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March 12, 2009
By Cara Sievers
Behind every good agent lies a good back office. To be able to concentrate on selling to current customers and generating relationships that will hopefully create new customers, agents must be cognizant of everything that needs to happen smoothly behind the scenes.
Agents can get a significant amount of help from master agents or carriers, especially in the areas of proposal tools, lead-generation and quoting. But what if you have to do it yourself? Or what if you have to fill in the gaps? And whether supported by a staff or handling such necessities yourself, laying the groundwork in a few areas will promote a supportive and productive back office.
Advisers. You will require a relationship with an attorney, an accountant and a banker. The attorney will assist with paperwork and guidelines that need to be followed to establish the type of business and to set up legal status as a business — S Corp, partnership or DBA as examples. The accountant will advise when to pay, what tax and how much to pay. The banker will help set up your new business account and will lend startup monies if and when needed.
Need some free advice? Agents recommended SCORE, a nonprofit association that offers free and confidential small business advice for entrepreneurs. Both working and retired executives and business owners donate face time and expertise as business counselors. It has 389 chapters throughout the United States and its territories, with 10,500 volunteers nationwide.
Facilities. Once these fundamentals are in place, you will need a place to work: office space, fax, e-mail, Internet access, telephone system and service.
Agents just starting out might find it easier to keep costs down if they work from their homes —and nowadays, with so many distributed workforces and telecommuters, home offices are more widely accepted. If you decide on a home office, consider setting up a P.O. Box to make it look like you have an actual office. And whether you have a small office or a home office, you also can go with an automated hosted phone service instead of a PBX to give the appearance of a larger shop. If you choose not to work out of your home, use a local real estate agent to help you find office space that’s right for you. And make sure to tap one of your carriers or master agents to outfit your office with communications services.
Whether a BlackBerry or other smartphone, a good mobile device is a must for any agent. Although some might think this goes without saying, it’s important to note that as an agent, you are a relationship manager; and in order to successfully manage any relationship, you must be available and reliable. If you don’t already have a QWERTY keyboard on your phone, you’ll find it very necessary as you begin answering not only calls, but e-mails, on the go.
Marketing. To kick off an agent business, you’ll need a business and marketing plan. Determine what amount of funds can be allocated for marketing in your budget and how you intend to expand that amount as your business grows. You’ll need some type of branding from the get-go to set you apart in the minds of your customers from other agents that come calling. If you can develop a color scheme, that’s great. If you can develop a logo, that’s better.
Of course, you’ll need business cards; the best places to go for those are the big box retailers, such as Staples, Office Max or Office Depot. You’ll get paper choices comparable to those at specialty printers, but the prices will be much better, averaging around $50 for 500 cards.
It is also highly recommended that you set up a Web site as soon as possible. Search the Web for canned Web site designers, offering URLs/setups for around $50 to $100. These will be very basic, out-of-the-box designs, but at least you’ll have a Web presence. When your revenue picks up, you’ll want to actually hire a designer to upgrade and personalize your Web site.
Another easy marketing tool to consider is direct marketing e-mail blasts. Constant Contact is a Web-based e-mail marketing tool that can allow you to design professional-looking mass e-mails and send them to thousands of targets on a regular basis; prices start at $15 per month. You also can buy lists of leads from organizations such as Hoover’s or Dun & Bradstreet. Just remember that usually the quality of the leads is proportionate to how much money you’re spending — some leads might be “guaranteed,” but you’ll pay more. And you will want to verify the e-mails before sending out the blasts whenever possible so you don’t get nailed for spamming.
General Business Software. You will need the standard office software programs, such as Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook. Word will be used for drafting letters. Excel will be used for comparing quotes from multiple providers. Outlook will be used for sending and receiving e-mail, storing contacts and keeping track of appointments. For customer presentations, you might also need PowerPoint.
Accounting is another function that an independent agent will need to take care of in-house. A one- or two-man shop can’t afford an accountant. Therefore, many say QuickBooks is the best software solution for managing the accounting of a very small business. As a small independent agent, you most likely could start with the free options for the Web-based tool and the desktop software, and upgrade the software if it doesn’t have the functionality you need. Even if you decide to upgrade, QuickBooks Pro 2009 is available for less than $200.
Note that if you are not well-versed in these programs, online courses or on-site training courses are available and recommended before you begin.
To be a successful agent, you must maintain a back office to manage your prospects and customers. This includes provisioning/order tracking, contact management, lead generation and quotes/sales proposals.
All master agents should supply tools to track commissions and orders; carriers should provide support via online tools, channel managers and regular updates on moves/adds/changes and disconnects (MACDs). And although a lot of carriers provide Web-based CRM for order tracking, keep in mind it has to be updated, so the information is late a lot of the time and subject to human error, especially with the larger carriers.
The master agent support staff will vary greatly in their commitment to support and hand-holding as you get up to speed. Some will assist you with the vast amount of paperwork required while others will occasionally complete the paperwork for you. This is a tremendous asset because it is time-consuming, and its accuracy is critical for the successful provisioning of the service.
Once an order is submitted, you might assume that it will be provisioned correctly, billed correctly and will remain in service without collapsing occasionally over the months and years to come. That is an incorrect assumption. If you are not experienced in telecom you should reach out to the master agent and/or the carrier for assistance in working through these issues. Accomplishing this on your own will be time-consuming and will take away from prospecting and selling activities.
However, some master agents routinely do provide assistance with quoting, paperwork, provisioning, order changes, out-of-service issues and incorrect carrier billing. They are rare and might deduct monies from your commissions to pay their “back office” for this support.
With so many variances in the type and quality of support offered by master agents and carriers, an agent might find that even though extreme care was taken in choosing which providers to partner with, he or she might need to fill in the gaps back at home — especially in a multivendor shop.
Contact Management Software. You will need to track and maintain a database for potential, new and existing clients. ACT, as one example, can be used to track the status of leads, the sources of leads, next steps in a project (both in the sales and implementation processes), contract expiration dates, vendor payments, commissions and much more. The system provides many options for customization so it works with you, not against you, and it has simple and useful reminders and follow-up tools to keep you on track. Keeping so much information in one space really allows you to get the big picture of a customer through one portal.
Another very popular contact management tool is Salesforce.com. This well-known CRM software is very intuitive and can be used to manage leads effectively. However, you might not need this solution at the outset because it is geared toward managing a much larger sales funnel. The reality is that as a startup, you won’t have the 400 to 500 sales opportunities that Salesforce.com has the horsepower for. More likely, you will have 25 to 50 accounts. Excel — or even Microsoft Outlook — might suffice for managing this smaller number of contacts if you aren’t expecting any bells and whistles.
Provisioning/Order Tracking. Outsourcing provisioning and order tracking is cost-prohibitive for the small, independent agent. For tracking order progress, especially if you want an overall view of multiple providers, an old-fashioned Excel spreadsheet is probably your best bet. MasterStream offers an order-tracking function, but all info has to be input manually so this is probably better for a multiperson shop. Another option is Autotask, a Web-based tool that is a little more pricey. Autotask can be customized to generate automated e-mail notifications/reminders for various steps/processes for each different order.
Quoting/Sales Proposal Tools.You can get help from master agents and carriers in the areas of proposal tools and quoting. Most master agents provide quotes when a request is made. The larger ones have their own Web portals that provide automated quote generation, pricing and promotion information that is easy to use and navigate.
Many carriers also provide their own quoting and sales proposal tools. However, if you carry a lot of business with one carrier, such tools might not reflect discounted pricing that might be available to you. As you familiarize yourself with each provider’s online portal, you might find you get better answers, and perhaps more competitive pricing, from your channel manager.
If you want to quote several carriers on the same product all at once, you’ll need to rely on a master agent who either has programmed its own multivendor quote tool, or rebrands one like MasterStream or RPM. But if you’re working directly with several carriers, you’ll have no choice but to individually collect the quote information and manually aggregate it into a spreadsheet.
Commission Tracking.As an independent agent, you are ultimately responsible for yourself. You should have access to a Web-based tool that gives inventory and commission status of all orders at any point in the process with each carrier or master agent you partner with.
Balance your commissions with your inventory each month with the same diligence you do your own personal bank account. With so many transactions between providers, carriers, master agents, subagents, direct salespeople and clients, they are subject to error on occasion. Also, carriers break orders and products out differently — some pay on usage, port, circuit, etc. — and sometimes, elements of your order might be left out.
Audit and reconcile your commissions each month or risk being underpaid. And stay up to date with this process as most carriers allow disputes of commission accuracy during only a small window of time after the payment is made.
You should continue to track your commissions with each partner on an individual basis, and you have the option of centralizing your tracking in a program like MasterStream or Excel. And, if you’re working with a master agent, they may be able to provide you with systems or personnel to help with commissions auditing.
Knowledge. Build your knowledge base every chance you get. Soak up training offered by master agents and carriers, whether it’s in product knowledge or sales training. It’s just like putting WD-40 on the gears that make things work — the more you know about products, processes and even your customers, the more smoothly the machine will operate.
Organization. Just as in any business, the key to a good back office is organization. From prospect to provisioning, an agent must know where each and every customer is at any given moment, and should schedule and execute follow-up diligently. Don’t let the details be the downfall of your business. Organization experts suggest keeping a list of priorities for your year, month, week and day, so you will always be kept on task and moving toward your goals.
PHONE+ would like to thank the following for contributing to this article: Laura Bernstein, president, CRA Inc.; Dan DiOrio, president, Telco Pro USA; Jay Frank, managing partner, Nice Touch Communications Inc.; Amy Gerber, vice president, Tel-Affinity Corp.; Doug Turpin, president, Venture Group Enterprises Inc..
Looking for more information on getting started in the telephony business? This article is from the PHONE+ Fact Book, The Telecom Agent’s Go-To Guide. This compilation of advice, tutorials, glossaries and best practices from the editors of PHONE+ and other contributors provides basic information on how to become an agent and how to build a business. To download your free copy, click here.
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