Making connections

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Paul Line, general manager of Telcoinabox believes product innovation is a bit of a misnomer, encouraging thoughts of a tangible product such as the iPad. The truth in the telco market is innovation is more of a product and service bundle, he says.

Telcoinabox itself is a white label communications company, providing networks and packages for franchisees to put their own stamp on, re-branding the services they offer customers.

"As a reseller, we don't really make anything, but we take innovation from other sources and add our own value. In IT and telco, innovation is critical. Think of iPad, iPhone (which I think was more revolutionary), the whole Blackberry service, even at carrier level with the network.

"Telstra's Next G network for instance. They had to make some strategic decisions about which direction they were going. They took a strategic flier and ploughed investment into a vastly superior network that is data focused and data ready."

While a decade ago the revenue in the telco industry predominantly came from fixed line voice service, there was then a slow shift to mobiles. Fixed data then developed into broadband and there has been a shift from fixed data to mobile access, Line says.

"Hundreds of thousands of consumers have moved into the wireless broadband arena," he highlights. "It's the hottest part of the business."

Communications

The shift from voice to data communication and an emphasis on mobility has forced Telcoinabox to go and forge new relationships with carriers.

"Two years ago our major business was with Telstra wholesale. But there was not as much innovation as we would have liked," he explains.

Optus has brought other products to the Telcoinabox business, he reveals, such as wireless data and 3G mobile access.

"They've been innovative in bundling price and offer. It's not just geeky stuff, but how you market it. Optus is the only carrier to offer wholesale cap plans."

So Telcoinabox has broadened its relationship with carriers, and subsequently its offer. And while the traditional offers remain, customers look for options. Rural customers for instance are more likely to pick a carrier for its network coverage; others may require a robust reliable voice service, other end users may opt for price as the deciding factor on which network to sign with.

"We target the SME space which is dependent on good customer service. These customers are not big enough for a big carrier to really love them, but they are not just consumers, they are using communications to run their business and this has an impact on their livelihood.

"Our niche is for the franchisee to offer them a level of personal service, they're in small business too and understand their needs."

As "carrier agnostics", as Line puts it, franchisees are able to be open with customers and discuss the various options and bundles from different networks though these will be white label products.

Telcoinabox also adds innovation to its offer to franchisees and end customers as Line explains. "We shield our franchisees and customers," he says. "For instance, the Optus system is not so easy to deal with and we go through that pain, make it work; we invest in systems and resources."

The franchisor is now big enough to have some influence on the major carriers it works with: Line believes Telcoinabox is now one of the fastest growing accounts in the wholesale sector at Telstra, while some of the systems available to the franchisor from Optus are in direct response to its requirements.

"IT and telco are more and more converged and our market is more data driven. Players like Google with its Android handset are buying data links and this is encroaching on traditional telco space," Line says.

He is predicting a change of mindset to an approach that combines the two sectors.

New ideas in technology are not just product based however. Just as with the telecoms market, innovation in the world of computers can establish improved services for customers: answering the clients' needs is really the benchmark of success, as Nick Roche, national director Australia at Computer Troubleshooters reiterates.

"Our role as a global franchisor is to understand the strategic landscape that is relevant to our small business IT target market and then define which technology or customer demand we want to target or that we need to understand for the future. In the IT industry innovation originates mainly from vendors’ offerings or product launches."

Now with more than 90 outlets in Australia and almost 500 outlets worldwide in 27 countries, Computer Troubleshooters provides onsite IT support to businesses and home offices through two models: in one franchisees handle the service work and in the second model home based or retail service centre based franchisees employ technicians. Computer Troubleshooters offers on site support, repair, maintenance, setup and user help.

"We provide a complete package in a low-overhead structure, with access to a whole range of franchisee benefits. Many of our franchisees have strong IT backgrounds in corporate environments or have a passion for IT and are looking for a challenging small business as an alternative for lifestyle, financial, and personal development reasons.

"Our role as franchisor is to develop an offering from strategic intent to implementation, the franchisee tends to keep us honest on what is achievable and sellable. We then work with our franchises, vendors and customers to refine a service offering that will work financially, operationally, and from a marketing perspective.

"A great example would be the rise of remote access technologies and monitoring tools for IT networks, this means that much like a corporate IT department you no longer need to have a technician on site to solve around 50 per cent of problems. In fact with monitoring we can predict breakdowns before they happen," says Roche.

This technology means that a small business IT network can be actively distance-managed and this allows many businesses to outsource their IT without increasing downtime risk or time lost. Downtime equates to significant dollar loss for many companies now business-dependent on IT systems.

"The customer demand side of this equation has been building rapidly with the number of computers per site growing exponentially," adds Roche. "We have seen this trend emerging from the US over the last five years and have been working on our BEST Managed Service offering where we have conducted vendor reviews, developed preferred vendor partnerships, defined plan offerings, support material documentation, and advertising collateral that allows a franchise to embrace what would otherwise be an almost impossible task for a small business."

Procedures

But when it comes to knowing how operations can be better managed, innovation is at the hands of the franchisees on the front line, admits Roche. "As a territory defined franchise our franchisees see themselves as peers rather than competitors, so are quite happy to share ideas or methods on a daily basis. In fact when you survey our franchisees you find peer support and ideas sharing as one of the main reasons they value the franchise."

New vendor or marketing ideas that have worked for a franchisee are refined by the franchisor, documented and formalised so these innovations can be shared across the group. A typical example of this, says Roche, is the CT

Reboot tool; this automates some IT tasks and provides a formal approach to solve a particular problem. This tool was originally built by a franchisee and shared with the group; over time it has been improved and kept relevant to the changing market.

"This reduces the need for a franchisee to know everything themselves and of course a new member of the group gets access to this benefit straight away," says Roche.

"Constant innovation stimulus from both strategic and tactical levels is a key benefit of being part of the world's largest IT support franchise network. Without this it is possible to miss opportunities or worse become irrelevant to the customer," Roche believes.

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