The Softer Side of PRM

In a time where everyone communicates heavily via e-mail and probably spends a chunk of his or her day performing major business and personal tasks on software programs and Web-based platforms, the human side of networking might be quickly becoming endangered. However, in telecom’s indirect channel, vendors and their partners continue to see value in building and nurturing their relationships outside of mass e-mails, order submission platforms and partner portals. And while the whiz-bang partner relationship management (PRM) tools of master agents, service providers and carriers are important to agents as they choose vendors with which to partner, something else matters too — the softer side of PRM.

At a recent meeting of TMC’s Agent Advisory Council, council members and TMC staff visited Oreana Winery to taste and create their own wine blends.

“The ‘softer’ side is important because agents want to do business with people they can trust to be knowledgeable, reliable and friendly,” said Ron Ireland, president of reseller TMC Communications. “After all, if the agent partner doesn’t feel good about how they are treated, how are they going to trust us with their customer relationship? Most of our products are commodities and partners can go to any number of providers for similar services; ultimately it is the ‘softer’ side of our PRM approach that fosters the relationship and engenders the trust of our partners.”

Zachary Schechter, president of ZCS Enterprises, an agent for Telarus, believes the human side of fostering relationships is inherent to successful sales. “This has become a virtual world,” said Schechter. “[For] the people I deal with constantly on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, [it] makes a world of difference to know them and to socialize with them in person. Besides the obvious benefit of working with someone you can put a face to and make small talk about family, vacations and hobbies to get that extra push on what you need for the business side (I think that is Sales 101, not a dirty little secret), this also pulls the edge off the stress of the daily grind.”

Outreach. TMC’s Ireland said the reseller places a high value on personal outreach, and the company’s channel managers are on the phone constantly checking in with their agent partners. “As simple as it sounds, these regular phone calls keep TMC’s name in front of a sales force that is constantly bombarded with e-mail and direct mail solicitation,” said Ireland. “It’s also a great way to build rapport with a geographically dispersed group that we may only see face-to-face at Channel Partner [Conference & Expo] shows.”

Lightyear’s Jeanie Dillow and Jennifer Pickett (center) hang out with agent partners David Weddell (left) and David Kilburn (right) at Lightyear’s Track & Training event at Churchill Downs.

Many vendors also hold organized recurring update calls with their constituents. For example, Lightyear Network Solutions holds a monthly All Agent Conference Call and Webinar, in which the staff reviews everything from top sales agents to newly signed agents to new products and promotions and upcoming company events.

Telarus principals hold a weekly conference call to communicate new developments, and at the end of the call, the “stage” is handed over to agents to ask questions and share concerns. Additionally, if an agent is unable to attend, a recorded version of the call is made available to them in their back office. Telarus agent Schechter explained these weekly calls were in addition to dedicated training calls with Telarus vendors and conference calls with a smaller group every two weeks, led by his dedicated channel manager, for brainstorming or discussing more specific topics.

When providers and masters aren’t communicating with agents through regular telephone conversations and the usual e-mails, the newest way to be in constant contact with partners is via social media. For example, Telarus uses LinkedIn to share formal updates and Twitter to communicate less formal, but pertinent information to its agents and the general public.

To wit, indirect channel participants also can use vendor-neutral social networking tools like the groups run by channel associations and trade media on LinkedIn to keep up with the buzz in the channel.

Partner Councils. Another way vendors and master agents are reaching out to partners for feedback is by the formation of partner councils. For example, One Communications has a Partner Advisory Board, consisting of 12 agent members, that participates in face-to-face meetings twice per year, along with conference calls in between meetings. “[The board works] closely with the One Communications business partner team to help direct and refine the strategies of our program to ensure its alignment with partner needs on an ongoing basis,” said Michael Fair, vice president and general manager of the business partner channel at One Communications. “Whether working with partners or directly with end users, in sales, it is all the same — people make business decisions based on relationships,” Fair continued. “If you ignore the relationship, it doesn’t matter how strong your company, products or offers are; if both parties don’t feel valued, respected and included in the business process, over time the relationship will ultimately wane.”

Independent agent Walt Grudi, president of Grudi Associates, serves on One Communications’ board as well as the Independent Partner Advisory Team for Embarq (now CenturyLink). “Both One Communications and Embarq have done an excellent job making these events meaningful, constructive and well worth the time invested by all parties,” said Grudi, explaining that the boards document issues well and follow up on action items. “This format has been extremely effective for making improvements and developing relationships with management and department heads.”

TMC’s Ireland agreed the reseller’s Agent Advisory Council is a great way for partners to share ideas and feedback. “We have made several changes in product design, our online quoting tool and even pricing structures in response to their invaluable feedback,” said Ireland.

Training and Events. Training provides an opportunity for vendors to kill two birds with one stone — educating partners while networking with them at the same time. Many master agents and resellers provide regular training Webinars or facilitate training from associated carriers.

Several vendors turn their training into an opportunity to get more face time with agents. Telarus colocates its annual agent conference with the Spring Channel Partners Conference & Expo, where a day full of Telarus-specific training and networking is followed by an awards ceremony and social event. “In the days to follow at the trade show, Telarus works with us prior [to the show] to arrange a non-stop set of meetings and trainings with our vendors, including parties, social events and every meal,” said Telarus agent Schechter.

Lightyear also turns training into an event with educational seminars in its headquarters town of Louisville, Ky. The “Track & Training” events consist of a full morning of product positioning and conclude with a fun activity, most recently a day at the legendary Churchill Downs thoroughbred race track, home of the Kentucky Derby.

Kevin Shady, Lightyear’s vice president of agent sales, said Lightyear is all about mixing fun with work. Therefore, the reseller’s National Agent Sales Conference offers a similar agenda of events like a golf scramble or distillery tour combined with a day full of informative sessions on the latest products and promotions available.

Agents enjoy lunch with their families at Telcombrokers’ summer agent event at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif.

Many master agents use this work/fun formula to keep agents coming back to their events year after year. “We are always keeping our underlying philosophy of having fun and nurturing relationships as part of the equation,” said Nancy Ridge, vice president of Telcombrokers. The master agent has two fun agent events per year — a “grown-up night out” Christmas party held at a local nightclub, complete with dancing, casino games and raffles, and a family summer party, which was held this year at Angel Stadium. “The summer event is special because it provides a chance to bring the families of Telcombrokers employees, our agents and our carrier sponsors together,” said Ridge.

Another example is Intelisys’ Channel Connect, formerly Inteligolf, which draws approximately 400 participants near its headquarters in northern California each year for networking, training, golf, spa activities and wine tasting. Intelisys execs also set out on up to 20 annual road trips to “lock arms with our partners in pursuit of a more perfect partnership,” said Mike McKenney, Intelisys vice president, partner sales. “Our ‘relationship’ or ‘softer’ approach to our business partnerships undoubtedly accounts for the success we see on a regular basis.”

These events are just a few on a list of many, especially when including all of the president’s club trips and spiff-type social events and contests. For instance, One Communications’ Fair outlined the provider’s unique sponsorship of several national sports teams. Throughout the year, One has been using those sponsorships to host social networking events with its partners and their customers in a relaxed and fun setting. And when it comes to contests, Fair explained that a One Communications partner won a sales contest that allowed him to have a walk-on role in Hollywood movie with Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck that was filmed at One’s headquarters in Burlington, Mass.

Agent Grudi feels company networking events such as these, along with face-to-face meetings, trainings and phone calls, are vital to success as an agent. “Online [PRM] tools are invaluable and provide the real-time information exchange that we require; but the best vendors/masters recognize that online tools by themselves are not enough,” said Grudi. “Nothing replaces personal contact. … At the end of the day, we are only as good as our relationships … both client and vendor. Our clients count on us to have the relationships with our vendors that allow us to get things done.”

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