Qwest Channel Chief Delivers 2010 Report Card

Capping his first full year as channel chief for Qwest Communications International Inc., Blake Wetzel last week delivered a 2010 report card for Qwests Business Partner Program that was by his own admission a departure; instead of the customary graphs slicing and dicing partners sales performance, he took a decidedly introspective look at  QBPPs operational performance for its partners.

We are pretty happy with what we did operationally,” Wetzel told more than 300 partners attending its annual partner meeting, Q.Marketplace 2011, held in Denver last week. We set a good foundation going forward. We have what we need to grow aggressively.”

Qwest Channel Chief Blake WetzelWetzels focus on operational gains should come as no surprise. Prior to being named vice president of sales for QBPP in August 2009, Wetzel was the carriers director of national customer care and sales support for Business Markets Group. Most of his focus there was on making things work. And, making things work better at QBPP was going to be his new job.

My job was to listen to our partner community to find out what we could do to strengthen ourselves and to continue to advance us as an organization. So, we collectively Qwest and our partner community can grow and aggressively grow,” Wetzel said in his address.

Wetzel engaged the partners in driving improvements in collaboration with Qwests internal teams in part by restructuring the QBPP partner advisory council to include three subgroups covering got-to-market, technology (product and road map) and operations.

We wanted to fix what you said we needed to fix. We have adapted our program on that feedback. I am excited about what we were able to accomplish in 2010,” Wetzel said.

QBPP Ben Humphreys, president and CEO of agency Comtel Communications and vice chairman of the Agent Alliance, a buying consortium of 17 agencies, told Channel Partners that Wetzel did what he said he was going to do.” This statement echoes Wetzels promise to agents when he took the job and again in his 2011 address: I have a fundamental principle: I do what I say I am going to do.”

Wetzel said partners were most concerned about improving relationships with Qwests direct sales force in support of Qwests channel integration strategy. He said the company began by understanding why the relationships were breaking down and worked to rebuild trust between the organizations, in part by improving communications and by aligning decision-making between both direct and indirect. The level of issues that we have have dropped dramatically because we are working together,” he said.

He pointed to greater control over compensation hits as well as improved communication with the direct branch offices among the gains made in this area. He also said that new rules of engagement will be issued by the end of first quarter that will remove additional ambiguity. As an example, he said they will set timelines and an escalation path for review of forms requesting channel integration so that they will be routinely completed before the sale and not languish in a queue. In addition, they will normalize three sets of rules covering direct-indirect and region-to-region into one.

In what Wetzel describes as an incredible leap” for Qwest, the company has even begun looking at partners as a primary sales force as part of its market expansion plans. We took seven markets where we did not have direct sales force and the partners are our single sales force in that market. Thats a huge step for us. It kind of breaks our [channel integration] model, but it was successful in those markets,” Wetzel said. The seven markets in the expansion program included the Dakotas, two markets in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and two markets in Southern Virginia. 

In response to a question from a partner, Wetzel said that channel integration on the state government/education level is possible now, and they are working on developing partnerships with the federal government team. Its in progress; its very complicated. I hope to see more progress in 2011,” he said.

Pricing inflexibility was also a concern. We had to evaluate how we thought about pricing, how we approached pricing and how we went to the market aggressively,” Wetzel said, noting partners requested the carrier be faster and more creative. He said the pricing and offer management (POM) group has given the sales forces more control, such as field discretion pricing with two-hour approval time. As another example of the change in mindset was that Qwest renamed its discretion management organization as EZ Pricing. We got a mindset of being aggressive,” Wetzel said, encouraging partners to Tell us the price points we need to win.”

Compensation historically an area of contention between Qwest and its partners was also revisited with an eye to understanding why decisions were made and whether they were the right decisions. We re-evaluated decisions and reversed one of the significant ones  on regulated service renewals,” he said, referring to a June 1, 2010, change rolling back a 2009 reduction in the commission percentage on renewal orders on in-region local by 2 percentage points, effectively lowering a 14 percent commission to 12 percent. Agents had argued the policy created a disincentive to renew accounts and that as a result they would consider moving business to other carriers that paid full rate on renewals.

In keeping with the more aggressive approach, the carrier also improved its short-term incentives with quarterly promotions. It also looked at encouraging longer-term partnerships. The results of that deliberation were creation of the Premiere Elite partner tier for QBPP members with a monthly revenue commitment of $2.5 million and also the Million-Dollar Bonus Program, which promises $1 million to any agent that grows their business with Qwest by $2 million in the next five years. I want to write a lot of million-dollar checks. …We have a lot of partners that are on a good path to get to that,” Wetzel said. He declined to disclose the number of agents who have achieved Premiere Elite members, but noted there are several.

On the product front, Wetzel said partners were consulted about the companys product strategy. In particular, he pointed to input from the technology committee of the QBPP advisory council. They might have gotten tired of us asking for feedback,” Wetzel joked, noting they consulted with product teams on SIP, cloud/SaaS strategy and contract vehicles. Our product group is coming to us as they are ideating phase and they reach out to us and say, Lets talk to the partners because they know what else is out there in the market. They can help us position this right so that when we go to market, it will sell.” Qwests compute-on-demand product will be coming out within the first half of 2011.

Similarly, the partners were consulted and trialed company tools to streamline sales processes, including the addition of a contract generation tool to automate contract creation, an e-signature option for LOAs and the deployment of across the sales organization. The contract tool and e-signature options, which were rolled out in second half of 2010, are designed to cut cycle time; the e-signature has cut 3.7 days as an example, Wetzel said., a companywide initiative, began rolling out in December region by region and is expected to be completed in May. Significantly, partners are on-boarded along with the direct sales force, Wetzel said. He noted that some agents were involved in trialing the system as well. is a huge migration,” Wetzel said. Its important for partners because for the first time, they are using the same tools as the direct side.” And, he added, its another major example of how Qwest is considering partner in the decisions it makes.

The CRM system is not meant as a way to keep tabs on salespeople, Wetzel noted. Instead, he described it as a way to improve workflow and communications. We see it as making our jobs easier,” he said, explaining that having accessible information will enable Qwest to proactively address problems like stalled quotes or orders. If we are communicating and making information transparent, we can make better decisions,” he said, noting inefficient back-and-forth e-mail communication should stop.

Finally, Wetzel said Qwest is looking forward to developing more creative and new types of partnerships in 2011. To this end, he challenged existing partners to come up with ideas. As an example, he told Channel Partners that Qwest is partnering with applications providers and approaching customers as a team.

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