Robert Betzel, president of Macon, Ga.-based Infinity Network Solutions, is wrestling with a transition all solution providers have to make: the move into cloud computing where hardware resale and maintenance agreements are no longer big moneymakers and where the channel's key vendors and go-to service delivery models aren't quite the same as they were even five years ago.
Unlike most solution providers, however, Betzel has taken his ideas for how to make that transition and put pen to paper. For Betzel, it all comes down to a company culture tirelessly committed to customer service.
His new book, "The Company Culture Challenge," co-authored with longtime executive coach David Russell, takes both a broad and deep look at how companies create and preserve successful cultures. But rather than a few platitudes on development and a few tossed-off "you'll be all right in the cloud era if you do X, Y and Z," the book offers a step-by-step plan to identify cultural strengths and weaknesses and then solve those challenges.
It isn't specific to the IT channel but was written with solution providers in mind, Betzel said. The content stems from Betzel and Russell's own experiences and those of other businesses both well known -- Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh turning a broke online shoe retailer into a $1.2 billion company 10 years later, for example -- and esoteric.
Betzel has been in the channel for 15 years as an engineer and a manager and in January 2000 founded Infinity, which specializes in networking, security, unified communications, virtualization, backup and recovery and managed services. Betzel started working with Russell three years ago, having met him through MSP University and also the channel-centric HTG Peer Groups.
They began work on the book in November 2010 and Betzel said he and Russell had intended to write a "go-getter-style business fable," but they got to talking about how a reader -- especially a business owner in a similar position to Betzel's -- would go about applying lessons and transforming his or her own company in a practical direction.
The book addresses everything from hiring practices and how to motivate staff in both simple and unpredictable ways, to how to address conflicts and clinically diagnose -- early on -- when an employee won't adapt. Culture, Betzel believes, will be the big difference between the VARs and integrators that survive, and the ones that don't.
"At the end of the day, customers are buying stuff from you that they can get from at least seven or eight other guys," Betzel said. "So unless you want to be the cheapest guy, it has to be about culture. If the cloud wins -- and it's going to win -- none of us are just going to be turning wrenches and selling gear in five years."
Solution providers talk often about getting into line-of-business, not just technology, conversations with customers, Betzel said, and if a staff is culturally oriented to understand why that's important, they can have that conversation and make that sale that much more easily.
"You have to be talking to your clients every day about business processes and the role you can play getting them confident with services in the cloud," he said. "It's not going to be about installing a server -- that's going to be done by the Amazons and the Googles."
The book, available in hardcover and as an e-book, also touches on how to make your presence felt and your cultural values obvious when you can't spend every minute of every day with each of your employees, and how to accept employee criticism and draw a clear line between constructive push-back and insubordination. Many managers, Betzel said, blame problem employees for things that are actually a misread on the part of the manager.
"You failed to understand that person's need and their operating model," Betzel said. "You need to understand what motivates them and remember that not everyone is motivated by the same thing. Not everyone is as aggressive or outgoing as you are, but what ends up happening a lot of the time is that the owner, who's a high-driven guy, meets someone who is the polar opposite of him, and they get into a culture clash. People feel like that's 'culture' -- that is, the guy didn't fit into the culture the owner had established -- but that's actually personalities."
The culture has to be consistent, he argued. One of the most compelling examples of that type of cultural success, Betzel said, is what Steve Jobs created at Apple.
"Apple is a great example of company culture. Maybe you don't completely agree with everything he did as a CEO. But he had a culture and he defined it. He wanted 'A' players, and if you were a 'B' player, he would berate you out the door," he said. "That's not a great work environment for a lot of people. But for the people he wanted, it was."
3Com, a company Betzel knew well having been through the ringer as first a 3Com solution provider and then a disappointed HP Networking solution provider, went the opposite direction.
"3Com was a great company that ran into the ground, and I think that's partly because it lost its way with culture," he said. "They lost their leadership and the vision they had once had for a great company culture."