186: The Growing Revenue Opportunity in Connected Services for Independent Retailers

Written by Rob Stott

September 26, 2023

Since its initial launch nearly four years ago, the Connected Services division within Nationwide Marketing Group has evolved into a comprehensive offering for independent retailers. The programs include revenue generators and major money savors for both retailers and their customers – from internet and wireless service to cybersecurity training and more. We sat down with Eric Sindelar, director of connected services, to learn more about how he’s working with retailers to help them make (and save) more money.


Rob Stott: We are back on the Independent Thinking Podcast and an episode, I don’t know, like three and a half years in the making. Just a follow-up, a three and a half year later follow up Mr. Eric Sindelar, our director of Connected Services. How you doing, man?

Eric Sindelar: I am doing great. When you say it’s been three and a half years, I know you and I talk much more frequently than that, but when you told me it was three and a half years, that was kind of shocking to me. So this is long overdue, Rob.

Rob Stott: That’s an error on my part and I apologize.

Eric Sindelar: It’s mutual. It’s mutual.

Rob Stott: No, you’re right though. We do talk a lot because you always have updates going on and I mean I think back to three and a half years ago, and it’s a different, what a different world, right? This is like episode 16 of the podcast, literally a different world. We talked, that was at primetime in Houston, we recorded that episode and a lot’s happened since then. Not just in the world and in health and all that sort of stuff, but just in your world of Connected Services. So I mean, you have a lot to talk about, so I almost want to ask how’s it going? What’s been going on? But that’s a bit much to recap, isn’t it?

Eric Sindelar: Yeah, it’s been a lot and we’ll definitely unfold that. You mentioned health and lots changed over the last years, so knock on wood. We’re all healthy and well. But things for Connected Services have been great, Rob and I really appreciate you asking and really taking the time here. So these four years, so if we go back to when we first had that podcast, at that time we had AT&T and under that umbrella was AT&T and DirecTV. And even since then, those two companies have split. That took place back in 2022 and we maintained strong, probably even better relationships with both of those service providers, both AT&T and DirecTV. So they’re still in our portfolio in a very, very big portion of our business.

In addition to that, and this is where the exciting stuff comes in addition to those two providers, we’ve really grown our footprint for internet providers and currently today we stand with 11 providers and just to name a couple, we’ve got CenturyLink, Frontier, Metronet, Windstream. And when we really take that entire footprint within the US of all these 11 internet service providers, it covers roughly around 90% of the US footprint. So what that means for our members is the opportunity within their market to be most likely they’re able to offer internet to their customers in some shape or form through the models that we can go to market with. So very exciting stuff.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. And I mean that’s just kind of how you started. Right. The name Connected Services was all about providing some unique opportunities for independent retailers to get into these markets and industries where they typically wouldn’t. Right.

It was kind of giving them an opportunity to expand their businesses into unique areas and provide another level of service that I think customers come to expect from independent retailers, but maybe in an area like internet or the smartphone service where they typically wouldn’t think of an independent retailer as the shop where they go but that, and we could dive into that further, but that’s the one aspect, that’s how you launch. But you’ve been doing some serious expanding in other areas for our members, both from the consumer facing side, right, where they can offer services to their members or to their customers, but also turning it inward and giving them the chance to focus on their business. Right. Crazy to think again, we’ve talked a lot so I know about all these things, but the fact that it hasn’t been shared on the podcast, like dive into that, the sort of business technology aspect of what you’ve been doing in Connected Services.

Eric Sindelar: Yeah. So we’ve expanded that as well. So I’ll go back to, this is probably two years ago when we launched the business technology services category. So if you think about that, every one of our members has needs for phone, internet, anything to run their business that’s technology based. And really our objective with that program is really to save them time, save them money and get them better technology ultimately. So now as you said, it’s morphed and even that’s changed. And so today we have the ability to offer our members to help them run their business over 1000 services and providers. So beyond just the phone and internet, this could be software including support for email addresses, DocuSign, cybersecurity, that’s been a really hot button if you’ve seen any of the news out there about the casinos that have been hit recently. But it’s not just for those big, but it hits small businesses as well.

And then even internet of things, we can support service and delivery vehicles from an efficiency standpoint. So there’s a lot of things where we’ve expanded those components. And to make it simple for our members, we just say, Hey, we’re going to provide you a no-cost analysis that is a free member benefit because you’re a member of NMG. And we’ll really assess what they currently have for services and then what we identify based upon their business needs, what might benefit them and also to help support them.

In addition to that no cost analysis, we also have a dark web scan. And Rob, I’d tell you we could spend a lot of time on this one, is just around those cyber attacks, but we hear about these organizations not just because of the size and the impact they make, but it’s not just for the casinos, the big national retailers, but we hear about our own members getting attacked, which is really, really unfortunate and we want to help support them. So one of the things that a dark web scan can do is identify if there’s any credentials for sale on the dark web and then so we can help them, let them know if there are any, what they are and that the passwords that they need to change so those can’t be used against them. So a lot of things that we’ve expanded within that business technology services for our members.

Rob Stott: Yeah. And I mean, I think to just, there’s a couple things that break down in there, right, starting with just the technology stack and kind of reviewing what you’re currently paying. I know there’s instances where members have done that and I mean you talk about cost of dues being covered, they’re saving money per year that they otherwise wouldn’t have thought about. Right. So there’s obviously, I go back to the, kind of the reason Connected Services launched and it’s offering a sale to a customer, but that’s money made that way. There’s also money to be made by savings and that’s kind of what you’ve been able to accomplish with that business technology review, is looking at things like how much they’re paying for their internet and their stores and their phones and things like that. And it’s impacted, had some pretty big impacts for a number of members.

Eric Sindelar: Yeah, it has. And so far from all the quotes that we’ve done, Rob, we’re well over $300,000 in quote savings for our members. And you think about that, it’s a great correlation there because our members do pay dues to us and our job as an organization is to come back to them with exclusive offers, rebates. And this is another way for us to give back to our members and provide them a service where, hey, they’re so busy selling appliances, furniture, consumer electronics. This is us as business professionals understanding the backend side of the operations and what could benefit them and or save them money for their business technology needs.

And it could be where, yeah, we’ve had some members where we save them 50, $100 a month. I’ll share one that we just recently quoted out, was the member was paying $2,800 in services per month and this was for over four locations. This is in services that they weren’t using. So not only is this just, hey, how do we reallocate or what can we change and how can we save you money, but are you using the technology that you’re paying for? And so it could be just cost reduction. So there’s many different ways and benefits to that no cost analysis.

Rob Stott: I almost think about you saying that and describing that feels like those apps that are out there right now that can review all of the streaming services you’re paying for that you might not realize. That’s basically what you’re doing for our members from a technology standpoint.

Eric Sindelar: Absolutely, but very different where this is identifying is it a right fit? Oftentimes what they’ll do is they’ll go back and renegotiate and try and either reduce your rate plan or change your service or cancel your service. Our goal is to save money and keep the same technology or improve it. So similar to that, but much better.

Rob Stott: No, I get that for sure. And then to your other point about the cybersecurity aspect of this, and I know that’s kind of, I say it’s been three years plus for us talking, I know we’ve had some of your partners on the podcast in the past to talk about cybersecurity and things like that and the potential savings there. And you mentioned that we’ve seen some members unfortunately go through cybersecurity attacks and kind of what that can result in costs to the business and things like that. Massive potential savings there, just knowing what’s out there. And you mentioned that again, the time that they’re spending with their customers and in their businesses, it’s things that they might not be thinking about like, oh, I’m not at risk, but it’s that kind of lax feeling about your business that ultimately results in a potential situation arising that we’ve seen as I can imagine.

Eric Sindelar: Yeah. One of the ways that I think about it, and I’ve learned this through going to so many educational sessions around cybersecurity, and one of the things that I always hear is it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s when it’s going to happen. So what I always encourage our members to do is to understand the space, how people can get in, and we can help educate on those things too just by having conversations and we have access to engineers in the cybersecurity space. But a few things that I recommend our members doing is, of course security is great and we can help out with that, but understanding the training, what their employee’s knowledge level is and how people can attack. Because oftentimes it’s human error. So we started off talking about the casinos and kind of mocking that a little bit, but they got in there through social engineering.

And so outside of the dark web, social engineering is another way attackers can get in. So what they did is the attacker posed as somebody within the organization and sent an email requesting access and the access was provided to them. It was that simple. And so there’s so many different ways that people can get in and it’s about educating the employees on how to protect themselves, how to protect the organization, how people might reach out to them to get in. So there’s savings there and sometimes savings in cybersecurity, it’s distance, it’s a distance away because you don’t know those savings are going to get there unless you go, oh, I got hacked. If I would’ve had this then I would’ve saved all this money versus the money I have to spend now on getting it done.

What I always tell everybody is let’s train the employees. Let’s have a plan in place. That can include cybersecurity, what to do in the event something happens. And then that way you’re ready to go and know what to do in the unfortunate event that something does happen. And the more research that I do, the amount of attacks that are taking place and just the sheer getting businesses data is really what they’re looking for and clogging it up and retaining it and really holding it for ransom is what they’re doing. And if we can prevent that, that’s where the savings really is for our members.

Rob Stott: Yeah. And I mean when you’re talking about it’s almost like, well, this feels like a scare tactic just to get me to think about it. But honestly the not if but when is kind of what we’re seeing, is like companies you hear about in the news, the big ones, the MGMs and the hotels, and I think back to the Home Depot’s, Lowe’s and Targets that have been hit, but that’s because there’s billions attached to it. There’s still, we’ve seen, it’s not nickel and dimming, it may be in that regard to that kind of money, but small businesses are getting hit probably more so than those large businesses are because I mean, those large businesses, right, they should have and most likely do now at this point have the technology in place to prevent to an extent those types of attacks from happening. But it’s those mom and pops that are out there that might not be thinking about it where you don’t want to call it easier money for these ransomware attackers, but in some cases it can be.

Eric Sindelar: Yeah. Fully agree. And when you think of our membership base and we had one member that was attacked and the ransomware attack was for $4 million. That’s what the request was. And although that that was well over a year ago, the ramifications of that, I think that organization is just getting past that attack. So it’s the potential money impact, but then it’s also business continuity that gets impacted as well. So it’s not just what they’re requesting, but the continuity where it could shut down a business for weeks if not months.

Rob Stott: Right. It’s crazy to think about. And every industry got kind of the pedal put to the metal and advanced faster over the last couple of years. We go back to the health talk. Right. But this one in particular with employees at home with their own devices and things like that, I know that cybersecurity and the education around it and sort of prevention tactics certainly picked up a lot as well from conversations we’ve had I know over the past couple of years.

Eric Sindelar: Yeah, that’s one of the hottest points is with the work from home, how does an organization secure at the end point, right, our phones, our devices that are connected to the business and ultimately it still comes down to that education of that employee and do they click on that link or not? Do they send an email back with confidential information for social engineering that can allow somebody to be hacked? So a lot of times it comes back down to human error and it’s really understanding how those hackers are getting in. Endpoint protection is great. I don’t want to discount it, but it still comes down to that potential human error and educating that employee.

Rob Stott: Kind of taking a step back, just crazy to think about how our conversation here has progressed, right? We started talking about internet coverage, the business technology, the cybersecurity aspect. When you think back to coming to Nationwide and starting this Connected Services program, did you, I’m sure of course you’ve got the one, three, five, right, plan in mind of what it could look. Did this scope of what you’re doing now ever kind of cross your mind of what this could have potentially become?

Eric Sindelar: I wasn’t sure. In fact I was just trying to learn the membership side of it and how do we interact and how do we engage? And I think one of the things I always look at, I’ve got a restorative nature, meaning I always like to fix things and what I found is how this category is growing. I did not expect it to be like this to answer your question directly, but what’s important for us at Nationwide is really to understand what the needs of our members are. And if I can do a little bit of a segue into some other things is it’s really listening to our members. And so give you an example is I’ve had requests for a Spectrum, I didn’t even mention them earlier. So this is one of our most recent additions is Spectrum. They offer service across 42 states and what’s unique about them, they have very easy to understand tiered pricing with speeds up to one gig.

So we brought those in based upon our members’ feedback and how they want us to grow Connected Services. So that’s one aspect is getting the feedback. Then it’s also learning with our membership base around how do they want to go to market. And if I went back four years ago, we had one way to go to market and that way to go to market was we’re going to train your team on how to sell, how to use the platform that we use to transact these service orders, which is Sara Plus. We’re going to teach your employees how to use it. Well between turnover and really our members, the majority of our members are just amazing at their core business and they stick to their core business. So adding an additional vertical can be challenging. And with that in mind, we created a new program and that’s the referral revenue program is based upon those learnings.

And this program allows our members to leverage these national service provider brands that are within our portfolio and they can market them whether in store, on their web, or as a thank you in the home after a delivery or a service. And we have a pre-approved call center that will close those sales for them. So again, to answer your question, no, I never expected it to go in this direction, but I will say a lot of it, like anything else within NMG, it’s important that we listen to our members and that we modify our approach based upon those needs. And I think that’s what’s really driven the Connected Services category to where it is today.

Rob Stott: I have follow-ups for you there, but I also want to make sure that we don’t just brush over the program you just mentioned, that’s the revenue referral. So talk about kind of how that works and what members need to know about it to sort of take advantage of that.

Eric Sindelar: Yeah, no, I appreciate that. So this is a very unique program and think of it as, our members should look at this as an opportunity for passive income, meaning that oftentimes their marketing promotions within their store and then a salesperson will sell that. We have the opportunity to help them market, as I did mention on the web, in their store, at the customer’s home for a delivery and install or even our service technicians through Service Leaders Network. And we’re working with that team right now on the same program where they can have these assets that are pre-approved from the service providers. They can market it wherever they want. We’ll help support them with those assets that have exclusive offers from these service providers. And it’s very unique where we’re going to have an individual 1-800 number for that member as well as a unique QR code.

And really all the customer has to do is scan that QR code, they set up a time to speak with the call center. And really the benefit of that, Rob, is what we’ve learned from our members is we don’t want to take away from the in-store experience, but we still want them to be able to take advantage of these offers and they can do it in the comfort of their own home because sometimes you are sharing personal information and within a public setting in a store, oftentimes it’s not very comfortable, but they can set an appointment for when they’re available, when they’re at home and a time that’s convenient for them. They get the exclusive offer through that member because they are a part of Nationwide Marketing Group from us on behalf of that provider. And what’s great about these offers, it’s better than what’s available in national retail and often stackable on top of anything that’s going on in national retail.

And then on the backend, once those orders are placed, they’re activated, we have the revenue going right back to the member, which is great. And that revenue can be used in different ways. It could be used for a new vertical for revenue to the bottom line in driving profits. We’re having some conversations with members where they’re going to be using it to drive employee retention where it’s another opportunity for them to make money. And that was a learning through this program as we talked to the membership and just how they look at this program and how they want to use it.

Rob Stott: No, that’s all, and when you say the services that members can use this for, is it internet, like what type of services can they sell through this referral program?

Eric Sindelar: Yeah, we continue to expand it based upon that list I shared with you currently today. Of course, internet. And what’s key about internet is a lot of our providers are fiber. So that’s going to be breaking up a bundle oftentimes maybe from a cable provider and then attaching, not only can you sell fiber, the call center will work on attaching DirecTV to that. So we have video solutions through our great partners at DirecTV. We’ve got all of our fiber solutions, whether it’s AT&T, the other providers that we’ve recently added, Vivint.

So for smart home and security, that’s a great play and it’s a really good fit within our appliance and furniture dealers. If you think of this, Rob, an interesting stat that was shared with me is one in seven Americans are moving every year. So if you think of that, that’s 15% of the population is like in rotation. Right. And they’re going to go visit an appliance store and or a furniture retail store. So chances are they’re going to go see one of our members, and that’s an opportunity for them to be able to, that’s a great fit with Vivint. So if they’re moving somewhere, how do they secure their home and all the things inside of that home. So we’ve got solutions across the board, whether it’s video, internet, security, we can help with all those things.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. And again, it just kind of reinforces just how Connected Services and Nationwide has just grown. I want to say balloon, but a balloon only can go so far. I feel like the way you’ve been expanding this category has been really cool to follow. What’s your mindset, you mentioned talking to the members and kind seeing where their needs are, but as you go out, what’s your approach when you find a need or something arises that you’re realize, all right, well this is the next thing I have to go fix. Right. So what’s kind of Eric Sindelar’s approach to going and finding out what the solution is to help our members?

Eric Sindelar: So there’s two sides. It’s staying up to speed on service provider technology and what’s changing in the space and how that can benefit our membership as well. And I stay abreast upon that stuff just through normal information, events, things like that. But then at the end of the day, as I said earlier, it’s listening to our members, what they need, what’s in there, and then from there it’s a prioritization based upon, okay, if it’s a specific provider, what’s the reach for? Is it just within that small market or is this something across the US? And so that’s how I kind of take an approach of what are the asks, what’s the latest in technology? And I look at prioritizing those of what’s going to be the best benefit for our members, and then I go and attack those.

And within that, then it’s based upon building that relationship with those service providers and really sharing with them what our reach and scale is. So it’s really sharing how Nationwide Marketing Group, how that service provider can leverage our reach and scale. But also on the flip side is how Nationwide Marketing Group might be able to benefit that service provider as well.

Rob Stott: And then just to button it up too, right, bring it full circle, is the fact that you can also approach things now from, all right, well this is something our members might be able to sell or use in their business. That’s the cool part, right? It’s a service again that you think about the referral program, sort of something passive that they can use and pass through to consumers or if they’re working on their own business, which they should be doing on a pretty regular basis, it’s something that they can take as a service and apply to their own store and watch it have an impact, which is, it’s so cool man. It’s really neat to see sort of how I think back to that CES video we shot in 2020, that fateful CES, but no, and to what you’re doing today. It’s awesome and a story that I enjoy following and hearing about all the different aspects and categories within Connected Services that you’re able to have an impact on. So it’s a neat story to tell.

Eric Sindelar: No, it is. And just to share one more thing as an example, and maybe tying it more back to the business technology services. So I had a member ask me recently, so with all these services, how about garbage? Can you help out with our garbage? I said, I don’t have a relationship with garbage, but here’s how we can help. I always look at solutions. I said, what about internet of things? Let’s talk with your garbage provider. And what if we put a tracking system, what the member was, their concern was sometimes the garbage will come and pick up when they don’t have any garbage and they’re still paying for that service. Or on the flip side is they might need in a week two pick-ups, but they just have more trash sitting around. And I said, well, what if we leveraged internet of things and had a tracking for the level of your garbage and they pick up on a need be basis. So again, it’s understanding those members’ business needs and how do we as an organization, and I work with our service providers to help solve those problems for our members.

Rob Stott: There is no area of the business that Connected Services can’t touch including your trash. That’s what I’m hearing. So that’s unbelievable. That’s really cool, man.

Eric Sindelar: We try Rob. We try.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Well Eric, this was a lot of fun. Need to kind of dive into everything you’re doing. It’s a lot, but I think it’s so important that there’s not one, I don’t think any member listening to this could say, well, there’s nothing here for me. There’s got to be something that they can pull out from at least one area of their business where Connected Services can have an impact. And we definitely covered it today and we’ll make sure it won’t be another three and a half years before we have you back on here because I know just the pace at which you’re working, things are going to change in the next month or two. So there’s always going to be something to talk about with Connected Services. So we appreciate you taking the time.

Eric Sindelar: No, hey, thanks a lot Rob and definitely more great things to come from Connected Services that are on the horizon so we can help out our membership. And definitely appreciate you taking the time. Rob, thank you so much.

Rob Stott: Anytime.

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