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The Agent Channels Potential, Value





Jon Kaufman


is president and CEO of Interconnect Services Group (www.isgcom.com), a family of companies he founded in 1984 to provide high-tech telephone system solutions, giving buyers an alternative to the then-lackluster offerings of the incumbent phone companies. Kaufman has been instrumental in helping to shape todays telecom community, and T@G talked with him in August for his views on issues ranging from master agents to consultative selling.


T@G:


How long have you been in telecom, and what drew you to the industry in the first place?

Kaufman:

I have been in the industry for about 25 years, starting on the hardware side. I always had an interest in technology and a good grasp for it. The wonderful thing is, with the complexity of the multitude of todays telecom/datacom applications, my background allows me to work the most complicated deals with agents and end users and provide value to the equation.

T@G:

Youre known for having helped some of todays prominent agents get their start who are some of those agents and what about their accomplishments makes you most proud?

Kaufman:

When we got into the long-distance market, virtually no one recognized the potential and value of the agent channel and as a consequence, we had many of todays high-profile successful agents but Im not allowed to give them free publicity (chuckling). We also had even more under-the-radar types, agents who generated, and continue to generate, substantial volume. I have watched with admiration how many agents have become more sophisticated in remaking the industry-marketing paradigm and the perspective that other carriers hold toward the channel. At the same time, I have been gratified that at a time when agents have more options than ever, many have stayed loyal or have returned to ISG.

T@G:

Its a broad question, but, what do you pinpoint as three or four of the most significant changes that have taken place in telecom since you started?

Kaufman:

The loss of dominance of AT&T. In the beginning, we started as an SDN reseller because most commercial accounts would not consider any other carrier. Today, with a myriad of options, its more about the credibility and value proposition of the salesperson and the entity behind him. As a consequence, were getting footholds into accounts with multi-carrier solutions like never before. Its ironic that the countdown for AT&T to be acquired has begun.

The Telecom Act of 1996 and capital markets explosion- I see these two events as linked along with the dot-com bubble. The perception many were drawn into that the upside of telecom was infinite and the quest for top line revenue, without regard for profitability was almost delusional. Sadly, many people got badly hurt, including agents who put their stock into so-called high fliers and wound up with nothing.

IP. This is a significant change that is just beginning to take hold. VoIP in its various forms is just beginning to gain credibility and traction in the marketplace and the applications are only limited by ones knowledge of the technology and imagination. Weve embraced it and see it as the largest area of potential growth.

T@G:

From your beginning to your position now, what would you say it takes to make the trek and make it big?

Kaufman:

The telecom/datacom market is so vast that opportunities continually abound. In todays climate, I think its critical for a company to define a niche or niches where it can excel and develop a model for meeting the needs of those niches. For example, we are one of the few companies in the industry that can literally offer a complete end-to-end integrated solution from CPE to network services to managing IT and telephony. Whatever your model, now more than ever, this is a service industry and you have to be committed to keeping your customers happy. We make sure we are always available to support our agents and customers.

T@G:

Do telecom agents pay enough attention to regulatory affairs? Do they need to?

Kaufman:

Some do, many do not. Those who do not imperil themselves and their customers. The best example I can think of is UNE-P. It boggles my mind that agents continue to place their accounts with UNE-P CLECs knowing that the clock is ticking on the demise of UNE-P.

T@G:

What will happen, if anything, to agents who dont take a consultative approach to their work?

Kaufman:

With the many options available today, especially in the local, datacom and VoIP spaces, agents who lack the ability to help guide their customers to the best solutions are going to have a difficult time sustaining themselves. But there will always be a place for the well-connected agent who doesnt know a PRI from a RBI. We have always provided what is now called by others partnering, where either myself or one of several colleagues with vast knowledge will assist an agent in making the sale. We have agents who merely make the introduction and one of my colleagues closes the deal for them. They still get full commission and our bonus promos.

T@G:

From your vantage point at ISG, what are some trends agents need to be on the lookout for?

Kaufman:

Integrated solutions is where the industry is heading for the SME and enterprise markets. Thus being able to analyze a prospects needs and come up with a proposal, which may include multi-services and multi carriers, is going to ensure success. As VoIP gains traction this may mean hybrid VOIP/PSN solutions. At ISG, we have always embraced a best in breed approach, meaning we have relationships with multiple network providers, allowing our agents to offer the best solutions for virtually every type of opportunity that may arise. With our Level 3 contract, we are now positioned to include a multitude of VoIP applications in our service mix.

T@G:

What about ISG would you like agents to know more about?

Kaufman:

While ISG has evolved to meet the needs of the marketplace, our fundamental values have not changed. We are still a do anything it takes to satisfy our customers and agents shop. That means customizing programs to meet needs. We own a billing company, which gives us tremendous flexibility. More importantly, myself or the seasoned professionals that I brought in are always accessible to help our agents and customers with whatever they need. From the feedback we get, this may be the most important distinction we have. Thats why we continue to thrive.


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