article

The Agent-LEC Relationship

Posted: 05/1998

The Agent-LEC Relationship
Dream Date or Ongoing Nightmare?

By Kieren J. McCobb

While trading war stories at the AgENt Trade Fair in Houston at the end of February, I
somehow got involved in a conversation with another agent regarding local exchange
carriers (LECs). After dramatically closing his eyes and nodding his head from side to
side, this agent said, "I’d rather deal with a brain freeze than deal with a
LEC." Although it was a funny comparison, I believe any group of long distance agents
could relate to this man’s feelings about the frustrations in conducting business.

We face these same frustrations in our company, as well. While challenges will always
exist, there are some specific situations related to LEC issues that we need to
understand:

1. The LEC connects your customers to the long distance service you sold them;

2. You only get paid for traffic billed to your long distance service after the LEC
does its job (i.e., hooking up your customer’s lines);

3. Getting paid is a good thing, so make sure that;

4. The LEC quickly connects your customers to the long distance service you sold them.

It goes without saying that this is simplistic and fairly obvious. But the amazing
thing is how often we shoot ourselves in the foot, financially speaking, by not ensuring
our customers are confirmed and passing traffic without delay.

Gradually we have discovered a number of techniques designed to reduce the amount of
rejects and other disappointments that LECs treat us to. These run the gamut from
double-checking our ordering paperwork to thinly disguised implications of violence.
Happily, it has not yet been necessary to follow through on any felonious promises. Then
again, that is because the telephone company is not always wrong! Indeed, more often than
not, we are.

Know Your Local Telephone Company

Most Americans still live in areas that were a telephone monopoly until not long ago.
Some places, particularly those that are non-Bell/GTE, still are a monopoly. Among the
criteria used to measure the merit of a company to be the monopoly for an area–at least
theoretically–was customer service. This yardstick still exists in the various public
service commission jurisdictions, so knowing this and using it when dealing with
uncooperative people when appropriate can be helpful.

For example: You are in a situation which red tape or a procedure is adversely
affecting a customer’s service. Usually you can get things done when the LEC people are
convinced you have the customer’s best interests at heart–not yours. If the customer is
out of service or drastically impacted by a problem, a LEC customer service rep (CSR) will
try hard to help the customer a good deal of the time. When you approach the CSR
rationally and appropriately, you will usually get results.

There are caveats to this example:

  • Be absolutely sure you are right. Do your homework. If you present a case about the LEC
    not performing and the LEC investigates and comes out clean, you come across as a bozo and
    hurt your next 2.8 requests for help. (Yes, Virginia, there is a bozo department that
    keeps score.)
  • Have your information ready–order numbers and/or trouble ticket numbers, circuit IDs,
    billing telephone numbers/account numbers as well as other working telephone numbers,
    addresses (both install and billing), customer contact names, dates orders were placed,
    troubles that were phoned in and/or correspondence that has occurred, first and last names
    and extension numbers of those spoken to, the call center where that person works (there
    may be more than one "John Smith-customer service" in Bell Atlantic), what the
    situation is and what it is you want the telephone company to do.
  • Go through channels. Call the right number and try to remain calm. Explain the
    situation, state why it’s a problem and request your desired outcome. Try not to lose your
    temper. Take good notes regarding the conversation as outlined above. If you are
    unsuccessful, escalate (good LEC word to use) to the next level. Don’t start out halfway
    up the ladder, but do continue up the chain of command until you get what the customer
    wants or you are satisfied that there is absolutely no way the LEC will budge. Each step
    of the way, summarize and document the discussion, ending with the date and time the LEC
    representative will get back to you with the answer. When the appointed time arrives, you
    should have a satisfactory answer or be on the phone with the next level.
  • Don’t threaten. These people have heard them all and it’s a poor reflection of your
    professionalism. Threats will never produce positive results but may win you a permanent
    membership on the LEC’s you-know-what-list. Then when you need help, attention or–God
    forbid–a favor, the rep can drag out her Internal Idiot Agent Indictment Roster, gloat at
    length about the hell you put her through last time and dutifully forward your request–by
    turtle mail–to the flamer department in the Aleutian Islands.
  • Follow through on your promise. Calmly request what you want, why you want it, the
    business reason for your request and when you can expect its completion. If you are denied
    and you believe it warrants further appeal, state your belief and follow through on it.
    Always carry out your promise to take your request further.
  • Know your LEC’s mission statement and announced set of values. There may come a time
    when you can point out that the action/inactions of the LEC are at odds with its stated
    and published "important corporate beliefs."

Know Your Customer

Long distance companies, take note: When it comes to telecom information, customers
don’t know what they have. Early on, when my company was just starting out and we were
notified of a customer reject, we called the carrier to see what we needed to do. The
clerk benignly said, "Just call the customer and tell him you need a list of his
lines, contract information…"

Well, customers have no clue. In fact, their most common response upon being asked is,
"You’re the telephone expert, why can’t you find out?" When an agent is trying
to assist a customer who doesn’t have the appropriate telecom information, what can the
agent do?

First, get a letter of agency (LOA) from the customer. This gives you permission to act
on behalf of the customer with the LEC. (It also may be used to act for the customer with
other long distance companies, interconnect vendors, etc.). Generally an LOA relieves the
LEC from liability when talking to you and/or providing information and records to you
about your customer’s account. The LOA must be on the customer’s letterhead, and it must
state the customer name, service address and main billing telephone number (BTN). It must
state something like this:

Date

To Whom It May Concern:

This is to inform you that (your company name) is authorized to receive information
about our account and to correspond with you on our behalf. (Your company name) is/is not
further authorized to place orders on our behalf. This does not preclude us from acting in
our own behalf. This authorization shall expire on ___________.

Sincerely,

Customer Contact

Once you have the LOA, you can obtain the customer service records from the LEC.
However, this can be an exercise in advanced masochism because LECs still use a dinosaur
language called USOC. USOC is a holdover relic from the days of the Bell system when
computer memory was expensive.

Be that as it may, your customer’s records are in your LEC’s files and written in this
gibberish. The bad news is you have to be able to decipher this stuff well enough to
figure out what the LEC says your customer has. Note that what your customer really has
and what the phone company says the customer has are not necessarily the same. Records are
wrong upwards of 90 percent of the time. It’s the best way to figure out quantities,
types, pin positions, hunting/forwarding patterns, etc. (And if there is a mistake, you
can honestly say you secured the telephone company’s own records as proof of your desire
to be of service).

Next, gather any other records or logs your customer may have available. Be careful of
the writing on the RJ21X covers where the phone service comes into the building. (This
location frequently is, but may not always be, the demarcation point, or the point where
LEC responsibility stops and customer responsibility begins). When the very first circuits
were installed, those circuit numbers written on the RJ21X covers probably were accurate.
As new circuits were added and old ones deleted, the written circuits on those covers
often were not updated, so don’t trust them.

If you and the customer judge it important enough, arrange for a LEC technician to do a
"premise visit" to tag and ID the circuits. This person will come to the site
and verify the line and circuit IDs of all service at the site. If you ask, the technician
also will put a fresh plastic cover on the RJ21X jacks with the IDs written on them. And
from that point on, keep good records! It may be the only source of accurate information.

Know Your Long Distance Carrier/Reseller

You need to appear knowledgeable and credible to your customer. Accordingly, it’s in
your best interest to:

  • Understand the pricing of not just your offering, but of your competitors as well. Every
    situation is different and every customer seems to have that unique twist that defies
    "off-the-rack" handling. Since long distance agents’ best selling point is our
    value-added service, we don’t want to offer any motivation for the customer to go to
    "off-the-rack" carriers anyway.
  • Know your paperwork. Understand the forms your carrier requires when signing up a
    customer. Keep extras with you in more than one place, and never be in a position of
    needing, but not having, a pen or a contract.
  • Know your terms and conditions. If there is fine print or minor unpleasantries, fees and
    the like, you may be better served by getting them in the open so the customer is not
    blind-sided with "negative" information from another source.

For example: Say you sign up a customer but don’t inform the customer about LEC
switching fees. When the customer receives the local phone bill and questions the LEC, the
LEC will be rightly innocent and won’t miss the opportunity to inform the customer that
"your long distance salesperson should have known about these fees and really should
have told you."

  • Fill in the paperwork accurately. Names, addresses or BTN mistakes can cause rejects.
    This is the aggravation and money-wasting part of our business, and it’s our fault. If you
    make sure the header information on the application matches the LEC bill and that the
    automatic numbering information (ANI) matches, you greatly reduce chances of rejects and
    an agitated LEC.
  • Check your reports. Most carriers and resellers make real-time reports available to
    agents that provide information on their customers’ activity billing, commissions and
    more. Not the least of these is the ANI status and reject/disconnect reports. Stay on top
    of these. If a line stays pending for more than a few days, there may be a problem. (If it
    never shows up on the pending report at all, your carrier sent it to the black hole
    department. Resubmit it.). If orders never get to the LEC, the company won’t pump your
    traffic.

Miscellaneous Gems, Nuggets and Pearls of Wisdom

During a random and totally unscientific interview process in preparation for this
article, I phoned several carriers/resellers and asked for their suggestions for us, the
agents. Some of these include:

  • Fill out your application from the customer’s LEC bill. It has the right header
    information and all the ANI’s/WTN’s on it.
  • Understand primary interexchange carrier (PIC) freezes. Know what they are and when they
    need to be removed, and educate your customer.
  • Let the PIC freeze process proceed as normal. Don’t let the customers PIC themselves
    unless you want to pay their "open network" usury bill.
  • Small LECs are not as electronic as their Bell-shaped brethren. These things go
    electronically, but are supposed to go manually. Yes, it’s stupid and infuriating, but
    re-read the part above about monopolies. The only way to profit from business this way is
    to understand how they work and cooperate.
  • With toll-free service, responsible organization (resporg) forms must be exact. Also
    keep in mind the reseller is not the underlying carrier, so be sure to fill in the carrier
    and not the reseller on your resporg sheet.
  • Customers always have more than one account. Plug away. Get them all.

The rewards of our industry are great and available for the claiming. Like any other
business however, there are things to learn. Hopefully some of these ideas will help you
avoid some frustration and provide a good knowledge base.

Kieren J. McCobb is president of TeleConfusion Removal Inc., which specializes in
designing end-to-end networks. He may be reached at (732) 249-2821 or via e-mail at kdotmack@ix.netcom.com

Have questions about specific agent issues? Send them to McCobb. Those that have
the greatest benefit to the agent community will be answered in future stories.


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