Birch Communications Channel Chief: We Aren't Just A Plain Old Telephone Service Anymore

All Grown Up

Atlanta-based Birch Communications is a veteran service provider that has gone through a slew of acquisitions – 28, to be exact, over the past decade – in an effort to become more channel-friendly and differentiate itself in the crowded telecommunications market.

Paul Masters and his father-in-law founded Ernest Communications in 1998, a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) that was acquired by Birch Communications in 2013. When Birch President and CEO Tony Tomae took over at the helm in May, he promoted Masters to senior vice president of alternate channels for Birch. With his roots firmly planted in the channel, Masters has been instrumental in raising Birch's profile with solution provider agents during his six-month tenure as channel chief.

CRN sat down with Masters to learn more about Birch's evolution, the technology focus it has today, and how the provider is supporting partners now and into the future. Here is what Masters had to say.

Tell us a little bit what Ernest Communications has added to Birch Communications.

My [father-in-law and I] spent 15 years building a company that was focused on consolidating voice for large, multi-location organizations, and in 2013 we sold Ernest to Birch. Birch's [former CEO], Vincent Oddo, asked me to stay on, and essentially create that practice inside of Birch, which was at that time really a small regional carrier and more SMB-focused. [Birch] had partners, but it was really smaller, direct relationships in communities where they had facilities. Then we come along and we have agreements with every carrier in every state, so we really built out the geographic footprint for Birch.

Even more importantly than that, we were 100 percent channel-focused, so we brought with us all the master relationships that Birch didn’t have. Over the course of the last three years, Birch has been trying to create mindshare as a company in that particular community.

Having started at Birch as vice president of sales three years ago, tell us about your new role in the channel.

In the last year I have taken over all of the channel at [Birch] and anything to do with partners is my responsibility. In the last five months, we also brought in a new CEO – Tony Tomae -- and he has brought with him a vision to grow organically instead of through acquisitions. We have made 28 questions since 2007.

The partner community is a big component of that organic growth. When Tony came in, he promoted me to senior vice president of alternate channels. It's not too different on a day-to-day basis, but I do have an elevated role that helps underpin the emphasis on growing through our channel.

What kinds of partners does Birch have today?

There's really been a shift away from solution providers having direct relationships with carriers, and there seems to be more of a migration towards master agents, with partners working through masters. While we do have direct relationships and we are actively seeking those as well, we have a big emphasis on creating more mindshare with master agents. There's so much leverage associated with dealing with [a master agent] and reaching thousands of their sub-agents as opposed to trying to pick those off one or two at a time. We just see a much better return on invent from focusing our time and energy on the master agents.

What kinds of resources does Birch have today to support its partners?

We have our national channel managers that are situated around the country, and their mission in life is to recruit, train and support sub-agents and the local partners in the community. Last year, we created a team called 'National Partner Development' and that's really been a game-changer for us. That national team spends the majority of their time working directly with the master agents. They work with the marketing team and the sales support staff, constantly making sure the [master agents] of the world have the latest product and promotional information and up-to-date quotes.

As a result of Birch's new channel focus, what kind of growth are you seeing?

Our numbers have grown pretty dramatically. For our third-quarter [2016], sales though partners were up 70 percent over the same quarter last year, and that’s a pretty phenomenal number -- we are pretty proud of that. We think our strategy is working, and over the course of 2016 we will have attended and hosted over 100 different partner events.

We aren't done yet -- we think we can double our sales by end of 2017, so we are still pushing hard.

In a crowded telecom market, how is Birch making its services more visible to the channel?

One thing that we are really excited about is [joining] MasterStream in about a week. It's essentially a quoting portal that master agents use in some form or fashion and it makes is so much easier for masters and their sub-agents to get quotes. We haven't been the easiest to quote, at least in terms how much simpler and faster MasterStream makes [the process].

For example, if a partner needs a quote for a 10-meg circuit and 10 hosted PBX seats, either the partner or a master agent goes to MasterStream to find out which providers offer that service at a particular location. We are not in there today, so most of those deals -- at least from the masters -- never know we exist unless they thought to call their channel manager or used one of our quoting tools to try to validate our service there. That will no longer be an issue, and we are really looking forward to the amount of visibility that we are going to have throughout all the masters and partners we have today. We conservatively believe that our quotes will double or triple in a short amount of time because of the visibility that tool gives us.

What can we expect, in terms of services and solutions, coming down the pike from Birch?

A big offering that is relativity new is our fiber footprint. We are approaching a million connected buildings in our inventory today through either our own fiber/Ethernet assets, or a combination of our own assets and the strategic partners that we have relationships with, so that is really been a source of newfound success. The partner world knows us as a POTS [Plain Old Telephone Service] provider and we are proud of that -- these multi-location POTS opportunities are still coming in droves, and we still plan on seeing them for a long time to come -- but when you talk cloud, the first thing you ask a customer is, 'Do you have the bandwidth to support it?' So the fiber footprint has been huge for us. That will continue to grow and we will continue to add more strategic partners into that inventory. We could be looking at 2 million [fiber-lit] building in a year from now, so that, with a combination of hosted PBX, is the first wave you'll see from us.

We are also getting ready to relaunch our Total Cloud Data Center, which is an IaaS solution, and we will have a DRaaS shortly. Software-defined networking is also on our road map.

Where is the big opportunity for partners?

Two years ago, it wasn't a consideration for large retail customers to consolidate their local voice lines or to move completely to a cloud-based type of a solution, whether it's SIP or hosted, but we are seeing that more today because I think the quality of service is there now.

The name of the game in the partner community is ease of use. Partners have multiple providers coming at them every single day, and we don’t think we need to have the cheapest price, or the most cutting-edge technology, because what it really boils down to is how easy are we to do business with starting from the quote, how we get the product installed, and how well we support it if there is an issue.

Tell us something about Birch that partners don’t know.

Interestingly enough, we are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year. We feel like there aren't many service providers on the CLEC side that can boost about being as successful as we've been over the last 20 years. In a lot of ways, it feels kind of like we are a startup -- with the new focus on organic sales, and focus on moving into more cloud-based technology, and putting the tools in our partners' hands more quickly -- it's like a brand-new company.

I travel and talk to partners all over the country, and we [are] sharing the message of a million lit buildings, hosted PBX, and cloud capabilities. We want partners to know that regardless of how they knew Birch in the past, there is so much more. But our job is to share the gospel of Birch being a significant player in areas you never knew we were in – that's on us, we have to do a better job of making sure we are evangelizing with our partners that we are much more capable than we were in the past.