The Cutting Room


In fact, they’d have us believe, it’s quite the opposite. Networks love independent dealers and want them by their side for many years to come.

Phrases like “steady partner”, “pillar”, “power of the indirect channel” and “key to our strategy” have all been bandied about like colourful flags from the soapboxes of various network chiefs.

In fact, it seems they’ve been overdoing it. At the recent Dextra Airtime dealer forum, for example, delegates heard the reassurance of commitment to independent dealers more than twice from the same person and would have been forgiven for going on overkill alert.

At 3’s dealer conference recently, sales director Marc Allera, director of indirect sales Bernie O’Beirne and CEO Kevin Russell all made a motherly fuss over the high quality of its remaining dealers after massive cuts over the past year.

Dealers can also supposedly cash in big time on 3’s new Mix & Match tariffs, which offer not only an attractive value proposition for consumers, but also an attractive commission structure. On top of that is the promise that there will be no hidden deals that are only available direct, so it sounds pretty sweet.

It all sounds like a comforting message for dealers who have long complained about what they see as dubious network activity, such as pushing direct deals and poaching customers. But is it all just too good to be true?

Most dealers at the Dextra and 3 events seemed quite chuffed that the networks were making a statement about how valuable indirect business is, especially in connecting small business customers. But one wary dealer commented: “I wouldn’t trust any of them with my last 5p.”

Is he justified? It’s easy to draw the conclusion that networks pledge their loyalty to independent dealers when they launch their shiny new products, but, once these products have found their place in the market, independents are discarded like a jilted lover.

3 has openly said it will rely on independent dealers to roll out its new business propositions, and by next year other networks could have already gained enough traction with their business offers to rely less on the indirect channel.

And if you take a closer look, you’ll see that behind the soothing words, the networks are starting to look with a predator’s eyes on formerly safe dealer territory.

3 has suggested that it will tailor its retail structure to accommodate the growth it expects in business customers. Orange has already announced that it will open three business-oriented stores by the end of the year. This all encroaches on the last bastion of the mobile market for the independent channel.

Obviously it will take time for the networks to train their staff to be able to sell more complex business deals adequately, but once they do, the writing could be on the wall for B2B dealers.

So where does this leave independent dealers? They’ve already had to largely relinquish the consumer arena in the wake of declining consumer commissions and fierce network competition. Maybe the same will go for B2B before too long and the networks and big chains will rule the high street for ever more.

According to one network spokesman, “The indirect channel has a reach that we just don’t have.” That might be true for now, but the rollout of business stores will see the networks’ reach widen even further. Be afraid.