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How VARs Can Improve Talent Retention
By Beth Vanni
The IT world experiences regular waves of talent shortage. Given the rapid change in technologies and the elevated competency expectations placed on channel partners, there will always be some deficit in qualified talent. This year, solution providers are especially having trouble finding the right sales and technical talent to help them sell today’s solutions but also evangelize tomorrow’s. In 2012, there is a heightened imperative for solution providers to have very services-savvy salespeople.
PartnerPath’s 6th annual 2012 State of Partnering Study queried 98 global vendors and 250 North American solution providers to gain a comprehensive look at their priorities, challenges and spending plans for 2012. In this study, 31 percent of solution provider respondents reported challenges with staffing as a barrier to overall growth, up from 22 percent in 2011. More specifically, they saw staff recruitment and retention as the number one barrier to services growth specifically, which is where many solution providers want to build capabilities in 2012.
A Channel-Encompassing Issue
Whose problem is this shortage? Is it solely the solution provider’s growth-related issue or do vendors share in the responsibility? Perhaps it’s a survival of the fittest mechanism to weed out solution providers that just can’t build the right staffing model and loyalty to succeed. The 250 solution providers voicing their challenges in the State of Partnering study agree: it is definitely a challenge to find the right blend of sales, technical, and services-savvy staff—and even harder to maintain that talent base.
“There are a lot of mediocre people looking for jobs,” notes Simon Palmer, CEO of a leading Southern California integrator, STA. “Our good people are constantly getting recruited or competitors and vendors try to poach them. This makes retention and recruitment an ongoing issue.”
As a way to try to help solution providers create new practices, build out their business plan, and find the right people, the vendor community has been making staffing changes in their own companies. About 25 percent of vendor respondents report plans to give their partner-facing staff more administrative support through inside sales or help-desk functions, while an additional 25 percent reported plans to increase training for their channel sales managers on business and financial management issues. Whether this will free up the vendors’ staff to help partners with recruitment and staff development (versus more self-serving issues of sales teaming around their products) remains to be seen.
Paige Erickson, vice president of North American Partners and Alliances at CA Technologies, notes that her company has inherited a number of sales teams through acquisitions and has been reminded that good partner managers have different skills sets than a typical sales rep.
“Making sure they are technology savvy and know the solution providers’ interests are both extremely important,” she said. “One way we handle this need is by crafting a business plan that is the core basis for the work we do with our top partners. We want them to have those in-depth conversations and see where we both want to invest to enable the client. We train our staff to have those conversations so that we can collectively sell better.”
In Erickson’s experience, when CA Technologies first develops a defined business plan and a plan of action for enabling clients, revenue follows. “We want to educate our direct sales force on how to really work with partners and address their interests. The partners have to know we are invested in them and are making that real effort.”
Aimee Messina, an account management and marketing specialist with Compulink Technologies, Inc., a full-service solution provider of IT services addressing both the public sector and private organizations in the legal, real estate, and financial markets, agrees with the notion that retaining qualified talent is a key differentiator and ongoing challenge. One of the company’s key differentiators is its skilled team of technical and business professionals supporting multiple vendors’ lines. To retain a savvy team takes a significant investment in training and talent.
“When you have a Cisco-centric team where everyone is quoting Cisco, everyone is just competing on price,” she said. “When you can create solutions based on your expertise and your diverse partnerships, you can use your engineering expertise and market expertise to truly show a client that your goals are solution-based, not product-based.”
So what can vendors do to assist in helping solution providers with recruiting and retaining talent? Pre-sales support is one option that Compulink appreciates from their supplier, Riverbed. Messina describes Riverbed’s approach as extremely helpful, whereby Riverbed’s field sales and technical staff will participate in one-on-one end-user meetings along with Compulink’s field team.
Solution Providers’ Plans
For this 2012 looming staffing shortage, solution providers need to look at a mixture of both re-training existing employees and recruiting new talent. Messina describes the situation at Compulink: “We are lucky to have tech support that is comprehensive and can help our staff if they are not particularly strong in one aspect. We really are a community and a team. We all work together, maybe if one person is great on storage and another is great on networks, we team together to make sure that our clients are getting the info they need, and are getting it quickly and correctly.”
Compulink also takes a community approach to retaining staff with high technical expertise. “We retain people by fostering a true community environment. We do a lot of team lunches. We try and promote having a competitive and winning attitude. But at the same time, we enforce the idea that you have the support of your whole team,” Messina said.
For technical training, Compulink works with a combination of support from their own engineers as well as web-based and in-person training from manufacturers. Manufacturers are a key source of training content and a big contributor to helping Compulink grow its talent.
Bob Skelley is the executive director of Global Certified Partner Programs at Dell and has experienced a drastic shift in Dell’s sales engagement during his past four years in the channel. “We have come a long way from a primarily direct sales model to one that drives a significant portion of the revenue through the channel, and that comes from changing the skills set of the teams that we have in the field working with partners,” he said. “We do something that is somewhat unique in the industry: we invest highly in the ‘sell-with’ resources with the partner.”
In doing so, Dell is active in the sales motion of its partners. “We dedicate a large amount of our sales resources to this effort,” said Skelley. “I have to give credit to our direct sales teams, because they have evolved their thinking from a direct sales rep to a segment sales rep that has partners as a fundamental component of their go-to-market strategy. Their new thinking involves engaging the channel partners as well as selling direct to customers. The shift has had a profound impact on building trust.”
Expanding Through Retraining
According to Dice.com, a leading career hub for technical positions, there is
indeed an overall IT talent shortage brewing, especially in the U.S. Dice reports Java, mobile and .NET developers top the list of most sought after talent, with job postings in 44 out of 50 U.S. states. But project managers and systems and network engineer positions are in hot demand as well. Many partners don’t have the resources for new hires, so they need to retrain and retool existing employees. This path is a long-term commitment if the partner is trying to build skills beyond just technology-specific vendor smarts and certifications.
Solution providers will be wise to thoroughly invest in retraining, and take advantage of any and all vendor tools to help. Partners may need to do more P2P collaboration to get access to specialized talent (or contractor status) instead of hiring. And as Dell’s Skelley suggests, “All of us need to do better at planning and sales management. We need to be far more strategic and far less reactive.” Planning ahead with periodic training and continuing education for existing employees is one way companies can strategically combat this issue, rather than reacting to the problem once it arises.
For more information visit www.partner-path.com.
Beth Vanni is Vice President of PartnerPath. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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