November 1, 1999
Agents Seek Online Account Management
By Jill Collins
Fed up with the time-consuming and error-prone paper shuffle that is the current
telephony provisioning process, agents are clamoring for automated online ordering systems
to manage their businesses. The first attempts at automation, offered to agents by
carriers and resellers, were simply the initial order entry. Next came the ability to do
adds, moves, changes and deletes electronically.
But these no longer are the only capabilities agents crave. Instead, what
agents–master agents, subagents and independent agents alike–are looking for is an
automated system that enables them to perform daily tasks with ease.
To answer agents’ demands, some carriers and resellers are taking the next step by
offering more advanced online ordering systems that include such features as commission
attachments, status checks and subagent access and reporting.
"It’s finally here and it’s long overdue and very welcome," says Master Agent
Ted Schuman, CEO and president of U S Telebrokers Inc., Scottsdale, Ariz., of advanced
automated provisioning systems.
Schuman says, "It ultimately provides a better service to us, which relates in us
providing a better service to our agents and our customers. They get activated faster, the
agents are happier because they don’t need to rely on the master agents to process their
orders and answer simple questions, and a master agent can afford to offer more aggressive
programs to run a little leaner [and] to stay competitive in the marketplace. It’s a
win-win for everybody."
Not all agents are so enthusiastic. Independent agents report that even the advanced
systems have their drawbacks, and they are not all technical in nature. Few carriers or
resellers have made their systems easy to use or have taken steps to train agents on their
use, they say. Furthermore, they say many of the systems are not available to all agents,
but only to a select few either as a matter of policy or inadvertent discrimination
against nontechnical users.
"Guys who have a large organization have the time and some computer techs on their
staff to … figure out how to use [the automated systems], but for the independent,
one-man operation, what would he have to go through to get there?" asks one agent,
who requested anonymity.
Other agents question the efficacy of the systems altogether, noting that they are only
as automated as the carrier’s back office–which very often is not–and regulatory
requirements will allow.
"I would love to have [an automated system], but you still have an LOA [letter of
agency], you still need a signature," says the anonymous agent.
In essence, the automated order provisioning process is only quasi-electronic because
of the need for back-office support. "It’s not going electronically right from [the
computer] and being provisioned because it still has to go through credit, third-party
confirmation and then provisioning the data from there," explains Rick Ribas, agent
manager for OneStar Long Distance Inc., Evansville, Ind.
This brings the entire automated beast into question–someone needs to get a signature
or third-party verification (TPV); someone has to handle presubscribed interexchange
carrier (PIC) freezes; someone has to do credit checks. As always, this brings automation
down a notch to its origin: human beings. There must be people to handle the order once it
actually gets keyed into the system.
The Limits of Automation
Although companies are doing everything in their power to circumvent the need for live
signatures or a human voice, the fact remains that people are needed to complete the
provisioning process. "Automated order provisioning–is there really such a
creature?" Ribas asks.
Many times a system is automated for the customer whether he is doing an add, move or
change, but not for the back office. What this means is that, although the agent keys in
an order, it needs to go through the back office to get provisioned. All that has changed
with an online order system is that the agent no longer has to fax in the order, and the
back office no longer has to key in the entry by hand.
"It just puts the onus [for mistakes] on the agent," explains Sean Trepeta,
president of OPEX Communications Inc., a switchless reseller in Elk Grove, Ill. "It
gives them the ability to manage their own business, and it gives us the ability to hit
our time frame [for] provisioning."
Depending on the agent, OPEX can provide a range of capabilities–from view-only to
full control over adds, moves, changes and deletes–on its Online Rep system. The company
provides training for its agents, "and once we feel they’re qualified to get on the
system and start doing this work, we let them do more and more," Trepeta says.
OPEX’s Trepeta doesn’t foresee the elimination of the need to get a signed LOA, or to
use a voice response unit (VRU) to verify the transaction. "There is always going to
have to be some form of verifications," he says. "I don’t see it going or at
least us getting away from it, ever."
OneStar’s Ribas agrees. He says that due to slamming and other such tactics to switch
over end users, requirements are becoming more stringent where some states require TPV
even with a signed LOA. "It’s going backwards in that sense," he says. "And
I can’t say backwards–it’s just for the customer’s protection."
However, Master Agent Brad Miehl, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based TheAgentsNetwork, a
division of MicroCorp, believes there is a trend that might take away the need for an
LOA–the use of credit card billing. "There you are getting into a truly paperless
environment, even to the point where the customer can go in and get his bill online,"
More Efficient Management
Despite the limits placed on automated systems, agents still are interested in the
control and efficiencies such systems can provide them in managing their orders and their
Newer automated systems are set up so that these agents can check the status of orders,
or in some cases even check their commissions online either through a proprietary dial-up
system set up on their PC, or access to the system via the company’s Internet web page. A
system set up in either manner requires an agent to enter an identification code for
privacy to authenticate the user and, thus, protect the agent’s information. However,
there is some disagreement in the industry over the level of security possible over the
Some companies, such as the Englewood, Colo.-based reseller UNIVANCE
Telecommunications, do not feel that even personal identification codes can ward off
unwanted visitors to an agent’s personal site. "Each person has their own ID, but it
is not necessarily foolproof," says Kevin Emch, information technology (IT) manager
for UNIVANCE. "We do send commissions electronically, but right now I don’t feel
comfortable posting any hard numbers on the Internet for agents."
In instances like these, agents usually receive commission information via e-mail.
The concern carriers have is that they don’t want an agent to be able to view different
pricing and commission arrangements made with each agent.
Although it’s a reasonable concern, TheAgentsNetwork’s Miehl does not fear the outcome
of posting commissions. "The reward is much greater than the risk we’re taking,"
Miehl says. "We’re only focusing on our own individual agents, and their ability to
actually break through a firewall to get into [the system] is pretty unlikely." He
does admit, though, "I can’t say nothing can be penetrated."
The Commission Attachment
Whether it’s a matter of security, or the fact that providers just don’t have the
ability at present to offer electronic viewing of detailed commissions and accounting
information, it is out there and made available by a select few.
The system TheAgentsNetwork has in place for its master agent and subagent base manages
all billing and commission data online. It calculates commissions automatically, manages
agents’ contracts and all contract volume thresholds, and finally, it generates a payable
report and a list of all the agents to whom a master agent needs to pay commission.
Therefore, any agent with subagents does not need to go into the system manually and
calculate the commissions on each of his individual agents–the system does it for him.
Miehl even is planning to take automation one step further by offering direct deposit
to each of the company’s master agents and their subagents.
In the case of Seattle-based Cognigen Corp., its automated commission system can handle
as many as six layers of subagents per agent. The system calculates every level for the
agent, "so we don’t have to send out anything but checks," says President Kevin
Eliminating the need for in-house accounting has its obvious benefits to master agents
and every level of agent beneath them. While master agents are offering multilevel
commission systems, U S Telebrokers’ Schuman says most carriers haven’t grasped the value
of offering a commission attachment to the original order entry system.
"The carriers’ comments have typically been, ‘We’ll pay you, you pay your subs.
We’re not going to pay your subagents’ commissions. That’s what we’re paying you
for,’" he explains.
Because of this, master agencies must retain an in-house accounting staff to keep track
of commissions. Having the commission attachment "would allow master agents to be
more profitable and pay commissions on a more timely basis," Schuman says.
Not only would the commission attachment be profitable to master agencies, it would be,
and is in some cases, an invaluable tool to every agent, no matter the level.
Fairfield, Iowa-based Telegroup, a division of Primus Telecommunications Inc., McLean,
Va., has an Internet site, RepLink, that breaks down commission by product and customer so
the company’s agents actually can see trends. Telegroup’s agent trainer, Walter Wiese,
says the system kicks out 14 different commission reports per month to its agent base,
"giving them detailed accounting information of their customers and their customer’s
usage, and any problems there might be."
The Status Check
"Ninety percent of the questions, faxes and inquiries that come in to this office
are from our networking distributors. Of those, eight out of 10 are regarding status
issues," Schuman says, explaining the value of an online account status platform that
can answer those simple, routine questions.
Most systems will allow an agent to compare months of customer usage to follow trends.
Other features may include a first- and last-call date, an unbilled toll amount, or a
place to see where the account stands at the carrier, or if it has even made it to the
local exchange carrier (LEC). If there is an account error, a four-digit transaction code
status indicator (TCSI) will be listed so the agent can look up the error and proactively
undo something such as a PIC freeze. OPEX’s system, for example, will guide an agent to a
library explaining what the code means and, if possible, the steps to take in overcoming
"We’ve been doing this for a while on both sides of the fence, as we were–in a
different life–agents," says OPEX’s Trepeta. "We knew what we didn’t like about
carriers, and not getting daily statuses was something that would drive you crazy, because
you didn’t know if your customer was up or not up, and you need to know what your customer
is talking about if he calls you."
While most agents would be satisfied with online status checks, TheAgentsNetwork is
developing a retention module that will move this feature from reactive to proactive.
Expected to be rolled out in December, the module will look at the agent’s base and
evaluate them for crosssell and upsell opportunities. For example, if there is a customer
with 10 accounts billing more than $4,000 a month, Miehl explains, the system will suggest
that the agent recommend T1 service. It then will automatically send a T1 request to the
carrier to get a local-loop quote back. Or if the TheAgentsNetwork runs a certain
promotion, the system will find all the accounts that don’t have calling cards, for
example, and generate a list of those accounts, with contact names and phone numbers, for
the agent to prospect.
"I think the key thing is integrating all the different modules [of an online
order entry system] together, anything from online order entry to status, then to
commissions, and then you go back to retention," Miehl says.
Jill Collins is agency channel editor for PHONE+ magazine.
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