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October 23, 2009
By Khali Henderson
Broadview Networks announced in late August that Christopher Eldredge joined the company in a new position — executive vice president of alternate channels and carrier sales — created in part to support Broadview’s nationwide VoIP rollout, which began Aug. 31 and relies heavily on an indirect sales strategy.
Before joining Broadview Networks, Eldredge was vice president carrier sales and service for Frontier Communications. Prior to Frontier, Eldredge held numerous sales, marketing and operational leadership roles for various telecommunications providers, including Cablevision’s Lightpath.
PHONE+ spoke to Eldredge at the end of September about his plans for the Broadview Networks’ indirect sales channel program.
Broadview Channel Chief Chris Eldredge
Your background appears to be primarily is in the wholesale side of the business. Do you have experience with indirect sales?
Yes, while at Comav, a CLEC startup, I developed the alternate channels sales program, which was our top-performing sales channel. Furthermore, in my first role at Frontier I was responsible for all commercial marketing, product management, new product development and alternate channels (non-wholesale), which also included our CLEC Electric Lightwave, which was sold to Integra in 2006. The alternate channel segment provided the largest percentage of customer revenue growth for commercial services.
How does your previous experience help you in your new post?
I have a diverse background, having held leadership positions in sales, marketing and operations in a number of top telecommunications companies. In my last role, I had full P&L responsibility for over $500 million in annual revenue. I revitalized an under-performing team into the top-performing team in the company for the last three years.
In my last job I actually rolled out an IP Centrex product, which is very similar to our Office Suite product, so I have experience brining a product like this to market throughout the country. So, I think if you look at my experience, you could say it’s wholesale the last couple of years, but it’s actually a broad communications background.
How are you going to split responsibilities between wholesale and indirect?
…I would say it’s a 50/50 split. Some days it could be 70 percent agent channel, 30 percent wholesale. And, some days it could flip depending on what we are doing. We view both of these channels as growth engines for the company.
Can you talk about how you and Rob Westervelt, vice president of alternate channels, will manage the channel together?
…Rob is going to be the day-to-day guy with the channel. But I have already met with a number of our large partners. I think we are going to work very closely to strategize how we are going to attack this channel and how we are going to work with some of these partners. I would say it’s a combination of the both of us. I am a hands-on person, so I like to be involved with the partners. I think in my position it’s important for me to work with them and understand some of the challenges that they are dealing with on a daily basis in their businesses [and] the feedback that they can provide us on things we can do a little differently or if they need a specific product [or] if there is something we are missing the boat on. I think it’s really important for me to be in tune with those agents.
How do you communicate with agents? Is it through an advisory board or an individual basis?
It’s a combination of both. It’s on an individual basis and then we also do a summit each year where we bring in some of our top partners. We have our executive team, which includes our CEO, our COO, which is my boss, and we ask the agents a lot of questions and the agents provide us with feedback. We take that feedback back and put a plan together to address some of their needs.
For example, the nationwide OfficeSuite product came out of a recommendation from one of our agents who had customers that were basically in our footprint with satellite offices that were not in our footprint. They thought we provided great products to our customers and could we help customers outside of our footprint. That’s one of the reasons that we decided to roll this product out nationwide — to provide some tools for these partners to sell throughout the country.
When is the next summit?
The second week in November.
How many agents are invited to that?
Last year there were 20 or so. We are selective. We bring our top partners in.
Let’s talk about your goals. Immediately it is the rollout of OfficeSuite, but are there other goals?
I am an ex-athlete. Whatever I do, my goal is to always be the best and to have one of the top-performing channels that’s out there. But it’s really about creating a winning team for our partners and being able to deliver a higher level of service to them. What I mean by that is how we train our partners, support them. How we do it better than our competition. It’s really important for us to get feedback from our partners. When we bring a partner on board, we want to make sure that our on boarding process is in lockstep with them from start to finish. That involves training. We have an Agent Track portal they can go into and track the status of orders from start to finish. They can look at their commissions.
It’s really important for them to have product knowledge. We actually do product training, which could be at their site or we can do it Web-based. We videotape a lot of these trainings. I don’t know if you have ever sat through these training for six or eight hours, but it’s really hard to pay attention and get the most out of class. One of the great things about the online trainings is that if an agent is going out and meeting with a potential customer, they can go to our Web portal, click on a couple of links and they can see the training session, which enhances their product knowledge and gives them some confidence when they go out and sit in front of a customer. It helps them sell and when they sell, the better we do.
Those are some of the things that we are trying to do for our partners. I like to use the term “hot towel treatment.” We really want these customers and agents to feel like they are valued. We have done it in the past, but we are actually going to try to turn it up a notch. At the end of the day, people work with people who they trust and feel that can provide value for their end-user customers. That’s what we are focused on doing.
Have you identified any places where you expect change in the program?
One of the things that we are definitely doing is scaling the program in light of the fact that we are bringing in agents from across the country for the OfficeSuite service rollout. Channel Partners [Conference & Expo] was very important for us. I spent two full days in meetings with some of our existing partners and some of our potential new partners. It means a much larger channel. Obviously, that’s one of the reasons why I was brought in. But we also are expanding the number of channel managers across the country. One of the things that we have already implemented is a beefed-up nationwide support structure for all of these agents — both pre- and post-sales.
One of the neat things we do for our partners is if they have a customer and give us the information, we will put together a sales proposal for them to present to their customer. So it’s really a win-win for both parties.
Can you be specific about the increased support?
I can’t get into the number of heads, but we made sure that before we rolled out this product nationwide, we had the back-office support to make it a positive experience for some of these agents. One of the things we are doing is training and support, walking orders through the system from start to finish. With a lot of these new agents, it’s important for them to have a positive experience from the beginning. We have definitely added more folks from a sales training perspective, from a back-office support perspective, from a billing perspective.
Do you expect the structure of the program to change?
I’ve been here four weeks; it looks like the structure of the program is pretty good where it is. I don’t see any immediate change with that. Compensation is one of the things that’s going to change. We have a lot of promotions out — whether it’s upfront incentives, or spiffs to sell a certain product — from a compensation perspective, it’s going to change.
What we are doing now is we are offering double [spiff] on OfficeSuite nationwide. …
How much revenue does the channel bring and are you looking to grow that?
Obviously, that’s one of the reasons that I am here. The revenue from the agents makes a strong contribution to our overall revenue stream. We feel that it’s going to continue to grow. We view the agent channel as an area of really strong growth for us, especially with the nationwide rollout of our products. We have never done this before nationwide. We have done it more or less in the Northeast. We are going to market with this product through our agent channel. So, to answer your question, we see this channel growing significantly over the next few years.
Do you have any metrics?
Right now it’s 40/60 split agent/direct.
Do you have a goal to make it 50/50?
I have a goal to make it even more than 50/50, but I think a fair goal would be to make it 50/50 split between agent and direct.
What is the timeframe for that?
As quickly as possible.
Let’s talk about partner-enablement initiatives for the coming year. Is there anything specific that you can talk to?
We just have more heads, more resources for people focused on the on boarding process. When we are bringing on partners who are not familiar with Broadview in the Northeast, it’s really important for us to stress the value proposition that we train these folks whether it’s in person or Web-based. I mentioned that we are recording the training sessions. That’s something we are doing a little differently.
Is the recording new?
We’ve done it before on a small scale. We are doing it on a much larger scale and there are more details involved in it. …One of the things we are doing on the Web is agents are going to have an opportunity to go in whenever they have a half hour and be able to look at a training on OfficeSuite or look at a training on our USB phone or our twinning product so they have all the tools in their belt when they go out to meet a customer.
Another thing that we always do is customer testimonials and feedback. I think it’s important for them to hear some positive experiences that some of our customers have had with the products. We had a customer that was on an old PBX and they maxed out the PBX in nine months. We know in this economy, money is an issue; people aren’t spending like they have. But the great thing about our product is we subsidize the phones so it’s part of the MRC. They actually learned about the benefits of our product. It has enabled them to not only expand their business, but really spend basically not upfront capital on the phone system. An interesting experience that this client had as the head of a nonprofit was that in January in the Northeast, it snows a lot and she had an issue that she couldn’t get to work one day. Without product she was able to go to a Web portal and forward all her calls to her home number and didn’t miss a beat.
Are the customer testimonials a new part of the training?
It’s something that we think is important and we want to share as many positive customer experiences as we can. It also helps them tell a story. When you are sitting in front of a customer, a lot of it is how you position yourself, how you tell the company story, how you tell the product story. One of the things that we see and we are trying to educate a lot of folks on is that people are used to the old TDM technology. These IP phones are new technology and we need them to embrace new technology. Once they see the benefits of the new technology and how it works and how it can help their business, they see how it’s a win-win for all.
What are the hot product opportunities for the partners?
You know what I am going to say — OfficeSuite. It’s a no-capex service, and it’s well positioned in this current economy. It really provides value to small- and medium-sized businesses. It’s a cost-effective way for them to operate their business. It’s flexible, it’s responsive, and it provides everything that they need.
One of the neat things that we were showing some of our partners at Channel Partners [Conference & Expo] is that we have a USB phone that allows you to plug it into your laptop and using a headset, you can take your office anywhere you go into the world, which is pretty neat. … It’s really a great product and value proposition for our customers. We also have another product, our mobile twinning product — your cell phone will ring and so will your office phone. Both these products are great value propositions in this economy because they enable folks to actually reduce their wireless minutes on their company plan. It’s really about convergence and convenience for our customer base. That’s what we are really focused on.
Can you speak about the biggest challenges and opportunities in the coming year?
It’s educating our customers on the benefits of IP technology. People are used to the older TDM technologies. It’s really important that we educate them on the product and the web portal and some of the neat things we can do with our product. Once they are willing to try it, they are pretty much sold on it. It’s really about us showing them the value and the benefits of this product.
What are the challenges for the channel? In the past it’s been the economy. Do you think it will continue to be?
No matter what type of economy you are in, I think customers are always looking for a flexible, scalable solution. OfficeSuite provides that for them. It allows them to work wherever they are with their phone numbers. It’s a neat product. It’s efficient. They don’t have to buy a brand new phone system. I can’t stress this enough. One of the challenges is going to be educating people on the value and the strength of this product around the country. We are going nationwide. There are probably some partners who don’t know who we are right now, but they are going to in the future when they see the value we bring with this product in the marketing. I really feel we are one of the industry leaders in delivering this. One of the great things about this product is we rolled it our three or four years ago. We liked it so much; we announced we are purchasing the software provider, NCI. We basically control this thing from start to finish, which is neat and sets us apart from the competition.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Education is really key to the sale. How we train the partners, how we get out there and how they position it in the marketplace — I think that is going to be key to our success. Being at Channel Partners [Conference & Expo] and meeting some of our partners — I feel we have some of the best relationships with partners. It’s amazing how loyal these partners are to us. It was a great show for us. It was a win-win. It gave me an opportunity to meet with existing partners and potential new partners. I’m really excited about what we are going to do over the next 12-18 months. I think the sky’s the limit for us with this product.
We have a strong leadership team, Brian Crotty, our COO, Mike Robinson, our CEO. Jeff supports my group on a daily basis. We have a strong leadership team at Broadview and those will be key to our success in the future.
Read more about:Agents
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