Left Behind

Attention traditional telephony agents: the VoIP train is leaving the station and you better run like hell to jump on the caboose.

I hope that visual puts your dilemma in perspective. Your providers are looking past you to other indirect partners to sell their services because you are not keeping up.

The world is changing. Your kind is being replaced. If you think VARs and interconnects are no threat, you might be half right. Most dont want to sell carrier services. Many maintain an exclusive ILEC deal just in case a customer asks for circuits and network services. The headache of dealing with multiple carriers, well thats just not their business. But convergence is their business, and they are not only attracting, but hooking up with, next-generation companies like Speakeasy, for instance. I spoke to Speakeasy execs at the recent Channel Partners Conference & Expo, and Eric Beller, director of partner programs, says his companys best sales partners are not telephony agents but data VARs.

You may be thinking: Speakeasy is no Sprint, XO or Qwest. You are right. But these traditional carriers also are moving to nextgen product sets that include SIP trunking, hosted IP PBX, managed IP PBX, unified communications, etc. Who do you think they will choose to help them move these products? Level 3 Communications has gone on record many times as a proponent of the VAR channel for distribution of its IP-based service set. Even with the addition of more traditional products through its acquisitions, the companys channel program is modeled after best practices developed in the data VAR community. Its not just that these are good program fundamentals; its that they create a familiar environment for their targeted partners VARs.

That said, I think you as a telephony agent have an advantage over VARs in the convergence environment by being familiar with a service model and a solution sale. There is no box-sale mentality in your past to overcome. The biggest hurdle aside from technical proficiency is the hands-on component of the VoIP sale. There are ways that vendors are making this easier, e.g., eliminating the needs for LAN assessments, complex installations, etc. (see related story). But its difficult to avoid this aspect of the business all together. You have to figure out how you are going to be there for your customer to install gear whether its a full-blown IP PBX, IP phones or just a gateway or IAD.

Acquire the skills. Learn them. Hire them. Partner with other companies like yours that serve other regions. Look for relationships with remote techs. Join a consortium like TAG National to find a trusted network of providers. Tap professional services firms like Endeavor Telecom and Decision One, which partner with agents as well as service providers to implement VoIP gear and services. Find alternatives to one-on-one relationships. Online marketplace OnForce, for example, lets you find and hire out techs for installs and maintenance. Paul Nadjarian, senior vice president of marketing at OnForce, spoke at the Channel Partners Conference & Expo. His companys model of linking buyers and sellers of technical field services resonated with telephony agents who are struggling with this piece of the puzzle.

So, maybe you arent cut out to sell Cisco Call Manager. I am not saying thats your only option. Go ahead and look for the companies like AccessLine, which makes selling hosted VoIP service about as easy as it can be. Or, partner with providers that are bringing a turnkey service to the table. That only makes good sense for the short term, but dont leave it at that and call it a day. Make convergence your business and it will be the customers, not the providers, that will do the choosing. And, you wont get left behind.

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