Master Agents' Changing Role Part 5

Part 5 of a five-part article: As IT and communications technologies converge with cloud and managed service delivery, will master agencies continue to play a role and, if so, what, if anything, must they do to master it?

February 22, 2012

8 Min Read
Master Agents' Changing Role  Part 5

By Khali Henderson

Editor’s Note:
This is Part 5 of a five-part article, Master Agents Revisited. Other parts of the article are:

Part 5 – New Capabilities Required

Respondents agreed that the addition of managed and cloud services with any reasonable expectation of repeatable success will require master agencies to develop, in most cases, or improve, in a few cases, their repertoire of skills. In particular, a few of the MSPs and cloud service providers contacted for this report said they have found, or at least perceive, master agencies to be lacking the required technical competence and solutions orientation.

“In the U.S. we do not [use master agents] as we found master agents are not early adopters as some [independent] agents are. Some cloud services still require some technical expertise outside master agents’ capabilities,” said Forrest Blair, CEO for Virtuon, a cloud service provider offering virtual storage, server, applications and desktops. (The company does have a relationship with a “forward-thinking” master agency based in Europe.)

“Internet service and long-distance is highly commoditized and managed IT service is very customized and service-oriented,” said Jeff Grong, vice president of sales and strategic development for master MSP Collaborance LLC, explaining the gap in the models.

“While the delivery model is similar, the value provided is often different and is going to require a different set of training, maintenance and nurturing skills than I perceive to be the core of the master agency value,” said one cloud service provider on the condition of anonymity. This provider is looking at telecom agents as a potential channel for its cloud backup and recovery services. “Since cloud solutions would seem to be an add-on offering to the traditional master agent line card, I think it is going to require a broadening of the skill set and support functionality, not a replacement. The master agents who are willing and able to step out of their comfort zone and offer solutions to subagents that they have not been able to deliver before are likely, in my opinion, to be successful.”

Channel Partners identified and respondents agreed with potential skills requirements in the following areas:

  • training partners

  • sales engineering

  • assessing customers’ technical needs

  • integrating solutions

  • managing customer migrations to managed or cloud services

Respondents added the following capabilities to this list:

  • managing the customer life cycle

  • prequalifying sales opportunities

  • managing the project

Many of these functions are coordinated by master agents today but delivered by their service provider partners. There is a wide range of opinion on whether this needs to change in part or in total. “In order for master agents to take on these functions, they would need to hire highly specialized employees with the core knowledge base in telecom technology, products and project management,” said one carrier representative who asked to remain anonymous. “This is seen more in the direct partner area than the master agent area, but could be a substantial differentiator for any master agent willing to make the investment.”

For some providers, enabling master agencies remains an option through personnel or self-service systems. “We’re investing very heavily into software support for our agents, so for me, the more I can enable my partners to be self sufficient the better,” said Eric Beller, vice president of channel sales for MegaPath.

Bill Madison, vice president for Alliant Technologies, a managed and cloud service provider, also said his company is willing to be that resource for master agencies at least until they can begin to develop those skills in-house. “Without becoming too ‘thin,’ we attempt to provide as much support as possible” to the master agents and their subagents, he said, adding that the faster that master agents can develop sales engineering capabilities, the more quickly they will realize sales success.

J.R. Cook, vice president of channel partners for EarthLink Business, agreed. “Master agents need to align with the carriers and take advantage of their resources, but at the same time they will need to invest in their own resources to be the product specialists that assist their partners in providing customer solutions,” he said.

At least one subagent was dubious about master agencies’ abilities to fill this role, preferring to work directly with the service provider. “We prefer the relationship to be with the carrier and to use the master as the aggregator for the revenue commitment,” said Yvonne Fry, “Big Talker” for Lines of Communication. “We have not had good success with support through the additional layer of a master. …[There is] often a discrepancy between what a master will quote, engineer, etc., and what the carrier can actually do.”

Tricia Ward, president of agency NetSource Group Inc., expressed the opposite view that master agencies may be subagents’ best hope. She said master agencies “will need to get sufficient expertise around quoting, engineering and supporting managed and cloud solutions. Otherwise, the prospect of customers looking directly to VARs or solutions providers, bypassing masters and subs all together, seems more and more likely.”

Master agencies told channel partners that some of these capabilities already are being developed and implemented in their organizations as a result of more complex telecommunications requirements. “As solutions become more complex we are becoming more involved in the sales process than ever before,” said Ted Schuman, CEO of master agency PlanetOne Communications. “Coordinating resources with our partners and providers is a daily occurrence and quickly becoming the norm.”

Sales Support. The expectation is that the level of sales support master agencies must provide will only increase with cloud and managed services in the mix, particularly as it relates to pre-sales efforts around customer prequalification and needs assessment.

Master agents will need to learn how to qualify opportunities outside the transactional model, said Tim Burke, president and CEO of Quest, a managed service provider. Telarus’ Miller said a solutions approach requires sales engineering. “Masters will need to acquire engineering expertise, allowing solution requests to be analyzed internally, and then appropriately routed to suppliers in a position to create, install and invoice solutions (often aggregated solutions) to meet customer requirements.”

From the subagent perspective, Mach 4’s Miller describes this as a new department within the master agency. “The master agency will need to develop a support staff with product and service delivery experts to enable agents to sell through them,” he said. Sarah Smith, senior analyst channel marketing for carrier Windstream, agreed. “As the product get more tech-savvy, we see the master having to employ or partner with engineers to help their subagents sell these product in the field and post-sales support,” she said.

The support requirement doesn’t end with cut-over. “Master agents will need to develop solutions to manage the client life cycle and will continue to invest heavily in that management tool set,” said Clark Atwood, CEO for master agency Concierge Communications.

Training. Even before cloud and managed services sales begin, however, master agencies are expected to provide training to their subagent base at levels most do not today. “Master agents will need to spend almost double the amount of time on training, particularly in the next few years during the shift into the cloud,” said Vince Bradley, CEO of master agency World Telecom Group.

“Subagents will look to the masters to assist them in the migration from core telecom sales to the IT and application model,” said EarthLink Business’ Cook. “They will look for education and support to understand and take advantage of the revenue stream tied to the cloud.”

This level of training also will go a long way toward helping agents become trusted advisors and be less reliant on their vendors. Tad Nikolich, vice president of business sales for Telcentris, a hosted communications company, is a strong advocate for better subagent training. “As a provider, we are needing to be in more direct contact with end users seeking some of these services because a lot of the agents are not training on them well enough to close deals on their own,” he said.

Training extends beyond the technology to sales. “Helping subagents better perfect their consultative selling skills will be a necessary function of the modern master agent,” said GreenAppx’s Safran. “This will allow the master and their subagents to transition into the more profitable role of a trusted adviser.”

Marketing Support. Since traditional master agencies have reputations as sales and marketing organizations, it may seem strange to cite needed improvements in marketing, but both service providers and subagents said this is one place where master agents will need to do a better job.

One provider said master agencies will need to be more specialized in their recruitment marketing to attract partners already moving to cloud and managed services solutions.

On the subagent side, Steve Giliberto, president of Sommita Technology Group, explained that master agencies need “new investment in aggregated lead generation and market outreach for partner to close the gap between what’s needed to grow a revenue base via these disciplines (cloud and managed services) and the limited resources to do so, especially for the smaller, but well established veteran agency.”

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