Solution Providers Prepare For Workforce, Technologies Of Tomorrow

Channel Partners Adjust To Changing Demand, Workforce

Solution providers are grappling with everything from the rise of services to a new generation of workers steeped more in social media than semiconductors.

Tim Curran, CEO of the Global Technology Distribution Council, asked a panel about everything from compensation policies to keeping trusted adviser status during Tech Data's TechSelect partner conference.

The panelists were: Paul Kozak, chief operating officer at MNJ Technologies Direct in Buffalo Grove, Ill., No. 194 on the CRN SP 500; John McLaughlin, owner of Next Digital in Edmonton, Alberta; Brian Oleksiuk, president of Oxygen Technical Services in Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Tony Riccio, executive vice president of product and technology at nfrastructure in Clifton Park, N.Y., No. 254 on the SP 500.

How do you run an operational business and keep customers happy given all the changes?

Both Kozak and Riccio said conferences such as TechSelect are vital to keeping up with where technologies are heading.

Kozak said he likes to visit customers and see how they're providing technology in hopes of keeping MNJ in the middle of the adoption curve. He said new offerings, such as managed print services, often don't catch on as quickly as analysts project.

Nfrastructure derives 60 percent of its revenue from hardware and 40 percent from services, meaning Riccio needs to both develop a comprehensive service catalog and keep an eye out for new hardware.

How do you run an operational business and keep customers happy given all the changes?

Next Digital and Oxygen are both MSPs, which places monthly recurring revenue at the core of their businesses.

Oleksiuk said the transition to managed services has allowed Oxygen to move from a traditional capital expenditure situation into a more beneficial operational expenditure situation.

"Instead of huge labor upgrades every three to four years, we're putting them into data center environments," Oleksiuk said.

McLaughlin said he tries to stay away from bleeding-edge technologies, opting instead for products that can clearly help customers be more efficient or profitable.

What skills does your organization need to be a trusted adviser?

The era of the sales pitch has passed, McLaughlin said. Therefore, solution providers must listen to what customers need and recommended two or three options, leaving the final decision up to them.

Next Digital has also worked with other TechSelect members to supplement any shortcomings in its portfolio and ensure it can provide customers with a complete solution.

Oleksiuk said trying to predict where the industry is going to be two to five years from now is foolish, instead putting faith in the outlook of Oxygen's vendor partners.

"The innovation is really going to occur on the side of the manufacturers," Oleksiuk said.

What skills does your organization need to be a trusted adviser?

MNJ Technologies and nfrastructure take very different approaches to end-user meetings.

Nfrastructure's Riccio said his sales teams work hard to meet with the CIO or other C-level executives. Conversely, MNJ's Kozak prefers to seek out employees who report to the CIO.

"They [the CIO] are the architects," Kozak said. "We're more of a construction crew."

Riccio prefers to seek out a workforce with industry relevance and deep technical skills, while Kozak will often hire young adults out of school with good people skills who are capable of explaining complicated acronyms to customers in plain English.

How are you trying to engage millennial skills in your go-to-market programs?

Next Digital has been moving into the social enterprise space with a cloud-specific offering for charities, for which McLaughlin has created a buzz in technical institutes with prospective employees.

The ability to help organizations addressing family violence or kids with cancer helps young workers see their positions as more than answering phones or fixing printers, he said.

Oxygen has attempted to empower young team members by putting them in charge of tasks, such as corporate sustainability policies or healthy living initiatives.

Oleksiuk said the company has created a walking club where it donates a dollar to charity for every kilometer that an employee walks.

How are you trying to engage millennial skills in your go-to-market programs?

Riccio and Kozak have taken different approaches to social media.

Riccio has embraced Twitter and Facebook for marketing, tweeting out photos from conferences or other events attended by nfrastructure staff. The efforts have helped end users understand that nfrastructure is active in the community and looking to better its skills.

Social media has caught on at MNJ Technologies over Kozak's objections. Even though Kozak -- who said he hates texting -- told workers they couldn't have an office Facebook presence, he noticed that within three weeks, it was virtually everywhere.

How have you had to adjust your compensation practices and policies for young workers?

MNJ Technologies has realigned its compensation to corporate objectives as it moves to become a service provider.

Kozak said MNJ softens the blow of losing hardware revenue by providing salespeople with compensation for all of a customer's time in the cloud. The company also offers employees incentives to get certified with vendors, such as Cisco, EMC, HP and VMware.

Conversely, Oxygen doesn't see compensation as all that correlated to employee engagement, instead laying out a salary scale for employees at the time of hiring.

"The last thing you want to do is throw money at somebody for training they don't want to do," Oleksiuk said.

What keeps you up at night?

Most of the solution providers' worries pertain to their workforce.

McLaughlin said he's most concerned about finding enough qualified workers to sustain the growth Next Digital is experiencing.

"When we find a good person, we hire them instantly," McLaughlin said.

Nfrastructure has 350 employees, and Rizzio said he most fears making the wrong business decision that will result in layoffs.

Kozak's trepidation centers around salespeople who are too eager to please and commit to something MNJ isn't capable of providing. He said he wishes they would be more forthright with end users about what they can or cannot do.

Channel Partners Respond

Mike Molony, owner of Managed Solutions Group in Dubuque, Iowa, was one of 275 TechSelect solution providers in attendance at the panel.

Molony agreed with Oleksiuk that office culture is more important than compensation in convincing workers to stay, arguing that many young employees are looking to be part of a large, congenial group.

One of Molony's challenges has been getting his younger workers used to having in-person or phone conversations with customers rather than texting.

Molony said he's had younger employees shadow more experienced ones to show them how to most effectively interact with older CEOs or CFOs.