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Independent Channel Utopia

What if agents could design the perfect alternate channel organization? Id like to give it a shot. While Im not presumptive enough to think I will cover all the bases in this article, I hope my comments inspire carriers to make some of these suggestions a reality.

Why me? I have been in the telecommunications business since 1991. With 16 years experience under my belt, Id like to think I have seen it all, or at least most of it. I remember the days of 15- cent long-distance, faxing orders, transitioning to data and carrier reorganizations (i.e., bankruptcies). It has been quite a ride.

While the premise of this article is driving change, I am confident the channel has a bright future and will continue to be a viable distribution arm for the telecom carriers for years to come. Its incumbent on agents and carriers to ensure that outcome.

While on the one hand, agents often are frustrated with the carriers propensity to create large personnel organizations, on the other hand, we can help them avoid that. And, it is in our best interests to keep costs as low as possible for our suppliers. Low costs allow for greater commissions and a better margin split.

Here are a few ideas I believe could help make this a reality.

One: Carriers need to be on the cutting-edge of technology. Consequently, carrier automation is a must. Agents should be able to see everything and complete most transactions with the carrier electronically. Ideally, the carriers would adopt a common EDI platform that agent organizations could connect to their back-office operating systems, making agents more efficient as well.

These portals should include:

  • Pre-sale information on pricing, literature, promotions, carrier news, etc.
  • Visibility into carrier operating systems and escalation lists for provisioning, trouble management, MACD management and billing resolution.
  • Electronic order entry.
  • Special pricing processes that are fully automated with a dashboard showing status of requests. In addition, carriers should invest in training analysts that only work with agents. Analysts should work directly with the agents so that questions can be answered promptly and efficiently.
  • Commissions with hierarchical databases showing residuals and sales spiffs in a format that is exportable for use in third-party applications.

Two: Carriers should include in their policies and procedures a first bill review. This, if done correctly, would identify billing problems, allowing for swift correction. This one step could reduce back-end resources that are all-too-often needed to clean up inevitable billing disasters. It also would serve as a check in the carrier process to ensure revenue is billing.

Three: Carriers should adopt SLAs for service to their agents. I am sure this will be perceived by some as a radical idea, but it would be worthwhile. Heres why: If my organization knew it would not take 90 days to get a billing ticket cleared with a carrier, it would be more likely to sell that carrier. If the carrier instituted an SLA that would pay us if the ticket was outstanding for more than 90 days, we would be more likely to recommend/sell a carrier knowing we would be compensated for poor performance, and thus, recoup some operating costs.

Four: Channel managers need to have a complete rework of their job descriptions. All too often, carriers have these individuals pricing, tracking orders, recruiting, solving billing problems, answering commission questions and handling escalations to name just a few. The list can go on and on.

Instead, these individuals should be focused on making deals happen, training and keeping agents up to date on the latest services and promotions. For those agents who need help selling accounts, channel managers should be available to assist.

Ultimately, carriers need to recognize that we all have choices, and properly placed attention can result in big dividends. One of our agencys carriers spent two days in our office working with our staff. Forty-five days after that visit (time investment), the supplier saw a 900 percent increase in our sales of its products. Carriers often say that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. That may be true of carriers responses to agents, but it also can work the other way around. I believe carriers that constantly present themselves and train agents will win more of the agents business.

It may be wishful thinking to expect to realize the perfect agent program, but I am hopeful this article will, at the very least, spur discussion on ways carriers can work to improve their programs and their relationships with the agent community.

Ben Humphreys is president and CEO of COMTEL Communications, a telecommunications agency based in Glen Allen, Va. He also is the 2007- 2008 chairman of the Agent Alliance, a buying consortium of more than a dozen master agencies. He can be reached at bhumphreys@comtelcommunications.com.

Links
Agent Alliance www.agentalliance.net
COMTEL Communications www.comtelcommunications.com

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