Bridging the Tech Talent Gap

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As technology vendors, their channel partners and organisations deal with the tech talent crunch, there are consequences for the entire technology ecosystem. Vendor solutions are less impactful than their potential; their channel partners are losing a lot of time in closing sales cycles and their customers are left with sub-optimal deployments.

Here is how vendors and their channel partners can bridge the gap:

Re-evaluating Certification Programs

The first step is to move to a case-based training model with the participant needing to respond to a situation rather than answering multiple-choice questions. We do not discount the usefulness of standard testing, but it needs to be mixed with evaluating the situational awareness and subjective understanding of the participant. This will require more detailed answers and case studies and will require a knowledgeable evaluator at the other end who will need more time than that required to assess MCQ answers. While AI tools are starting to address this, for now, this means a fairly large investment in resources.

Tech Talent - Channel Partner Feedback
Channel Partner Feedback

While giving the tech talent – whether Sales or Delivery – a greater context of competitors’ strengths will give them a better chance to win deals, it has the potential to open up a host of issues that are best avoided. However, part of that knowledge can be provided as a general solution context – focusing on customer benefits in doing a certain transition and the kind of use cases that would be most appropriate for each transition. This will require, in most cases, a redesign of the curriculum.

Rethinking Partner Sales Support

A much bigger initiative by the vendors could be to set up sales support specialist groups within their own organisations that can be booked for customer meetings by channel partners. This has become easier now with most organisations being quite accustomed to video conferences and virtual meetings.

The set-up of such a “centre” will require careful planning, expertise, and investment in systems. Most vendors do have something like this for escalations and technical support, but few have a comprehensive program to assist with sales opportunities.  

Tech Talent - Channel Partner Feedback
Channel Partner Feedback

The resources at these centres should be highly specialised and well-paid. This will add cost. However, a group like this can pay for itself as long as more deals are converted. We do not recommend using gold-plated costs, but penny pinching, especially on the quality of resources and systems used here will be a classic case of penny wise, pound foolish. Success here will come from increasing revenue, not decreasing cost.

Clarifying Hiring Policies

Finally, vendors need to be clear about the policies of hiring staff from their channel partners. It is unlikely that this practice is going to stop. For one, if they don’t hire these talents, their competitors might. And channel partners often attract more talent if they are able to hold out the carrot, that the employee can eventually get employed by the vendor.

However, there should be clearer policies, such as only hiring those who have spent a minimum specified time with the partner; providing a longer than normal off-ramp period; seconding the talent to the channel partner for a period during which the employee gets additional training on the vendor’s solutions while working for the channel partner. Incentivising channel partners for providing successful candidates might also be a good idea.

Having bad policies, an attitude of poaching or not cooperating just leads to the channel partners underinvesting in people which harms the vendor as well as the channel. Innovative strategies here can deliver a solution where the channel partner is able to attract better talent and manage the talent while they are in their formative stages. Essentially, they are rewarded for incubating talent. The best talent eventually “graduate” to working for the vendor. This will be a true win-win for both.

Making Upskilling a Norm

The leadership of channel partner organisations need to embrace upskilling of their teams. Employees need technological capability building as well as certification.

Upskilling is a slower burn process than some of the steps discussed earlier, but for partners, this is the key. Partners will need help to put together a full program that nurtures employees at different levels of experience and capability and builds them up with a step-by-step approach. This is actually the job of a full-fledged Learning and Development organisation. Very few partners today either invest in such an organisation or have the ability to work this into their HR practices.

Finding an outsourced partner who can help to design and implement such a program might be the way to go. There is also an opportunity here for multiple channel partners to coordinate and engage one agency, in effect paying to hire an outsider as a joint Chief Learning Officer for all their companies.

Tech Talent - CFO and CHRO
The quote is most likely apocryphal, that many would have seen. While its origin is questionable, its truth is proverbial.

In an exploding market where the skill of the employee can land the extra contracts, reel in the customers, whose lifetime value can be enormous, upskilling is vital – it is not really a choice.

Conclusion

There is a need to do things differently and to invest a lot more in talent. In a growing market, channel partners are getting by as revenue is moving upwards anyway. A smart step-by-step investment approach, however, can dramatically change this growth trajectory. That will alter the fortunes of the vendors too. Maintaining the status quo and not spending more on tech talent is actually a poison pill – the market growth is just hiding that fact.

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The Elusive Search for the Right Tech Talent

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As the world has had to cope with a scenario never seen before in modern times, technology has been at the forefront of the response. This means hardware – computers, servers and the like – flew off the shelves. Cloud infrastructure and migration have been top of mind. “Digital Transformation” and the adoption of digital tools is expanding like a house on fire! We found that over 3 in 4 companies accelerated their digital plans in some way. Another 20% put plans on hold, largely because they felt the need to evaluate the old plans which became inadequate.

Digital Transformation has emerged as a key priority

As vendors, channel partners and organisations scramble to put their new digital houses together and build the best digital castles possible, there is a major talent crunch. There are few who can deeply understand customer needs and recommend the right solution. While this affects all parties, the channel partners are feeling this more acutely. In my recent conversations with channel partners, it became evident that they are facing difficulties in finding and retaining good Sales and Solutions talent. There have also been complaints about talent being poached by the tech vendors they partner with!

The standard response to this problem is vendor certification and training. However, this is inadequate, due to three main reasons.

The Pace of Technological Change

The latest technology and what is possible with it changes on almost a daily basis. In this environment, for a person to keep up with everything is almost impossible. The ways in which a specific technology can be applied and the solutions it can deliver change, based on the ecosystem that forms around the technology and with the improvements in capability with time.

Small changes in different applications can cascade to create a solution (in terms of meeting a user need) which was not possible a short time ago. This may then compete with a completely different technology that has been considered satisfactory till date for the same user need. If the new option performs better, the old option is gone before you can snap your fingers.

For a salesperson to be across all this requires a solid understanding of the industry and its environment at a conceptual level. Given the pace of change, such people have become increasingly rare. They can be trained on a specific technology, not on perspectives, conceptual clarity or industry depth – that would require a formal degree!

The Limits of Lecture Style Training

Old Confucian saying that Benjamin Franklin is often credited with

Unfortunately, there is a key shortcoming in the whole certification program. A person going through any kind of classroom type training is limited in how much they can understand. This includes any kind of knowledge download or dump – videos, online courses, virtual classrooms, reading, webinars or physical classes. With technology that changes every day, the depth of knowledge imparted through such knowledge downloads is woefully inadequate. Expertise in technology is difficult to attain without getting one’s hands dirty.

Trying to make the training more “practical”, involving more exercises is good and does lead to better-trained personnel. But this is a long process and does not fit in with the timelines of most certification programs.  

An actual customer implementation is probably the best teacher available right now. However, this leads to an unintended consequence – channel partners tend to stick with the vendor solutions that they have implemented before. Even if they can partner with other tech providers for better options they prefer to stick to what they know.

Vendor Bias in Training Programs

Certification is done, quite understandably, from the vendor’s point of view. The program is not built to generate an understanding of the tech world that we live in. That is taken as a given. Expertise in the vendor’s solution is the focus, and rightfully so. Talking points refer to that solution’s strengths and gloss over the weaknesses. There is no reason for a vendor to teach the participant the advantages of the competitor’s technology. Or explain the shortcomings of their own.

When the certified salesperson, however, is in front of the customer, this certification does not help them address all the queries. They are unable to clear the doubts or provide a complete (and objective) view that would satisfy a probing customer.

But there are ways in which this skills gap can be bridged – it will require both vendors and their channel partners to change how they view and grow talent. Stay tuned for the next feature where I share how the tech talent landscape can be changed.

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Conversational AI Gets a Boost – Five9 Acquires Inference Solutions

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Five9, a cloud-based contact centre solutions provider announced the acquisition of intelligent virtual agent (IVA) platform provider, Inference Solutions for about USD 172 million. Five9 and Inference Solutions have been partnering for the last couple of years, with Five9 being a reseller for Inference Solutions’ IVA platform. The acquisition is expected to provide a boost to Five9’s AI portfolio, automate contact centre agent activities and provide AI-based omnichannel self-service solutions.

The need to drive greater automation in the contact centre is high on the agenda, and this acquisition demonstrates how important AI and automation is to contact centre modernisation. The old-fashioned ways of long wait times, being passed on through different menus on the IVR and being asked to repeat yourself through the older speech recognition engines is starting to not only frustrate customers but will become obsolete. Based on Ecosystm’s research, close to 60% of contact centres globally stated that investing in machine learning and AI is a top customer experience priority in the next 12 months.

Inference has come a long way since its inception at Telstra Labs

Inference Solutions (founded in 2005) was spun out of Telstra Labs. It has since expanded to the US and developed a suite of solutions in the IVA segment. They have a good partnership strategy with the leading telecom providers globally as well as the UC/contact centre vendors. Inference Solutions uses resellers such as service providers, UC, and contact centre software providers – and these include AT&T, Cisco (Broadsoft), Momentum Telecom, Nextiva, 8×8 and many others. The Inference Studio solution will see a new release in the next few months where the solution will come pre-built with the ability for the contact centre team to pre-load the contact centre conversations. These can be conversations that have been going on for 6 months or longer. The Studio solution will then be able to analyse and understand the underlying intent of the conversation, match the intent so that it can be used to auto train the bots accurately. That process of matching the intent and training is expensive and if you can automate some elements of that, it will bring the cost of the deployment down. Its solution integrates into NLP engines from Google, AWS, and IBM. In Australia they continue to work on patents in close partnerships with Melbourne University and RMIT. Throughout its journey, Inference has built a good base of customers in the US, UK, and Australia.

Five9 to accelerate on its vision of AI and Cloud

Contact centre modernisation is high on the agenda for many organisations and this will lead them to build AI and automation at the core of their customer strategies. The discussion spans across the CEO, Digital and Innovation, and the Contact Centre teams.

Five9 had acquired Whendu, an iPaaS platform provider empowering businesses and developers with no-code, visual application workflow tool, optimised for contact centres in November 2019, and Virtual Observer, an innovative provider of cloud-based workforce optimisation, also known as Workforce Engagement Management (WEM) in February of this year.

The pandemic has resulted in increased engagement of contact centres with customers. Companies are gradually looking for ways to automate tasks, deliver better communication, speech and text recognition, decipher languages, and implement solutions mimicking humans. As a solution to these challenges, IVAs are being viewed as efficient and effective digital workers for a modern contact centre. IVAs represent increased throughput, more accurate results, and better-informed agents.

Successful use cases have shown that conversational AI can reduce calls and repetitive queries by 70-90%. IVRs with monolithic, complicated menus will start becoming unpopular and force contact centres to embark on a modernisation and automation strategy. If we evaluate the shift in priorities after COVID-19, we see that organisations are ramping up their self-service capabilities and their adopt of AI and machine learning (Figure 1).  

Contact Centres Conversational AI

The acquisition will give Five9 a foothold in the Asia Pacific region with an initial focus on the Australia market. The Australia market is by far the most advanced cloud contact centre market in the Asia Pacific. Five9 gains a team of staff that will help them fuel the contact centre modernisation discussion across the Asia Pacific. As the region has a complex market, the need to work with local carriers and partners will be critical for further expansion. Five9 has made an important acquisition in building in IVA capability into its CCaaS solution.


Click below to access insights from the Ecosystm Contact Centre Study on visibility into organisations’ priorities when running a Contact Centre (both in-house and outsourced models) and the technologies implemented and being evaluated

Contact Centre Best Practices
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