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Agency Channel: Supplier Support

Posted: 03/2000

Supplier Support:
Deal Maker or Breaker
By Jill Collins

While a competitive rate is important, the support provided to agents can make or break
a supplier relationship. Support can include an attentive agent manager, on-time
commissions, an Internet password-protected website, timely provisioning or anything in
between.

Independent agents need to know what support to expect and what perks might be
available for choosing one vendor over another.

"If you don’t get the support or time of day from the suppliers, you end up not
doing business with them," says Jim Myers, president of Cleveland-based master agency
Intelcom Advantage Inc. "My customers are my lifeblood, so if my customers are not
taken care of, there’s a problem and I need to go elsewhere.

"So is price everything? No. Customer service, customer support and support for
myself and my company are the first concerns."

By definition, independent agents need to do as much on their own as possible. While
they get some benefits from this arrangement–being the boss and having unlimited income
potential–they also give up employee perks, such as health benefits and a guaranteed
income.

Because of the risks they take, they need a certain level of support from their
suppliers, agents say.

"As an independent agent, what I want my source to do is provide all the
functions, to cut my overhead to nothing," says Bill Stevens, managing director,
Mayfair Group Inc., Oak Park, Ill. "That’s the beauty of the agency business. When
you’re talking about an independent agent, let’s make him independent."

Hands-On Agent Management

Because independent agents are on the outside looking in, they need an insider to speed
the process along. A must-have in the agent world is someone to look out for you, and who
is concerned that you and your customers receive attention and proactive service.

Agents need an attentive, dedicated, hands-on agent manager who will go out of his way
to induct a new agent into the business by going on sales calls, is available by phone,
and who returns calls within 24 hours or less.

"You’ve just got to call your agents back," says Shawn Kadric, senior
agent support manager for reseller OneStar Long Distance Inc. (www.onestarld.com). "[Work] can be done through
the Internet, but a lot of [the agents] just prefer to call. I think they like to feel
they’re a part of our company even though they’re independent agents … like they’re part
of the bigger picture."

Vice president of master agency Visioncom Inc., Finland, Minn., Jay Lewis believes
agent managers are the most critical part of this business. Without a good one, "you
might as well just take the life preserver off and sink," he says.

Myers adds he believes the most important agent support issue is attentiveness.
"When I call in I want somebody to respond," Lewis says. "I don’t want to
have to wait forever. I like a personal relationship with whoever I do business with so I
can get a hold of them and they can get a hold of me. We can solve issues or customer
problems or whatever is happening that day."

The President and CEO of master agency World Telecom Group
(www.commerceconsultingcorp.com) Vince Bradley agrees. "The fact that the agent
management is not overworked and has time to develop the agents and work with them is
really important. And the individual agent wants to know he can call his agent manager and
the agent manager won’t be too busy to help him out. The involvement of the agent manager
is very important."

Timely Information

In addition to hands-on agent management, agents require timely and accurate account
information.

"What [agents] need most is accurate information about their customers," says
Doug Boyce, controller/agent manager, Spring Valley Marketing Group LLC (www.svmg.com). "That is the one sore spot all agents
and master agents have to work with because not all the carriers provide easy access to
that information."

One of the most efficient and common ways suppliers communicate with their agents is
via e-mail or a password-protected website. Agents can dial into the Internet and retrieve
customer information immediately (as posted), including receipt of order, efficiency of
order (are there paperwork mistakes that will thwart provisioning?), ANI status, credit
approval/denial, provisioning verification, etc.

Agents also should be able to retrieve their own commission data via e-mail or
Internet, such as automatic commission calculation, audit trails and a payable report for
their subagents. Forms and written procedures, including order entry, should be
facilitated over the Internet, they say, pooh-poohing the long-held practice of faxing
forms.

Provisioning Follow-Up

After an initial order is received, debate arises on what the provider’s duty is versus
the agent’s duty, regarding order and provisioning follow-up.

Is it the carrier’s responsibility to follow up on the information, or is it the
agent’s?

"I assume [the providers] are going to take care of it, but do I think it’s going
to be taken care of in a timely manner and followed through? Yes. Everybody should assume
that," says Myers. "But I don’t take it for granted. I follow my accounts almost
per line on a weekly basis to make sure they get up and provisioned correctly."

Master agency Spring Valley Marketing Group, for example, has a system to help follow
provisioning and ensure activation. According to Boyce, the company has three departments
to aid its subagents in fulfilling orders: activation, switched customer service and
dedicated customer service.

"In order to compensate for what we feel is sometimes an inadequate supply of
information, with what information we do get, we religiously verify it,"
explains Boyce.

Bradley believes post-sale follow-up from the provider should at least consist of
pulling customer service records (CSRs) and immediate website or e-mail notification of
receipt of order, missing information, provisioning verification, credit approval and
online order status.

Financial Support

Whether it is the provider’s or agent’s responsibility to do post-sale follow-up on an
order, no questions remain as to who is responsible to pay the bills. Quite simply, the
No. 1 item independent agents want from their suppliers is to be paid their commissions on
time.

Independent agent Mike Dan, West Palm Beach, Fla., would like to see commissions roll
in for the life of the customer, not the life of the contract, and a protecting evergreen
clause.

"I’d love to find a carrier with an evergreen clause that protects the agents just
as the carrier will protect its top-level employees with golden parachutes," says
Dan.

Bradley adds that equity offering by a provider is a key part of the total compensation
package. Bradley’s primary provider, PaeTec Communications Inc. (www.paetec.com), has a stock warrant program, which he
says is an important perk.

"[Equity] is very important to our channel," he says.

What’s not part of the compensation package can be as critical as what is,
agents say. Stevens, for example, does not want a supplier to expect him to accept
bad-debt charge backs.

"I don’t want to take a credit risk," says Stevens. "Otherwise you’re
taking the risks without the rewards."

Agent Training

A sure sign of a supplier’s commitment to the agent channel is its training philosophy.

"I wish there was more training available with the new technologies to better
educate agents so they can sell," says Dan. "Years ago agents were equal in
knowledge to [company] employees when it came to long-distance resale. But today, between
high-speed data and local resale, agents need to be 100 percent trained as well as company
employees, to do as good a job as the companies want them to do. And if the companies
don’t train the agents, who does?"

Bradley’s master agency World Telecom Group, for example, has had half-day agent
training sessions every six weeks. It plans to increase that to once a month. Each year
the subject has changed; 1998 was data; 1999 was local: and this year it will be Internet
applications.

To bring this training to its agents, World Telecom Group looks for support in its
suppliers.

"We’re really concerned about education," says Bradley. "We try to look
for companies that are super detail oriented and that are concerned about all their
products being understood. In looking at the delivery of the information, it’s an
indicator as to how they’re going to be to work with.

Bradley advises agents to look for these detail-oriented companies that offer marketing
literature and contracts that include all relative information.

"I think in looking at contracts that you can look at the basic package they give
you and tell right away, are these guys detail oriented? Or are they just looking to make
a buck? There’s a huge array or spread of variance in between those."

Jill Collins is agent channel editor for PHONE+ magazine.


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