Change is a basic tenet of the master agency.
Master agents have been around since the late 1980s, when AT&T’s forced divestiture created market opportunities to represent long-distance distributors. In the decades since then, master agents have ridden a non-stop wave of change, evolving in concert with the industry, suppliers and agent partners they serve, moving away from strictly telecom to embrace first cloud and managed services, and now taking on the opportunities available in IoT, AI and other new technologies as they appear.
In addition, as business technology becomes more complicated and the sales process becomes more complex, master agents have facilitated partners’ move from transactional sales (goods and services) to relationship sales (the trusted adviser).
PlanetOne’s Ted Schuman
Still, the basic master agent model remains intact, viable and more vital than ever. Partners continue to look to master agents for “traditional” services, primary among them maximum commission potential, sales and service support, and a general commitment to helping them succeed.
|Throughout the fourth quarter of 2018, as part of our “In Focus” series, we are featuring a series of galleries designed to help partners grow their businesses in 2019 and beyond.
“The basic back office and enablement aside, a great master agent offers partners the ability to operate at a higher level of excellence,” said Ted Schuman, founder and CEO of PlanetOne. “They also allow channel partners to earn higher compensation with greater protection and deliver an exceptional experience from quote to close and again from activation to renewals.”
“It’s not a rinse-and-repeat engagement,” he said. “A great master agent focuses on building the relationships that will get the best results for the channel partner and for the provider.”
The evolving importance of master agents is being recognized by vendors as well.
TBI’s Corey Cohen
“As more companies large and small feel comfortable purchasing technology through consultants, MSOs, large telcos and emerging software companies are truly realizing the power of channel,” said Corey Cohen, director of marketing for TBI. “They now have mandates to increase revenue from channel partners, and those that haven’t already are creating multitiered structures, decreasing their direct relationships and instead having them roll up under masters. With a larger emphasis on channel, more resources are thrown at masters that have the back-office systems and process to speed up business, facilitating each and every deal with project management and technical resources.”
Finding the best fit with a master agent can be a bit of a matchmaking challenge for channel partners.
“Master agents aren’t all the same,” Phil Keenan, president of MicroCorp wrote in a blog on the company’s website. “Each has different benefits for different kinds of sales operations, so it’s important to check out each company.”
WTG’s Julie Dzubay
“A channel partner should prioritize the primary needs for their business model,” said Julie Dzubay, vice president of sales operations for WTG. “For example, if a channel partner’s top priority is the services and providers they are able to access, they will want to compare the provider portfolios of the master agents. Or if a channel partner is mainly interested in sales tool automation, they should evaluate the quoting and selling automation tools that that each of the master agents is offering.”
“Technology is a relationship-driven business; a selling partner should have a relationship with its master agent, too,” said Cohen. “The channel partner needs to first assess what they need: access to vendors, inside sales, outsourced back office, marketing or training.”
“Vet the human capital a master agent will provide you, because portals don’t close deals and drive revenue, people do,” said Schuman. “This is a relationship business. We invest in our people, and they wake up every day with one goal — helping our partners grow their business faster and more profitably.”
“A partner should have a list of questions for prospective master agents, such as, ‘Do you have the service provider/vendor relationships I need to be successful?’ and ‘Do you proactively audit commission and SPIF payments so that I get what’s owed to me?'” said Alan Sandler, managing partner of Sandler Partners.
Scroll through the gallery below, where we consider eight areas partners should evaluate when choosing a master agency.
1. Provider/Supplier Contracts
Working through a master agent gives partners immediate access to services and solutions from a vetted selection of providers. It can also give them access to exclusive promotions, greater support, more compensation and other benefits they might not be able to enjoy on an individual basis.
Having access to the providers and suppliers with which a master agent is contracted makes it vital to carefully evaluate those contracts — whom they're with, what they require of the master agent and how that will affect you.
"Not all carrier agreements are created equal," said PlanetOne's Schuman. "A great master agent will negotiate its agreements with carriers in favor of the channel to protect their profits and recurring-revenue potential. We actually give our channel partners access to our lawyers if they want to verify the strength of our carrier contracts."
"We work closely with our service providers/carriers to help them understand what they need to provide in a channel-friendly service and program," said Sandler. "We work with them constantly, to help them serve our agents better."
2. Commission Research
It can be difficult for a partner working independently to track commissions from various vendors, much less appeal errors if they should happen. Master agents have software and staff to track and audit commissions, and work with providers to correct errors if they should occur.
Sandler Partners proactively audits commission and SPIF payments for their partners. Since 2013, the company has recovered more than $5 million in unpaid compensation — $1.3 million in 2018 alone
"Team with a master agent who takes your commissions seriously and audits up and down the chain to ensure your commissions are paid accurately the first time [they] are due and on time every month without fail," said Schuman.
3. Back-Office Support
Having back-office support provided by a master agent can save you money, improve your operations and free up your time to focus on your clients. Services can range from tracking commissions, quotes and orders, to troubleshooting, order escalation and contract generation.
Determine what it is you need in the way of back-office support, then confirm that the master agent you are considering offers the services you need. Also determine which services are made available on a no-cost basis and which services can be obtained for an additional fee.
4. Sales Support
Access to an extensive portfolio of products and services that seem to be changing on a daily basis can overwhelm even the most diligent and dedicated channel partner. This is where master agents shine.
Pre- and post-sales support are available in the form of what are almost universally referred to as "sales engineers" who can provide expert, supplier-agnostic assistance to help identify the best solutions for clients and help close the deal. Sales engineers can help with pre-sales efforts around customer prequalification and needs assessment, then use their up-to-date insights on products and services in the master agent's portfolio to design and configure solutions for the client.
Some master agents even offer "white-label" sales engineers who will accompany the partner on a client meeting to answer questions and provide face-to-face consulting and recommendations.
5. Marketing Assistance
As with back-office support, marketing assistance can allow you to turn over vital – but time consuming – functions to specialists so that you can have more time to focus on your clients. It also ensures that your marketing efforts will be produced with the expertise needed to stand out from the competition.
The marketing assistance available from master agents runs the gamut, from help with website copy to access to industry-specific professionals who can create a custom marketing plan.
Intelisys, for example, has a Marketing ToolKit that includes brochures, email campaigns and events planning. Among the services Telarus offers are logo and graphic design. They have also negotiated reduced web design rates for partners.
"TBI's marketing department has staff to educate, audit, train and write for partner drip campaigning, social media, websites, sales collateral and more," said Cohen. "They have a self-service platform where partners can create, edit and sent packaged campaigns to their customers and prospects."
Master agents have partner tools and automation in myriad forms. A few examples:
- TBI's Knowledge Base is an online portal where partners can access information related to carriers and training. It even includes information on promotions and SPIFs. Their TBI On Demand – available for desktops or as a mobile app – provides partners with deal registration, a LIT building locator, commission tracking and disputes information, details on upcoming trainings and events, resources and education materials, and more.
- The MyIntelisys Portal/Dashboard gives partners access to custom content, data and business information. Its key features are also available in a mobile app. Intelisys's Audex 360 is an asset and customer management tool with preferred pricing, support and training.
- Among the features on Telarus' mobile app for partners are a service map, decision matrices, contacts, order statuses, a circuit-monitoring dashboard and agent ranking. Its patented real-time pricing tool GeoQuote includes fiber maps and a data-center locator and enables partners to determine best-fit solutions for clients, based on their locations and needs.
- WTG's PartnerEdge CRM generates instant quotes for many of the most popular products and services offered by its providers. Its Fiber Finder is an online application that provides partners with on-demand access to telecom network and colocation information. The National Broadband Locator is a tool to search, analyze and map broadband availability across the United States.
- MicroCorp's Nautilus is a back-office support tool for quoting, provisioning, commissioning, customer support and sales.
- Avant designed its intellectual property BattleApp to give partners the resources they need to close more cloud, colocation and connectivity opportunities. Built on Salesforce Communities, the app provides partners with tools to use throughout the sales life cycle.
"Because of our industry, education is always an important part of a master agent's offering," said WTG's Dzubay. "In addition to the top priorities for their business model, channel partners should also evaluate the self-serve and live educational opportunities that are available from each of the masters they are considering."
Some sample offerings:
- Intelisys has a Cloud Services University website that offers partners multiple certification tracks and cloud sales training. Open to all channel sales professionals, Intelisys Cloud Services University offers strategic education tracks on technologies and the best sales tracks for those technologies, monthly video training featuring leading cloud technology experts and monthly video case studies.
- The University of TBI is a vendor-agnostic training program with a video- and text-based curriculum, product and solution information, and a certification program.
- WTG's Cloudology Training provides online training and partner events nationwide.
- Avant's Special Forces Summit is a two-day, intense sales training conference dedicated to next-generation IT solutions sales strategies, tactics and tools.
Weekly product updates, webinars, online and in-person training conferences are all part of a master agent's educational arsenal. Be sure to evaluate the educational opportunities and options available from the master agent you're considering.
Nobody has a better understanding of the financial ebbs and flows experienced by channel partners than master agents. For this reason, masters provide flexible commission programs and payment options. Sandler Partners, for example, lets partners choose whether they're paid on a recurring basis or upfront on a deal-by-deal basis.
Telarus also offers flexible commission programs, as well as a commission advance program (equivalent to an SMB loan). Partners can receive up to 10 times their monthly residual with a 12-month grace period, followed by a two-year loan term.
There's a lot to consider when choosing a master agent. But at the end of the day, "no matter which master agent(s) a channel partner chooses, they will be joining a collaborative ecosystem that fully supports their success," said Dzubay. "The channel is a fantastic community to join and build a business. While master agents compete, they also all work together to further the growth of the channel as a whole through joint participation in provider advisory boards, industry councils and strategic working partnerships."