Level 3 Communications Inc. is one of the service providers at the forefront of the VoIP revolution. The company is stressing the importance of partner training and certification when it comes to working with IP products and services. T@G chatted with Craig Schlagbaum, vice president of channel development, and Steve Stewart, vice president of channel programs, about how VoIP is changing the channel.
T@G: Talk to me about Level 3s contribution to the channel and how VoIP is a part of that.
As an overarching theme, Level 3 is really enabling the transformation of the telecom channel business model because were enabling partners to deliver an integrated voice and data service to enterprise customers through our technology. The agent community historically has sold switched long-distance and dedicated long-distance, and thats a fairly commoditized space. [VoIP] requires a higher degree of solutions-selling capability, and as a result, weve had to build a sophisticated program to enable those partners to actually go sell that VoIP solution.
We dont have an agent model per se we have partners who are resellers and some of them run agent programs underneath their organizations, where they have their own agents But even in those cases, those agents need to have the capability to install, to support, to build and to sell a customer on a total solution Its not a commodity sale, I guess is the punch line. Its a departure from the traditional commodity sale of the past now [agents] are having to get more sophisticated, which gives their customers more value from them. This is the big change were seeing were helping to enable that transformation.
T@G: What are some of the greatest challenges? Do agents experience hesitation in taking on VoIP as opposed to traditional services?
One of the biggest lessons learned for partners especially those who came from selling circuit-switched products is that this is a sold, not a bought, product, meaning that there is no incumbent experience in the end-user community. Customers have a lot of questions and concerns about the implementation. Circuit-switched TDM technology and even T1s and DSL people know how they work. Theyve probably got them installed today whereas voice over IP is not. Its a sold product and the programs and training that I create are designed to help empower the partner to sell this product, not just react to end-user demand.
T@G: What kind of training do you implement and focus on?
Weve decided that because of the complexity of voice over IP, we are investing heavily in instructor-led training, and only on a supplementary basis are we doing Web-based training. We have trainers who go around the country and host one-day sales training. We have three kinds of training. We have operations, technical and sales training.
My biggest investment is in the sales training. Im helping partners understand what the core curriculum objective is, the sales cycle of a voice-over-IP implementation. What are the buying criteria? What are the job titles of the people in the firm who will get involved in a decision of this magnitude? How many features should you actually promote? At what point is it good to do a demo? How do you determine if people are going to buy because of the features of VoIP, or because of the cost savings, and how do you adjust your sales pitch accordingly? Thats a very sales-centric curriculum.
T@G: So how is VoIP changing the channel model?
Lets not confuse the contract model of agency or resale with the kind of partner thats selling these solutions. What weve seen is new entrants into the market as far as channel partner species companies that are Avaya and Cisco partners that traditionally sell routers and IP phones are now using Level 3 as an enabling service provider solution so they can function as the one-stop shopping point for end-user customers.
Why it changes the model is because there are more elements than just selling the service and then turning it over to a carrier, which is a traditional agent model. A partner in this model you need to have more sophistication. You need to understand the CPE side of IP phones and edge router devices, which are a requirement of these hosted VoIP solutions. You need to understand the software side and professional services and then the telecom services.
Its really the integration of four different areas that a partner needs to be able to provide to the end customer. So, while the agent is a commission-paid model, the type of partner thats getting into this space is one thats more what Ill call a solutions provider partner thats bringing a complete, total solution.
[I]n this model as a reseller, effectively all these partners function as the carrier and service provider, and theyre integrating the combination of hardware/software professional services. [Partnering has] added a lot more elements to the sale, and its why we need to do the training we do, and its why we need to have the big, robust partner program we do. [VoIPs] not a bought product like traditional long-distance its a sold product and it requires a greater level of sophistication from the partner.
What Im seeing change is that the traditional agent model is being replaced by a higher-level solution provider model when it comes to selling voice over IP and thats exactly the kind of partners were attracting to our program.
T@G: What else should resellers and partners know about Level 3s channel program?
In the old TDM world, there werent a lot of certification requirements from RBOCs and IXCs to [be able to] sell their products. We are requiring certification, a test, and a certain number of certified people post-attending our sales and technical curriculum. Thats much more analogous to a Sun Microsystems or a Cisco model than it is to an RBOC agent model.
We felt the need to set a black-and-white bar for people to jump over, not because we want to be difficult to the partners, but because we feel some ownership of the end-user experience and want to ensure that were proficient partners in front of end users.
[I]mplementing VoIP is not simplistic.
If [competing companies] dont have certification programs today, I think they might learn the hard way in the next year that they need one, because theyll have end-user implementations that were installed by an unqualified partner that goes south and results in dissatisfaction.
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