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May 4, 2009
By Lynn McCullough, Association Manager, Technology Channel Association
Moving toward a more standardized, professional business philosophy, indirect sales agents united with carriers and launched the Technology Channel Association (TCA) in July of last year. Recently, TCA charter members provided their two cents on ways this working relationship could be improved. The good news is that while the agent and vendor communities admittedly don’t always see eye-to-eye, both are willing to compromise for the ultimate good of the business.
Calling for Change. From both sides, it has become clear through the formation of TCA that now is the time to change and improve the indirect channel. Many agree that communication, ironically, is a weak point in the telecommunications industry.
“The industry is in the midst of a technological change so there needs to be a high level of communication between agents and vendors,” stated Tom Gorey, national director of the Business Partner Program at XO Communications. “We’re concerned that most resources are under utilized. Some agents don’t think they need it or just don’t understand it. If it’s not understood, it needs to be communicated so we can improve it.”
In any case, it’s important that indirect sales agents aren’t painted with the same brush stroke as the in-house sales teams, according to Dany Bouchedid, founding president of TCA and CEO of COLOTRAQ. “What frustrates indirect sales agents is there are often too many comparisons to direct sales people. We’re working to ensure that vendors truly understand the differences between the two and note these differences when drafting contracts and setting quotas,” he said.
Peter Radizeski, president of RAD-INFO, said he has concerns about many aspects of channel systems from quoting to contracts, provisioning, billing the circuit and collecting commissions. “It seems that for a technology channel, the moving parts don’t integrate well, resulting in extra work and follow up for the agents,” he said.
Perceptions of Professionalism. From a vendor’s perspective, these problems could be a result of a perceived lack of organization and professionalism on the part of the agent. Some major carrier concerns include:
Can carriers trust an indirect sales agent to take the time to learn about their products and represent the company accurately? “Indirect channels are an important part of any well-run vendor’s business, but the telecommunications industry suffers from a distinct lack of professionalism in too many areas on both sides,” said XO’s Gorey. “We ask ourselves, ‘Will the agents take the time to learn?’ An ideal agent is somebody who is willing to educate themselves. If they don’t understand the products, operational structure or who they need to talk to for resources, they can’t do a good job.”
Are agents being customer-centric? Craig Schlagbaum, vice president of indirect channels for Level 3 Communications, agreed that an ideal agent is one that is not only knowledgeable but customer-centric. “The most successful partners are capable of selling total solutions to their customers and are not just selling circuits for low prices. Those partners are the ones that bring in the larger opportunities and have far more loyal customers. We’ve had much less success with partners that are fulfillment-oriented. This solutions approach comes from VARs in the high-tech channel, and it applies equally to the agent channel as well,” said Schlagbaum.
Achieving Mutual Goals through Certification. Both agents and vendors alike agree that one way to ensure greater trust and to weed out agents focused on a quick buck rather than the customer is to establish a professional certification program and formally agree on mutual goals.
From the agent’s perspective, it’s all about increasing credibility as well as value. “One of the main concerns that indirect agents are facing is the legitimacy of various channel programs that fuel this industry, which effects account protection, consolidation, along with many more issues. We want to ensure that the channel is providing value to the vendors and that the vendors build long-term programs that agents can commit to and build a strong business around,” said Ian Kieninger, General Manager at CDW.
From the vendors’ perspective, it’s about expanding business potential. “In the past year, over 50 percent of our sales are ‘new logo,’ meaning we didn’t have an existing relationship with these customers beforehand,” noted Schlagbaum. “Agents find incremental relationships and opportunities that we didn’t have before or don’t get from the inside sales force.”
No matter what, one thing remains at the top of all agents’ and vendors’ priority lists: the customer. “Let’s not forget that at the end of the day, the winners will always be the customers, as the caliber of service they receive becomes markedly improved,” said Bouchedid.
Lynn McCullough is association manager for the Technology Channel Association (TCA), where she is involved with the direction and management of the association, as well as membership recruitment and retention. She provides direction on strategy and tactical issues, with responsibilities that include Board of Director relations, strategic development and event planning. She can be reached at [email protected].
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