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Relationship Management and the Master Agent

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John SiefertBy John Siefert

So I have been working in and around the technology field for my entire career — and I am approaching my 20th year. I have seen a ton of change, innovations, mergers, stock market bubbles, phonies and utter brilliance. As I moved into a new phase of my career almost two years ago as the CEO of VIRGO, I found myself diving deeper into the channel market of technology and carrier services via the Channel Partners brand at our company. It's a very interesting area I was familiar with, but not deep into, as I was with the IT enterprise space.

Diving into the category and learning from my colleagues leading this “network" (our term for a business unit) at our company, I quickly saw that much of this space has been dominated by the master agents — companies that serve as a filter between the agent selling services, and the carriers providing them. At first, I figured this was a typical tiered distribution model, but I quickly learned it is much more. Master agents, many of whom I have gotten to know in the last 18 months, play a pivotal role in managing the relationship between a carrier and the agent selling their services. No matter what tier the carrier or service provider falls into, it is imperative that the master set proper expectations with agents selling the services, and guarantee the providers/carriers follow through on their obligations to the agent selling.

The obvious thing here is money. The best masters ensure the terms they agree upon with providers are carried through to the agents they represent. Those masters also guarantee their agents are packaging and selling the services in ways the providers can deliver.

The one constant in this equation is the need for relationships built on trust, respect, execution and strategy. And as everyone reading this knows, that is much easier said than done. I do not mean to play favorites in this post, but I have to say that I have been able to watch one master agent do this in a way that aligns all of those things, without losing sight of the fact that the best relationships also bring people together so they get to know each other personally. I have witnessed PlanetOne do this multiple times — at our Channel Partners show, during their own events and via special outings that connect agents and carriers.

Recently I joined Ted Schuman, CEO of PlanetOne, a group of providers and a handful of agents at the Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Ariz. Though I was sort of the odd guy out, as I am not a provider or an agent, I got to witness the type of relationships that take root in this environment. It was obvious that some people already knew each other, but I also saw many people meeting for the first time. In a mix of fun and camaraderie, I also witnessed some in-depth discussions about what customers are looking for from agents and what new services are available to meet those needs.

Further, I listened in on some conversations about the conversations agents are having with their customers. I found this really interesting, as I heard the channel chiefs discussing strategic business points that the end users are facing, and saw agents' heads nodding in agreement. Then, agents described the deals they are working on, and the channel chiefs gave feedback from their companies' points of view. I thought, “OK, this goes beyond the fun part of the day and literally gets into some of the real-world issues these folks are dealing with." That got me inspired and is a key reason why I decided to write this post.

When you are gathering people like Chris Gellos, MegaPath's senior vice president of sales, and Shane McNamara, XO's channel chief, you are bound to have some good discussions. But the role PlanetOne plays in this process is to enable the conversations, and help the relationships to build and grow. Realistically, other masters do the same, but I have seen an aggressive effort from Ted and his team to foster this approach.

Taking this a step forward, and seeing the role that PlanetOne executives, beyond Ted, play in this process, is critical as well. For example, I witnessed Lauren Shapiro, PlanetOne's vice president of operations, actively connecting channel chiefs — including tw telecom's Dale Kammerich, Windstream's Dan Sterling and EarthLink Business' J.R. Cook — with agents. Shapiro went out of her way to ensure that agents at the event were able to talk about their experiences as they work with customers.

Putting this into perspective, I think the real key here is that masters such as PlanetOne continue to invest in the connection they enable between agents and providers. As the services get more complex — for example, the rise of the cloud — these relationships will be mandatory to ensure that end users get what they need from the agents, and that providers are able to scale and sell these services.

Kudos to PlanetOne and other master agents who take the time and care to cultivate these connections. As you can see, I snapped a few photos of the recent PlanetOne event from the 16th hole at the beautiful TPC Golf course in Scottsdale! This, by the way, is the only way to watch the Phoenix Open — RUN CADDY RUN!!!

John Siefert has been the CEO of VIRGO since 2010, when he joined the company after a 15-year career with United Business Media where he ran the InformationWeek Business technology Network. Siefert is responsible for the strategic direction at VIRGO where he works with the executive management team on content, web, event, financial and operational performance. His expertise is in transitioning traditional media organizations into multimedia information distribution companies that align the content being delivered with the context of the delivery vehicle — be that in digital, print or face-to-face environments, while optimizing content marketing programs that enable powerful return for advertisers and sponsors.

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