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Agency Channel: Carriers Revisit Agent Training

June 1, 2000

8 Min Read
Agency Channel: Carriers Revisit Agent Training

By Tara Seals

Posted: 06/2000

Carriers Revisit Agent Training
By Tara Seals

As long distance fades as a revenue base, carriers introduce more complex local, data and integrated services. This has agents, wary of the shift, demanding improved training that is better suited to specific needs.

Several carriers have stepped up to the plate by expanding agent training programs, adding requirements and certification and using more technology tools.

Working through an on-site, consultative business model, the agent community’s selling skills are strong assets to a company that quickly wants to establish customer loyalty.

The agent population already has a strong familiarity with the market and is able to pair the network services they sell with hardware, customer-provided equipment and third-party vendors. With the continuous convergence of diverse products and services, carriers increasingly turn to the agent channel for an educated, knowledgeable sales base.

BellSouth Corp.
(www.bellsouth.com) provides an example of this trend. “With the emerging technologies, our channel partners provide a great opportunity to be able to get the services out there quickly rather than re-training all of our direct sales people,” says Mike
Zuest, vice president of operations and sales support for BellSouth. “We’re in the process of developing a lot of bundled offers right now. Our expectation is that over the next six months it’ll be rolled out. Clearly that’s where the marketplace is being driven.”

The Trouble With Training:
Cattle Car Carriers

Agents may not be as enthusiastic as providers about their new role as
supersalespeople. Although carriers may recognize agents’ abilities to open new markets and bases, agents who expect to survive the dwindling long-distance revenues must keep up with the dynamic telecom marketplace, understand emerging technologies and
recommend the proper solutions in the right configuration for a customer’s application.

Swartzbaugh, an exclusive Pacific Bell agent and president of Network Consulting Group
(www.ncgnet.com), says, “The average sales rep doesn’t have a command of one area, let alone all of them. There’s local, Internet, wireless, equipment, long
distance–all are distinct areas that require a lot of expertise and a lot of time.”

Carriers generally provide required basic training programs for agents hoping to overcome the learning curve. But this large, classroom-style training typically covers a variety of issues in a single session and takes up a large amount of time, which an independent entrepreneur cannot afford to lose.

Also, the agents often find themselves in a room with people of various backgrounds in diverse fields. This can make getting the needed application training difficult.

“A lot of times in these classes, you’ll have all different levels of agents. Some of them have never sold this service, never heard of it before, or are selling it today but want to get to the next level,” says Gary
Eisenberger, western regional vice president, alternate channel sales from PaeTec Communications Inc.
(www.paetec.com). “As far as the new agents, they just have to hang on.”

Chart: MMTA’s Convergence Technologies Certificate Tracks

Traditional training programs also do not address the needs of master agents to educate their downchannels, which often do not have the same access to the carrier. In tandem, master agencies usually take the same view as the carrier in wanting savvy, proven agents.

“We are always for having the highest level of certification and training. But most individual agents would not want to be regulated like that–having someone watching over their shoulder,” explains Vince Bradley, whose master agency, World Telecom Group, focuses on local services. “I think there needs to be some regulation. A lot of agents get bogged down in all the details and lack of knowledge, and master agents are increasingly having more and more problems with administrative processes within their offices.”

Keith Ferris, president of master agency Ferris Communications
(www.ferriscom.com), has his own curriculum. “Training is critical in making the transition to selling integrated solutions,” Ferris explains. “That’s what forced us as a master agent to develop our own seminar schedule. We have different products that we do each month, and that includes local and wireless, and the idea is to schedule them in proximity to our agent base and to take it on the road.”

Created With
the Savvy Agent in Mind

Many carriers respond to the independent agents’ objections to differentiated training programs, certification and testing options, and mix of delivery ideologies based on the training complexity that are offered.

Providing two levels of training is a solution
PaeTec, BellSouth and BTI Telecom Corp. (www.btitele.com) are exploring. In addition to their required basic course, more advanced training is offered with certification attached.

Agents who sell effectively in the field become eligible to sell further services, but first must pass a test. This allows agents with advanced knowledge to “test into” a higher education level, meaning that each class would be more appropriate to its attendees. Agents who may need Telecom 101 would not be subjected to topics that may be over their heads, for example.

PaeTec, which cites a 50/50 split in its revenues from the agent channel and its direct sales side, provides a full day of training each month to cover local, Internet and equipment for service training. All PaeTec agents are required to attend at least one training session. The carrier plans to implement a certification program for advanced services.

“That’s the goal, but it may take a year or so,” says Eisenberger. “Our goal is to really fine-tune the above-average agent. That’s who we want selling our product. We don’t want someone to just sell 10 lines and walk away. We’re looking for our agents to be better.”

BTI’s senior vice president of sales, John Leach adds, “I like the certification side of it so you know what you’re getting. Applications that are much more technical in nature are going to require that. We have data sales specialists that overlay our sales organization and help both the agents and the direct side. In the overall long term, the higher end training will be certification based, with pre-training and post-training tests.”

BellSouth offers training for all of the agent-sold services, from local voice to data networking, web hosting and e-business. In order to sell the basic voice services, agents must pass a first level of training.

“Then there are more product-specific trainings farther up the food chain, in different services, requiring certification,” says

Chart: How Certificate Programs Benefit Vendor, Channel Companies

Other carriers are turning to technology tools to streamline the training process and overcome objections entrepreneurs may have in sacrificing the time needed to complete the training.

For example, Teligent Inc.
(www.teligent.com) requires agents to attend a comprehensive two-day training session that covers
Teligent, local, long distance, Internet, pricing and processes. The agents are tested on the material.

More product-specific training for advanced services is available, and expansion plans include training through an extranet site where agents can learn at their convenience.

Bell Atlantic Corp.
(www.bell-atl.com) offers classroom training and access to its corporate website for product and application information. The ILEC also plans to offer CD-ROM and web-based training during the next few months to supplement its traditional instructor-led classes.

Global Crossing Ltd.
(www.globalcrossing.com) has computer-based and live training programs. It is working on getting more tools online.
Launchpad, an online package available to Global Crossing’s internal salespeople, will be up on the agent extranet within the coming months.

No More “Winging It” Sales

This added focus on training addresses a growing carrier concern that agents represent the services in a professional manner. Agents who previously were focused on selling long distance to their friends and family may have to take a different approach to enter new markets.

“Agents today who are continually ignoring the convergence and the bundled service offerings and are continuing to sell a low voice minute are going to find their bases eroding, and really will find themselves behind the curve in terms of understanding the market and the applications and being able to sell,” says Leach. “We have a lot of plans to take our agent program upmarket with frame relay, DSL, local, and we have a full product set of services to sell. We want that representation to be professional and are going to make sure that the agents are well trained to do that.”

Global Crossing’s alternate channels president adds, “We want to make sure we have the right people selling the right people the right way. We don’t want anyone setting false customer expectations. That just leads to customer dissatisfaction. We want our partners to represent what Global Crossing offers, how we offer it, what the terms and conditions are, how the implementation and the installation are going to work, and to go through and be able to explain so there is no misunderstanding.”

Creating a training strategy combines channel partner selection and management. It speaks to an enormous resource issue on the part of the carriers themselves, according to Mary Bradshaw,
president of the MultiMedia Telecommun-ications Association (www.mmta.org), which provides certification programs
for carriers.

In return for more targeted training, which takes agents’ needs into account, carriers hope their strategy will deliver a professional, knowledgeable agent base to the market.

“Taking on more of a solutions sale means looking at the whole picture,” Bradshaw says. “Your customers will rely on you to sort through the many options and the confusion.”

Tara Seals is agent channel editor for
PHONE+ magazine.

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