Book Smart, Street Dumb

Josh Anderson, Founder and CEO, Telephony Partners

I have a good friend named Lisa who is an exceptionally intelligent doctor. She studied at top schools, did her residency at Harvard Medical School, and can execute the intricate procedures of her specialty with aplomb. However, faced with a flat tire, balancing her checkbook, or talking to her lawn guy, she turns into an incompetent fool. By all accounts she is a genius, but she has absolutely no common sense or social grace. She’s book smart, but street dumb.

We all know people like this. Folks that do well staying within the lines, but who can’t improvise or deal with the curveballs that life throws. After a mind-numbing e-mail exchange with a customer service representative from Telcordia, I realized today that our beloved telecommunications industry is a “Lisa.”

Telecom excels within its structured boundaries. Almost without exception, anyone in this country can get access to the PSTN and make a call to anyone else with no issues whatsoever. Our data network is getting faster and more efficient. Prices are going down at an astounding rate. All these facts are especially impressive when you consider that, as the first country to adopt these new technologies, our underlying infrastructure is one of the oldest in the world. Simply put, we’re not too bad at the technical part of telecom.

Despite that technical power and ability, our industry is almost embarrassingly street dumb. Part of this is no doubt the residue of the monopoly mindset from the days before deregulation. That mindset, still prevalent in most of the ILECs and many of the IXCs, favors adherence to the system rather than to customer satisfaction or actual outcome. Another factor is the industrywide tendency to hide behind protocol, as if it were some mythical, carved-in-stone set of commandments and not just some ideas that humans easily came up with and can just as easily change. The bottom line is that telecommunications as an industry simply lacks common sense.

Take my Telcordia experience – I needed to get pricing for a specific data subscription, so I naturally sent in an inquiry via their Web site. The response I received from the “Customer Care Consultant” did not provide me much care, but then again I’m not yet a customer. I was advised that the requested data is only available to those customers with a license on a monthly basis. If I was interested (did I change my mind since my inquiry?), I could fill out the order form that wasn’t attached to the e-mail.

I replied acknowledging that only customers could get products and indicating that my point was to communicate my interest in becoming a customer. I just needed a price quote, please. The response came back – no mention of a price, but this time the order form was attached. This order form was essentially a blank invoice inviting me to include payment information and to fill in the items I wanted, with item number and price.

Oh boy. I replied and explained that I couldn’t fill out the form since I didn’t know what the item number was or what the price was. I also communicated my discomfort filling out and signing a document entitled “Order Form” when I wasn’t yet prepared to commit to an order. I asked if I couldn’t simply get a price quote for the product.

Two days later, we are still locked in a battle of wills. I refuse to provide payment information, and Telcordia essentially says that they won’t quote a price until they have an order. They even said that they can’t determine the licensing fee until they know more about my company (selective pricing?). I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.

This experience and a few others like it over the past few weeks got me thinking. The indirect channel is absolutely vital to the industry for one simple reason – we are outsourced common sense. There are no more shrewd street-smart businesspeople in the industry than in the indirect channel. Especially today, with cutbacks happening at nearly every carrier, the value of the common sense we can offer is indispensable. I wonder if we might incorporate this concept in our sales processes for some value. I could probably sit with any business owner and listen to stories of sheer stupidity committed by this company or that. At the end, the pitch would be simple – I’ll be the guy who injects common sense into these transactions. I’m starting to think that’s an offer no sane businessperson could refuse.

Josh Anderson is the CEO of Telephony Partners, a telecom master agency he founded in 2002 leveraging engineering and software expertise. He also is a member of the 2008-09 PHONE+ Channel Partners Advisory Board.

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