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Pumping Up Partner Portals

IP technologies such as the cloud and managed services have brought big changes to telecom companies business models in the past couple of years. So has the need for more automated processes. Both of these evolutions have happened so fast that its perhaps been difficult for some providers and master agents to keep pace on the back end, particularly when it comes to agent portals. Even in times of growth, these have remained legacy products heavy and slow to automate certain documents. This year, however, several firms  from CSPs to developers to agencies  have updated their channel partner software with an eye toward future-proofing and partner productivity.

Expanding Portfolios. For tw telecom, the key to a portal upgrade was allowing agents to quote SIP-based voice services, Internet access and security and IP VPN products from one interface. One improvement is that agents now can validate service addresses and generate quotes for single-site businesses wanting to buy legacy and next-generation services. In a follow-up request for more details, though, the company shed little new light on what those changes mean. Our goal is to be considered a pragmatic thought leader by informing and engaging our audience on all channel-related issues,” a spokesman said.

Indeed, the prevalence of IP services is pushing more providers to include those products in their systems. That may seem long overdue but cloud and managed services seem to be the key drivers at least, that was the case for Salestream Software in its latest upgrade for its MasterStream platform. Our clients were all investing more in cloud services and needed MasterStream to reflect that,” said Salestream President Jeff Fraser. So Salestream developed the new UNITY plug-in, which lets partners quote VoIP, SIP and IP PBX services, for starters. Without UNITY, MasterStream continues to accommodate just legacy products such as Internet, PRI, POTS and integrated T1s. The problem, said Fraser, has been a programming one the technical variables and categories for traditional products were narrow and couldnt fit into the structures needed for next-generation services.

Automating Documents. But for some companies, next-generation services werent as great a driver as the general need for efficiency. That has translated into a new emphasis on paperwork completion. Within MasterStream-UNITY, for example, document automation soon will be available for agents, not just carriers. In other words, instead of requiring agents to determine which form to use, MasterStream-UNITY will generate that data. The system further will auto-populate fields if it knows the proper inputs; that means agents no longer will have to enter the same information multiple times on one form. That functionality will cut down on time spent on the computer and prevent orders from being kicked back, something that drove agents crazy,” Fraser said. Finally, when an order is complete, MasterStream-UNITY a free, automatic upgrade to MasterStream spits out all of the necessary paperwork for customers, providers and agents. For example, a hosted PBX quote that includes toll-free numbers, bandwidth, a router and some phones would likely generate the service order, credit app, RESPORG and LOA forms,” Fraser explained.

And over at Lightyear Network Solutions, quotes on the LightSource platform now can be turned into the documentation needed to process an order; that means agents dont have to re-enter data when a proposal turns into a deal. Our goal was to make the agent portal more user-friendly,” said a spokesperson for the company. In another example, Lightyear agents may download quotes as PDFs or e-mail them directly to clients, and theres the ability to request special pricing without having to go through a regional sales director anymore, speeding up the response time from the pricing team.

Customizing Platforms. Lightyear developed LightSource in-house, a method that seems to be increasingly popular as turnkey systems havent given some companies the exact features they need. In such an example, master agency Telephony Partners LLC earlier this year unveiled the system it started creating three years ago  taking off a year to focus on growth  based on custom .NET applications with a SQL back-end. Telephony Partners CEO Josh Anderson comes from that framework background and found it gave him the flexibility his company needed. For example, the platform Telephony Partners had been using inhibited communication with partners and didnt manage opportunities well as they moved from sales to commissioning. We needed some more rigid business rules in a few areas,” said Anderson.

Specifically, Telephony Partners needed to track metrics as opportunities flowed from the quoting stage to commissions to renewal. It also needed better trouble ticket management and inventory/change management. Telephony Partners did take a look at several off-the-shelf portal products but found them lacking. Most of the options were imperfect fits for what we did or were unreasonably expensive,” said Anderson. They either focused too much on quote automation, which isnt really how we work, or they lacked key commissioning capabilities.” So, the company went with its own design. One of the benefits is that partners can work on opportunities with Telephony Partners and not have to fill out complicated forms in the process. The agency made its portal more sales management-oriented, rather than product-oriented. We ask about broad requirements and basic site info, and our people fill in the blanks on the back end,” Anderson explained.

Finally, Telephony Partners also made communications with partners easier by adding e-mail and text-message alerts; an agent can request a text or e-mail message whenever a new quote is loaded for his or her opportunity, for example, or ask to be notified when commissions are paid.

So far, feedback has been positive, which was a surprise, Anderson said. I expected a lot more backlash from our agents simply because it was such as huge change.” And a number of partners already want to re-brand the system to use in their own businesses, Anderson said. Telephony Partners is testing that idea with a select number of agents and may open up the system for widespread use if all goes well. But Anderson isnt looking to compete with the MasterStreams or RPMs of the world. Thats because Telephony Partners tool, which doesnt have a name, focuses on workflow automation rather than integration with carrier systems. We’re taking the intelligence we have gathered in indirect channels and separating it out so that people can use it whether they’re agents selling telecom through us or VARs selling equipment through a distribution channel,” Anderson said.

Independent development also was crucial for master agency X4 Solutions Inc., whose new FUEL back-office system consolidates and automates internal processes and gives agents a business lifecycle management tool. X4 CIO Steve Snure told Channel Partners late last year, just before FUEL was rolled out to all subagents in early January, that the company eyed existing software vendors in the telecom channel space and couldnt find one with the capabilities or a development road map that matched the companys specifications. So, X4 settled on NetSuite, with loads of custom additions. First, FUEL ultimately will consolidate several of X4s systems, including its accounting, Web content management, e-mail broadcast and quoting/commission software. This will let X4 work off of one interface and one database. Second, X4, like some of its peers, opted for a notification feature. Agents now receive alerts about pending contract expirations, order status and opportunity status. FUEL also can correlate promotional campaigns to quotes and orders. Further, X4 agents and staff have their own dashboards” tailored to their roles and tasks.

I think what FUEL does for us internally is allow us to basically manage by exception,” said Snure. By that I mean that when things are going well, we dont necessarily need to have eyes on that. The system brings to us anything thats coming due or needs attention.” X4 CEO Steve Braverman said this was a critical feature X4 wanted to provide busy agents. Instead of having to log in to the portal, any time something happens, it gets pushed out to them via e-mail with a link” to click on to see details or take action within the portal.

Meantime, at least two other companies were on the verge of rolling out new portals for partners at press time. VoIP provider Broadvox recently bought hosted unified communications and managed VoIP operator Cypress and has since been planning to release a new tool for VARs and agents. Chad Krantz, channel chief for Broadvox, wasnt able to share specifics by Channel Partners deadline but he did say in early February that the new tool will contain vital information that a lot of the agents have been asking for.”

Similarly, the former Qwest Business Partner Program, now owned by CenturyLink, in May was slated to have finished deploying Salesforce.com throughout its entire sales organization. Salesforce.com is a huge migration,” Blake Wetzel, vice president of sales for the CenturyLink Business Partner Program, said at the then-QBPP summit in January. Its important for partners because for the first time, they are using the same tools as the direct side.” And, he added, its another major example of how the carrier is considering partners in the decisions it makes, and how its improving workflow and communications. If we are communicating and making information transparent, we can make better decisions,” he said.


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