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After a few years of inconsistent service, many Lucent Technologies Inc. customers are discovering that if they want Lucent expertise, they shouldn’t look to Lucent—not directly, that is.

“Service started breaking down here in the last couple of years,” said Dennis Eby, a transmission engineer for Matanuska Telephone Association, a Competitive Local Exchange Carrier in Anchorage, Alaska. “Basically, you couldn’t get anything from [Lucent] anymore. There was zero support.”

Eby was used to the early ’90s, when he could purchase products directly from a Lucent salesman and then call the company’s 800 number for service. That was the business model then, but it’s changed for everyone.

Given the expansion and contraction of the telecommunications market, Lucent and its competitors have gone through difficulties as they try to service all customers. Not having the breadth or bandwidth internally to help everyone, Lucent decided to shift resources a few years ago to serve its largest 50 to 75 customers, such as Verizon Communications Corp., SBC Communications Inc. and British Telecommunications plc.

The rest of the business passed over to Lucent’s reseller channel. Unfortunately, that handoff didn’t go as smoothly as the company hoped. Some suppliers were little more than distributors of Lucent products. Technical knowledge was a crapshoot. Unlike working with Lucent directly, customers couldn’t rely on support from resellers. According to Ed Graham, group vice president for sales for Global Business Partners at Lucent, based in Murray Hill, N.J., the company’s reseller program was “fragmented and inconsistently managed.”

In 1994 Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom had a direct relationship with a Lucent sales representative. By 1996 that disappeared. At that point, Bill Fogg, a network planner for WCVT, in Waitsfield, Vt., had no choice but to contact resellers to get access to Lucent products, so Fogg created a design of what he needed and submitted it to suppliers for quotes.

“One vendor would put a particular part on, and another one wouldn’t,” said Fogg. “It was difficult and frustrating from a purchasing standpoint.”

By 1998 Lucent took back WCVT as a direct customer, only to move it off again to a reseller a few years later. Fogg’s initial reaction was “OK, here we go again. We dealt directly with Lucent and then we couldn’t. Then they keep changing their mind.”

Fortunately for Fogg, he was wrong. Lucent got its reseller program under control with the formation of its Global Business Partners Program. The first step for the newfound reseller oversight group was to trim fat. Suppliers with no accreditation that were carrying Lucent products had to go. Only the most knowledgeable and dedicated resellers could sell Lucent products.

To bolster its sales, Lucent sought resellers with knowledge and access to hard-to-reach verticals such as utilities, Independent Local Exchange Carriers and ISPs, as well as government and enterprise customers. As a result, the field of resellers was trimmed down, and conflicts in the channel were minimized. The increased management and scrutiny offered “a superior business proposition to the partners so that we’re not overdistributed and not undermining or undercutting [their] investment,” said Graham.

Meanwhile, WCVT’s network was growing, and needs were starting to mount. Given Fogg’s experience with suppliers, he wasn’t looking forward to going back. But that changed when Lucent introduced him to Michael Ososke of LightRiver Technologies Inc., an accredited Lucent reseller. “Michael probably is the most knowledgeable person on Lucent transport products that I’ve ever talked with,” Fogg said. His attitude toward resellers has changed since meeting Ososke and LightRiver. “I don’t call anybody else,” he said. “I call Mike.”

LightRiver might as well be an extension of Lucent. LightRiver CEO Glenn Johansen worked at Lucent for 10 years. During his tenure, Johansen witnessed Lucent try to handle almost all its customers directly. With the way the industry was expanding, Johansen said it couldn’t continue this way. “[Lucent] would have to adopt a model similar to that of the data networking industry where ‘partners’ were critical,” he said.

Five years later, LightRiver has 33 employees; half are former Lucent workers, including Ososke. In 2001 LightRiver approached Dennis Eby’s company, MTA, to offer its services and won a bid to expand the network with Lucent’s Metropolis DMX optical networking.

For now, Lucent’s Global Business Partners Program is working. As WCTV’s Fogg said, “I don’t care if we ever go back to dealing directly with Lucent, as long as LightRiver can continue to do as good a job for us as they are now.”

Free-lance writer David Spark can be reached at