see more information offered within the existing carrier portals. “Carriers are not always upfront about why the provisioning is delayed,” he explains. “It should say it’s an LNP issue because a CLEC isn’t giving up the lines, or that it’s a CPE problem, so that we know what the issue is and can communicate that back to the customer.”
Knocke is working on getting better benchmarks on carrier performance. “If the service level is not where it should be to make customers happy, we want to have the facts to compare carriers, and so tell them when they’re falling behind the norm. It helps the whole industry get better.”
Tydings says the ability to make it through the fulfillment gauntlet will ultimately lead to changes in the competitive landscape, as well.
“The upshot of carriers’ current inefficiencies in provisioning and other operations could be that the stronger master agents are best equipped to tackle the problems with the carriers, and thereby, will hasten some consolidation of the pure master agent ranks,” he notes. “Other direct sale agents will focus more on selling and leave the true master agent duties up to the masters with the capabilities.”
|AB&T Telecom www.abttelecom.com
MicroCorp Inc. www.microcorp.com
Telecom Brokerage Inc. www.tbicom.com
World Telecom Group www.wtgcom.com
X4 Communications www.x4communications.com