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TAG: Into the Breach: PRM Systems for Master Agents

Posted:
6/2003

Into the Breach: PRM Systems for
Master Agents

By Tara Seals

Partner-vendor relationship portals
and extranets have become as common as watermelon at summer picnics, but until
recently master agents could only look on longingly as partner relationship
management (PRM) vendors tailored their tools to the carrier or service
provider. Now, with the industry in transition, some vendors are giving master
agents PRM options that may be crucial to survival, and some agents have
developed their own systems. Either way, agents are finally getting a seat at
the PRM picnic table.

The idea is an obvious one: Master
agents can automate everyday needs such as order entry and product information,
providing online versions of sales processes. This reduces human error and makes
those processes more efficient –all while driving more profitability, an
important factor in today’s telecom business. Meanwhile, subagents benefit from
having information delivered to them when they need it without having to call
their agent managers with every order or question, which gives them more time to
sell.


MicroCorp’s Status-at-a-Glance interface

PRM vendor ChannelWave Software Inc.
this spring released a tool specifically for the telecom industry, aptly titled
"ChannelWave for Telecommunications." The solution is modular, with
"partner," "market," "sell," "service"
and "telecommunications" practice areas. The package addresses joint
marketing, lead management, team selling, order management, commissions and
other tasks with tools like an agent locator, co-marketing fund managers,
training and a recruitment advisor: essentially the entire back-office and sales
process. Unlike ChannelWave’s flagship solution, ChannelWave 5.0, implemented by
large carriers such as Qwest Communications International Inc., the new release
targets the midmarket vendor with flexible implementation and pricing options
(subscription or perpetual license, hosted or deployed on-site). The company
also is marketing the solution, for the first time, to master agents.

The system offers secure agent
access at a portal for order, billing, contracts and customer service
information. It also offers the ability to manage multiple levels of the channel
downstream.

"We saw a need in the midmarket
for this type of solution, particularly in the master agent space," says
ChannelWave spokesman John Gill. "So far the interest has been
fantastic."

Nik Nesbitt, a founding partner of
channel consulting firm MarketRace LLC, was tapped by ChannelWave to lend
insight to master agent needs. "This really fills a need by agents for
better ROI, giving them a more effective way to market their solutions," he
says.

Similarly, RPM Software offers a
tool for online commission management. The RPM Telco software was created over
the past year with extensive analysis of the commission and channel processes
used by various telecom service providers, resellers, master agents and agents.
Built entirely on Microsoft Corp.’s .NET architecture, it integrates with
third-party applications and services. The Web-based system includes modules for
commission processing, trouble issue management, supplier relationship
management and other back-office needs.

Master agency Intelisys Inc. signed
on for RPM Software’s commission and channel management software, the RPM Telco
application, as a back-office tool for partner management. "The foundation
for our success is built upon our dedication to our agent relationships,"
says Rick Sheldon, Intelisys co-founder. "We see our partnership with RPM
Software as a critical next step in the evolution of our business."

Some online PRM tools available to
master agents are not all-encompassing, but rather fill a specific need. Info
Directions Inc.’s CostGuard.NET, released in late 2002, is a revenue management
product that allows visibility into provisioning and order tracking.

"This opens up a lot of
opportunities for master agents," says Don Culeton, Info Directions’
president. "Order trending and revenue trend information can be crucial,
and the product gives them access to a full work-flow engine."

The online view into the billing
system can be particularly helpful when tracking orders made to service
providers or resellers. "Provisioning gets more complex as more services
are offered, and bundles," says Culeton. "The provider is packaging
components from a lot of different places if it isn’t facilities-based."


ChannelWave Software is targeting master agents with its solution.

To tackle the task of online PRM,
some master agents have taken things into their own hands and created
specialized custom systems. For example, the Agent Alliance, a 7-year-old
consortium of agents working together to improve the industry, will roll out a
custom proposal-generation application this year to its members. The program was
beta tested in April and May, and the alliance met recently to evaluate its
development.

"It’s just so complicated to
get things done when every master agent is adding new providers to avoid getting
burned," explains Jim Gledhill of master agency CarrierSales.com, an
Alliance member. He says with the number of different plans, commission
structures and pricing contingencies (intrastate vs. interstate, for example)
available from any one provider (one reseller, for example, has 18 different
plans), it can take days to figure out the best option for the situation and
create a sales proposal. "And you can forget figuring out if we got paid
what we should," he adds.

The custom application, written by a
dedicated development team, puts an end to the confusion by automating the
selection process. An agent simply goes to the password-protected site and types
in the customer’s information from a current bill. It then does a calculation
and brings up the programs available out of the customer’s particular central
office. The agent can sort the programs by agent commission, terms, savings, and
service or agent ratings. The starred ratings are culled from reviews of the
carrier’s plan from customers and agents, another specialized aspect of the
online program.

The agent can choose three programs,
and the system will then build a proposal, ranking the providers from best to
worst. It can insert a logo and show the possible savings. Agents also can add
attachments on usage, ratings, service overviews, billing specifications,
savings analyses or carrier information. The generator then makes a color PDF
and e-mails it to whatever e-mail address the agent specifies.

Besides reducing the proposal
generation period from days to minutes, the system also allows agents to track
commissions and see if they are being paid accurately. Master agents also can
track the number of proposals being created, so they can see who is working and
who isn’t. It also has a statistics reporting function.

"This is something everyone
needs," says Gledhill, noting the Alliance may make the program available
beyond the consortium. "We’ll probably extend it to other master agents,
and even some providers want it. We’ll get it up and rolling and see where it is
then," he says, adding the pricing may be a charge per proposal.

"This helps us manage our
agents better, and they can track their business and get support," says
Gledhill. "We don’t know where this will end up."

Similarly, Online-CSR Inc. is the
brainchild of Utah-based master agent Mitch Paluso. Launched in January, the
hosted tool is a billing audit and management interface agents can use to
minimize the time they spend on the busywork of evaluating service plans. The
company may develop the software further for use with other carriers down the
road, but for now the system is compatible only with Qwest.

"Most agents visit and do a
billing audit, and start to pull the info, and it can take between hours and
weeks to generate the proposal," says Paluso. "We noticed our agents
were making the spreadsheets, doing the proposal, closing the sale then moving
on, with no real ability to follow up because it takes a lot of time to go
through that process."

To solve the problem, Paluso hired
developers to create a Web-delivered application that imports customer service
records (CSR) from Qwest and translates the information automatically to
"plain English."

"It translates the USOCs and
field identifiers so all the charges are matched up with the right lines,"
says Paluso. The record then is available online at a password-protected site.
The user’s billing number, address and company information, description of
service and contract expiration date are included. Agents can click to edit
information, issue orders or make adds, moves and changes — and the Qwest
service desk is auto-e-mailed. After an order is entered, the tool tracks it and
automatically generates a new online CSR when it completes. Online-CSR also can
check billing for errors and can work to resolve any issues.

There are three levels of service.
The basic service simply imports and translates the CSRs, leaving it up to the
agent to review the information. It pulls CSRs twice a year. The reviewed
service pulls and loads the information, then reviews it for billing errors and
technology upgrade options. The premium service does all of the above, but
Online-CSR analysts also will do the legwork to correct any billing errors,
automatically.

The service is priced on a
per-month, per-CSR basis, with volume discounts. An hourly fee of $80 is imposed
for the recovery of overbilling. Paluso suggests that agents try to sell the
service to the customer as a professional service.

Brad Miehl, from master agency
MicroCorp Inc., also has invested in a custom PRM system, LDdirect.com.
MicroCorp unveiled new functionalities for the year-old portal this spring.
"Now you can see the status on accounts across vendors," says Miehl.
"And you can click to drill down to the more specific."

The portal is based on Microsoft
.NET. It gives subagents a Web portal for entering orders, tracking customer
usage, creating e-proposals, customer care and following trouble tickets. It
ties in with carriers’ Web services, pulling from rates databases or tying to an
extranet.

Now, the system also can show which
accounts are not paying their bills, it manages the commission system, offers
training modules and has a "smart site" function. The latter means the
subagent sees a customized view that offers cross-selling suggestions. It keeps
track of the agent’s vertical market and customer base and creates a prospect
list from the agent’s customer’s customers, peers and partners.

Like the Agent Alliance program, the
system reflects the agent industry’s transition towards diversity. "We’re
adding things like a digital printing ASP application with HP, where customers
can upload graphics into the ASP package, can customize the name and go,"
says Miehl. "It also demands bandwidth. With one portal to manage all
services, you can see the cross-sell opportunities."

By the end of the year Miehl plans
to add integration with carrier and service provider customer care systems, to
let agents send information back and forth in real time.

Whether the PRM system is bought or
built, master agents agree some sort of back-office automation and sales tool
portal is necessary to thrive in the competitive world of channel sales.

"Not only will our own
operational effectiveness be significantly enhanced, [this] will allow us to
empower our agents to deliver additional value to their customers," says
Intelysis’ Sheldon. "Extending … [this] functionality to our agents will
offer them a competitive differentiator in a crowded marketplace."

LINKS
CarrierSales.com www.carriersales.com
ChannelWave Software Inc. www.channelwave.com
Info Directions Inc. www.infodirections.com
Intelisys Inc. www.intelisyscorp.com
MarketRace LLC www.marketrace.com
MicroCorp Inc. www.microcorp.com
Online-CSR Inc. www.online-csr.com
RPM Software www.rpmsoftware.com
Trans National Communications International Inc. www.tncii.com


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