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A Winning Proposition

THE SALES CYCLE IS ALMOST a gauntlet: Between working hard prospecting for new business and finally getting the order, theres a long road fraught with any number of pitfalls. And maybe the most intimidating hurdle is the proposal. Fortunately, more automated and user-friendly tools are coming to the table to help channel partners do their best in the proposal process.

A salesperson lives and dies by reputation and the first impression. If the proposal is shoddy, the customer may not take you seriously. Worse, if the quote is not what theyre looking for, theyll turn to someone else who can meet their needs. In any event, you can kiss referrals, repeat business and, in many cases the sale itself, goodbye if that proposal isnt up to snuff.

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Bandwidth.coms portal is oriented around streamlining the sales process for partners and allows online quotes.

Moreover, proposals increasingly are becoming a way to differentiate oneself. A customized proposal, comparing two or three options that is created quickly and accurately and offers ways to make doing business with the channel partner easier can make the difference between the client going with Agent A or the guy or gal down the street.

Unfortunately, all of that is easier said than done. Putting together a proposal takes plenty of manual work behind the scenes. For instance, in presenting more than one provider option, agents wrestle with the fact that providers have different brand names for the same product, which makes doing a fair comparison tricky. And, with all the variables involved in a communications sale these days, the scope often extends out from just comparing apples to apples. The VAR needs to be able to have access to a complete, converged solution, one that is more comprehensive than the one that is being offered by the VAR across town, says Gabe Auble, manager of channel development for Bandwidth.com. Research has shown that a business wants to get their communications solution from one provider and that they look to their VAR primarily for assistance and advice. The VAR needs to be able to bundle the hardware, professional services and telephony services, or the customer will buy from someone who will.

Also, in the telecom business, just getting quotes to build the proposal on can bog down the process, reflecting poorly on the agent. In the last round of research, two carriers we contacted were AT&T and Verizon, says John Macario, president at Savatar, a customer/ partnership relationship management company. It took seven weeks and six weeks, respectively, to go from our initial phone call to actually getting a quote [for a VoIP solution] from them. If its taking six weeks to get a quote, imagine the expectation that that sets up in the SMBs mind as to how easy its going to implement.

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StreamServe offers users several ways to customize electronic document presentment.

Another challenge for the agent when crafting a proposal is the fact that pricing and paperwork normally expire after 30 days. Customers do not always make a decision that quickly, says Kathy Held, COO at master agency Association Resource Group. So we have to ensure that the customer always has the current pricing and paperwork in front of them.

Fortunately for agents, more tools are becoming available to help automate the process. While electronic quoting engines are far from the norm, some third-party software makers, master agencies and even the occasional carrier are starting to make available electronic forms, online quote capabilities and automatic approval routing and other new functionalities.

Vertek Corp., for instance, offers managed solutions that agents can leverage to build cost, revenue and customer margin analysis into the proposal in a streamlined way. It has the capability to help partners whip up a side-by-side comparison of several suppliers. Our flexible analytic reporting tools empower salespeople to consider and more accurately factor variable costs, revenues, profit break-points and pricing options into their customer proposals, says Tom Nolting, senior director of financial assurance at Vertek. The general trend has been to push more information to assist in designing, configuring and pricing customer offerings, closer to the sales channels and partners. In some cases, salespeople are provided training and tools to match requirements with more custom solutions and delivery specifications.

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ARG offers its own proposal format to showcase its customization efforts.

Such capabilities also allow the agent to take a one-on-one marketing approach, to really target the messaging to the potential client. Personalization goes beyond just the main document to also cover available inserts, which can be selectively limited to only those that are relevant to that customer at that time, says John Rueter, chief marketing officer for StreamServe. Such unexpected attention to detail and individual customization improves the customer experience, has a positive effect on the customer satisfaction, and is more likely to result in the broadening the customer relationship through up-sell and crosssell opportunities.

StreamServes Enterprise Document Presentment (EDP) allows salespeople to personalize sales messaging based on the recipient profile, across a scope of customers, suppliers and business partners. It also can consolidate information into fewer documents, which can then be delivered electronically.

Distributors are starting to build tools that help channel partners do their jobs quickly and easily, with automation a byword. In our case, our online portal [to support VARs] is centered around availability, pricing, contracts, order status and then finally, commission tracking, says Auble. The goal for the portal is for a VAR rep to be able to spend less than 30 minutes using the site and then to be able to completely navigate it on his/her own. We know that with all of the SKUs that compete for a VARs attention, a VAR will be able to price, propose and sell SIP trunks only if he can do so quickly.

Since carriers, for the most part, have not allowed channel partners to hook into their systems electronically to enable online quoting, master agency World Telecom Group (WTG) has added its own proposalquality quote ability into its PartnerEdge portal, consolidating carrier information behind the scenes. This is the leading-edge automation of the pre-sales process in the industry, says Vince Bradley, president and CEO at WTG. While other systems focus more on post-sales, we felt that focusing on helping our agent partners with quotes and other pre-sales features [was critical].

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The anatomy of a WTG Instant Quote

Some other agencies are turning to bespoke software to meet the need for online quotes. We input the pricing into our own proposal format [for agents], says Held. The ability to do everything online means a lot to an agency like ARG. [But] we are also investigating software that would allow us to import the customers bill and the output is a detailed analysis of what the customer is currently paying, including all the miscellaneous surcharges. Today, we are doing this function manually. The software would make us much more efficient and allow us to prepare more proposals with the same amount of manpower.

More timesaving options for automation are on the horizon. Eventually, WTG will allow auto-population of order forms. By only having to enter customer data once and have it replicate throughout all paperwork with product pricing and information, agents can become extremely efficient, says Bradley. By automating the pre-sales process, agents free themselves up to focus on what is important to them: customer relationships.

Ease of use for the customer is another requirement thats increasing in focus. WTGs tool, for instance, also allows agents to e-mail quotes. Once an agent e-mails the quote to the customer, the client can choose which provider they want to sign up with electronically.

Customers love the automated responses as it is incredibly efficient, says Bradley. They also appreciate not having to wait for snail mail to get the proposals.

Such ease of use also lets a channel partners sharpen his or her image as the go-to person for any communications need. [The fact] that they are going to be able to provide every aspect to their telecom system allows them to focus on being a law firm, or a car dealership or a general contractor, Auble says. Its less important whether its one page or two, or whether pricing is itemized and in what order.

Links
Association Resource Group www.myarg.com
Bandwidth.com www.bandwidth.com
Savatar www.savatar.com
StreamServe www.streamserve.com
Vertek Corp. www.vertek.com
World Telecom Group www.wtgcom.com

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