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Backstage Pass


CHANNEL PARTNER SUPPORT

portals lately have taken on a new, high-concept theme: business transparency. The idea is to help agents help themselves by granting them access to the same resources, contacts and abilities the provider or master agent has internally. Comparing the new crop of online tools to previous portal iterations is a little like comparing front-row seating for U2 with chatting backstage with Bono over a couple of pints. The former is good, undoubtedly but the latter can be life-changing.

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New Edge Networks MyEdge partner portal offers customizable views and real-time information.

In the past year, service providers and master agents alike have poured plenty of resources into upgrading their channel partner portals to include everything from sales force automation to instant proposal generators. Gone are the days when an extranet was merely a utilitarian place to view commission statements once per month or file a trouble ticket only to follow up with a call later. Now, the portal has become a main source of information, the beating heart of the partner business.

We bit off a million-dollar investment, says Chris Barton, CEO and founder at Wholesale Carrier Services Inc. (WCS). But its absolutely critical to our business. The company recently launched the PartnerNet quoting, contracting and provisioning tool after more than a year of development. The portal has four modules, TeleQuote, Contract Manager, OrderView and Revenue Manager, providing Web-based, licensed access to WCSs 80 carriers and 130 services via one consolidated contract and billing platform. Its an all-in-one place to access information needed about an account or individual deal, along with a suite of online tools for pre-sales and marketing purposes.

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Bandwidth.com strives for ease-of-use with its partner portal.

Giving partners the ability to see and interact with whats going on within accounts and processes has the clear benefit of streamlining processes and bolstering efficiency. You have to have a strategy to continue to gain market share and optimize margins in this market, or you wont be around next year, says Barton. So Im a big believer in workflow automation.

But the new wave of partner portals also empowers agents to take on post-sales customer service, a role that previously resided with the carrier or master agent.

With our new system, they can see exactly whats going on with an order, without having to call or e-mail and wait for an answer, says Daniel Lonstein, COO at AireSpring Inc. The idea is to give the partner more control and more visibility into the process, because the more transparency we can provide, the more successful we all are in serving customers. AireSpring recently updated its AGENT S.T.A.R. online portal system with the ability to track order status and the provisioning process.

Similarly, the TNCI Agent Access online portal added Workflow last year, designed to let agents and subagents track orders by customer and product throughout the TNCI system. For data and dedicated orders, Workflow allows agents to follow the orders through FOC, loop accept and install date. Users also can confirm the estimated value of an account, and determine when that order and account will begin to generate commission payments, new business bonuses and more.

We actually let partners access the customer-side data, says Len Camara, TNCIs assistant vice president of IT. So they can see all the billing information and lists of services, and can do that front-line support for their customers.

At New Edge Networks, a recent overhaul centered on agents being able to perform their own customer service. Stephanie Schoenborn, product manager at New Edge Networks, says she wants the portal to give agents the same information as internal customer service representatives. So they can now see out-of-SLA tickets, upcoming installs, missed LEC dates and so on, she explains. Its also very flexible, so they can roll up all the services under one account view. A drag-and-drop toolbar allows users to drop any page into it for easy and customized access to the information they need. On the road map is graphical mapping information to show a relational value to which customers are affected by service outages, say, or where a service is available.

Customer service capabilities for agents becomes vital in a business like WCSs, which offers the ability for its partners to mark up services. The goal is to have agents own their own base and manage their own margins, says Barton. So we have to be able to custom-price everything as it comes in, with dynamic pricing based on what sold, deal by deal, ANI by ANI and circuit by circuit. Its a very complex IT undertaking. WCS built its system to eliminate the swivel-chair effect of manually processing such requests. You cant scale and offer the 10, 15, 20 percent commissions you need to without this type of solution.

With transparency comes accountability. All this automation has a tendency to take the place of real management, but most providers strive to prevent that from happening. Bandwidth.coms portal offers a pricing engine for several backbone providers, installation tracking, online realtime CDRs and other information. But, it also makes an effort to keep the agents in touch with the human face of the company. The best part is that on each portal page, a VAR can meet the team that manages the account, says Bandwidth.com CEO Henry Kaestner. There are bios, certifications, interests … so its more than just a voice on the phone.

More importantly, partners can see the reporting structure, with contact information for the manager as well as the supervising chain, so they can refer something up the line if theres a problem. This allows them to extend accountability out, to show customers the exact chain of command and what they can and will provide them in the way of customer service, says Kaestner. Its as though they were inside salespeople.

Similarly, AireSpring users can see notes provisioning personnel have made in the file along with the contact information for each person touching the order.

As portals continue to evolve toward giving partners control, the capabilities will become further ranging. For instance, WCS soon will launch a system that agents can then deploy to their own customers or partners an end-to-end engine for customer service. We will provide what is effectively a private-labeled back office for our partners, says Barton. An enterprise customer, a third party, a reseller or agent whoever is part of that supply chain can see their part of the process. In theory, an agent could allow the customer to pull his own quotes. We will provide security, the branding and the customized view according to their specifications, across all carriers. They can look at the billing, commissioning and manage the entire supply chain, but outsource the technical functionality to us.

Master agency World Telecom Group recently revamped its portal to provide better navigation, order tracking and relational database functionality approaching a complete automation overlay, says CEO Vince Bradley. But it plans to roll out the option for agents to brand their own ecommerce Web sites to open up to their customers. That has not been here on a wide scale yet, but its coming, says Bradley. I think the industry in general can look forward to tremendous automation and visibility, with ubiquitous, intuitive navigation throughout the whole sales process. Thats where well all end up, which will radically change how we run our businesses and our value to the end user.


Sound Check

While business transparency is perhaps the biggest theme in online partner portals at the moment, the pre-sales side of customer service is also getting a lift from portal upgrades.

For instance, the Bandwidth.com portal will soon give VARs the ability to bundle in their own hardware, software and professional services with what Bandwidth.com sells when the system generates a proposal. In this, ease-of-use is a key. This is designed for the mythical 27-year-old VAR rep who may have sold other services but is not completely familiar with ours, says Bandwidth.com CEO Henry Kaestner. If its a clunky experience, he wont feel good about trusting his or her services to us.We want to give them an easy-to-use system thats scalable and allows them to defend themselves from encroaching competition by serving customers better.

Indeed, online ordering and proposal generation is a hot area of investment. Len Camara assistant vice president of IT at TNCI, says his company also plans to implement online ordering in the first quarter of 2007, so agents can sign up customers while out selling, if they wish. For us, the idea is to let them have the information and tools they need to manage their customers better. Thats the whole key right now.

That idea was also the impetus behind AireSprings Instant Advantage Proposal Generator, designed to help agents recommend the best choices at the most aggressive rates. It automatically includes seven major national network providers for dedicated long-distance service and dedicated Internet access, and integrated voice and data products, and local T1/PRI pricing on AireSprings Unified National Local Network. The system then generates a tailored proposal for the client that includes multiple provider comparisons. Once the client chooses a provider, a pre-populated order form and credit application is generated for signature and submission. The next version of the software will include the ability to generate commission statements for the master agent to send to subagents, and the ability to do complex pricing plans.

We have put a lot of IT resources into our portal strategy because its vital to the agents ability to do business, says Daniel Lonstein, senior vice president of sales and marketing at AireSpring. As an agent, its a differentiator to not have to refer the customer up the supply chain but instead to be able to answer the questions then and there.

Also to that end, master agency TelcoIQ announced the launch of Envoy this past summer, a real-time pricing engine and partner portal. Using Envoy, subagents can create detailed, branded proposals in real time for services, including T1, DS3, PRI, Integrated/Flex T1 and private lines.

There is often a requirement in the marketplace to quote several options, explains Joel Sam, co-founder and president of TelcoIQ. The overall solution they had before was very time-consuming and did not serve the customer well. Now this adds value to the agent proposition because they become more of a consultant.


Partner Portal Liner Notes

PHONE+ surveyed 88 channel-oriented companies about their partner portal strategies and came up with some interesting information.

For instance, 14 companies use outside vendor packages from RPM Software, MasterStream, AutoTask, Salesforce.com, SaleStream and Netstream, Logicware and others. But the majority of respondents have built systems using in-house staff or consultants. Also, most companies have had a portal for two or three years some for 10-plus years, others for as little as six months.

We also asked survey-takers what they consider their best portal feature. Real-time, online commission tracking was an overwhelming favorite. Online order-entry and tracking, billing integration (including, in one case, instant credit card verification via the portal) and quoting/proposal generation, along with marketing materials, also dominated the discussion.

Advanced applications are finding their ways into the portal scene. Customizable storefronts the ability to give agents their own Web site presence showed up in three surveys, and one company offers instant messaging for agents to deploy to perform customer service.

And finally, when asked the biggest reason for having a portal strategy, accessibility, relationship-streamlining and partner satisfaction topped the list, far above operational expenditure reduction.

Having an Internet portal strategy makes certain things easier and faster for the channel partner, but it is no substitute for personal customer service and the ability to reach a person you know who can help you, help you fast, and have your best interests in mind, wrote John Davis at Excel Telecommunications. Excel has a portal in place, keeps it up to date and uncomplicated. But more importantly, when a dealer has a question or wants to negotiate a deal or make a suggestion, he or she can easily reach us for personal attention.

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Source: PHONE+ online survey of 88 vendors conducted the week of Sept. 25, 2006

 

Links
AireSpring Inc. www.airespring.com
AutoTask www.autotask.com
Bandwidth.com www.bandwidth.com
Excel Telecommunications www.excel.com
Logicware www.logicware.com
MasterStream www.salestreamsoft.com
Netstream Solutions Inc. www.netstream.ca
New Edge Networks www.newedgenetworks.com
RPM Software www.rpmsoftware.com
Salesforce.com www.salesforce.com
SaleStream www.salestreamsoft.com
TelcoIQ www.technologybrokerage.com
TNCI www.tncii.com
Wholesale Carrier Services Inc. www.wcs.com
World Telecom Group www.wtgcom.com

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