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Automation in Moderation

IN AN ON-DEMAND world, the mantra seems to be automate or die. At the same time, it is important to maintain that human touch. Carriers and master agencies are accomplishing these seemingly opposite aims by rolling out partner Web portals with functionalities such as instant quote generation, access to commissions information and sales tools, and the ability to track orders, all the while keeping a human face on their operations.

Our distribution channel is getting very sophisticated, explains Tom McCrosson, CEO of BCN Solutions Express, a master agency selling telecom and network services. Several months ago, BCN upgraded its agent extranet to give users near-real-time provisioning status, order entry and sales information, as well as downloadable support literature and order forms. Agents already were able to create a number of reports, and work with some quoting capabilities, but BCN wanted to augment its site to keep up with an industry that is speedily evolving. No longer operating in a long-distance world, agents now sell converged products and services, prepaid calling cards, broadband access, local loops and more. The product mix has changed and you really have to change your portal to address those concerns, McCrosson says.

The portals must change, but some things must remain the same. Nothing can replace the presence of a person when it comes to helping an agent close a deal, generate an accurate quote or pinpoint troubles with commissions. Views on how much a process should be automated or manual vary. Some companies prefer to fully automate smaller job requests and attend to large ones with a team of people. Some companies manually generate all quotes to ensure prices stay in line with services for example, to prevent an agent from underestimating a quote just to win a bid.

To wit, master agency World Telecom Group (WTG) in mid-2005 introduced its partner portal PartnerEdge, which creates instant quotes. Last fall, WTG bolstered PartnerEdge with the Killer APP (Affiliate Partner Program) because agents were turning down too much business. Vince Bradley, WTGs president and CEO, says partners were spurning deals because they did not have the time and energy required to keep their arms around getting all the information required to effectively work opportunities from various lead sources. They also often lacked the resources to formulate the right solutions for potential clients, he adds. The Killer APP corrects those problems. Among other tasks, the software sets up subagent codes so associates can enter opportunities into the system and let PartnerEdge churn out quotes. Subagents only see an agents or their own logo, meaning WTG remains transparent to the user.

The agency automates a number of processes, but WTG also has assembled a team of people it calls WTGForce! to support partners throughout the pre-sales grind on medium-to-large accounts. Larger accounts, Bradley says, require more human intervention. While we feel there is a strong need in the industry for automation on small accounts which PartnerEdge is a solution for we conversely feel the need for a personal touch with project management on large accounts, he explains.

TNCI, a reseller, lies at the other end of the spectrum. The company has enhanced its TNCI Agent Access portal because so many agents were calling the corporate offices looking for quote and commissions information. The changes, called Workflow, benefit both TNCI and its partners, says Scott Armstrong, vice president of sales. The site gives agents the power to surf for instant quotes and commissions data, send e-mails to the accounting department which will respond within a certain time frame and view accounts and customers bills. At the same time, TNCI has been able to transition from reacting to issues to becoming much more proactive, especially in the areas of activations and customer care, Armstrong says.

TNCI partners had been pressing for the changes the company implemented, and Armstrong says those upgrades have been nothing but positive. If youre not fully automated by now I think youre definitely behind the ball and its going to be tough to catch up, he says. Agents are getting used to having an automated process … and now I think [they] really question the credibility of who theyre dealing with if it isnt a fully automated process.

Conversely, Armstrong acknowledges there still are necessary manual pieces of the puzzle. For example, on dedicated orders, TNCI holds conference calls with customers, agents and vendors to review accounts. And large accounts, most of all, likely will always require manual checks and balances.

Responding to similar demand for online capabilities, Bandwidth.com, a voice and data provider, last year released its Torrent Partner Portal so partners can provision IP services without the needs for traditional backoffice people and resources.

CEO Henry Kaestner says agents told Bandwidth.com they needed to be able to price bundled services and data connectivity across multiple carrier backbones, including the last mile, in real time. This prompted the company to develop the portal. Agents also can track installation progress and order organization, Kaestner says. Torrent further allows larger partners to set business rules; for example, if a partner needs to make a certain amount of money, but just selling the product and service wont total that number, the partner can add installation charges or change the brand of router, for example, to a more expensive one that boosts the price to reach that goal.

Another bonus is that since agents can access installation tracking, they are less likely to call Bandwidth.com for that information. However, Kaestner notes that a portal needs to help the partner be more productive and efficient, but its not a complete substitute for real-world contact. We want to be able to talk to them about their larger deals, be supportive and help them, he says. Aside from bookkeeping, we dont want the portal to replace anything [concerning] relationship-building.

Other companies are using portals to let partners customize prices. ACC Business, which could not speak with PHONE+ because of unclear post-merger guidelines regarding press interviews, has been offering Sales Information Management Pricing Link, or SIMPL, to its contracted sales agents. The site allows partners to create customized pricing for data products including private line, frame relay, managed Internet service, private network transport (IP VPN), class-ofservice (voice, video and data over IP), and dedicated voice access loops.

The carrier expected SIMPL to cut the amount of time to price its data products by 70 to 75 percent.


Making Life Easier

Partner relationship management software companies RPM Software and Salestream Software Inc. are among the developers boosting front-office automation in an effort to make life easier for master agencies.

RPM Softwares latest release, RPM v3.7, gives users the ability to automatically populate order forms, client proposals, contracts such as NDAs and agent agreements, and create more custom reports on the fly. Agents then print a form, get a customer signature and fax the completed order to the carrier. Plus, customized proposals can be created with any type of branding for client presentation. Managers also now can create reports ranging from sales forecasting and trending to salesconversion ratios and performance reports.

In addition, v3.7 means an RPM customer will be able to receive commission statements automatically from any other RPM customer. Users no longer have to log on to a Web site, download commission reports and then upload data. Every month, commission statements from other master agents or carriers using RPM are available for automatic processing.

Meanwhile, Salestream has released Order Document Automation (ODA) for users of its MasterStream-MX agency automation platform. ODA normalizes all carrier ordering document requirements into a uniform interface, so users do not have to know the requirements for placing an order. Because the system retains all known and previously entered information about prospective customers, their service needs and the providers quote for the service, much of the required information automatically populates into the ODA interface.When the information is completed, the user receives completed order forms in PDF format, ready for the customers signature.

Links
Bandwidth.com www.bandwidth.com
BCN Solutions Express www.bcnsolexp.com
RPM Software www.rpmsoftware.com
Salestream Software Inc. www.salestreamsoft.com
TNCI www.tncii.com
World Telecom Group www.wtgcom.com

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