Reseller businesses require a cross-section of skilled staff, from sales people to technical support specialists, and often including programmers and project managers. Received wisdom currently has it that the best way to run a business is with a small core of experienced managers backed up with contract staff as needed. So rather than have all those expensive skills on the payroll, and not being used all the time, the best alternative is to hire them on a need-to-have basis ? through an agency.
The trouble with that sound hypothesis is that agencies can mean trouble. They don?t always have the skills you want when you want them; they don?t always vet people as well as they claim; you can end up with someone you dislike; and no sooner do you get someone broken in than they are off to work elsewhere.
However, agencies do fulfil a crucial role ? some say it is the second oldest profession. Sad, then, that there is such hostility towards them and ambivalence towards their services. Some argue that it is impossible to get agency staff with the same emotional investment in the company as permanent staff.
Matt Molloy, marketing manager at software development house Image Systems Europe (ISE), says: ?You get far more out of permanent staff. It can take six months to train sales and technical support people to understand your products and corporate culture, so you can?t expect a temporary from an agency to invest in the company and its clients in the same way staffers do.?
Juliet Ripley, marketing manager with Core Business, a recruitment agency which provides contract as well as permanent staff and training, refuses to accept Molloy?s view and can see no arguments against using an agency. ?From every perspective I can think of, using agency staff makes more sense than having people on the payroll.?
Molloy, naturally, disagrees. ?In the long term customers get a better deal with permanent staff who care more about their solutions working than an agency person will ever do,? he says.
Chris Hermann, managing director of public relations agency CHC, adds that rather than external staff being uncommitted, the opposite is more likely to be true. ?When you have external agencies providing staff, there is a perpetual edge of keenness to the relationship because you can change your agency at any time. Agencies are more likely to want to justify their existence all the time; if you bring things in-house and hire people on to the payroll, all the progress checks and the commitment seems to evaporate,? he argues.
The use of agency staff for technical skills has become fairly routine, but in the reseller world there is a growing tendency to also use agency staff for sales and marketing functions. Many principals of IT businesses reckon it is essential to have sales and marketing employees on the payroll, but this is a view that is shifting. These days, all jobs can be covered by agency staff without detriment to the business.
David Foote of the Meta Group, and author of a 200-page IT salary and skills study entitled Report on the New IT Professional: Salaries, Job Descriptions and Best Practices, points out that most jobs in IT and reseller businesses are non-technical. Even those that were traditionally technical are becoming less so.
?There is now a demand for talent which goes beyond traditional IT skills. For example, the ideal person to be involved with developing the front end of a data warehouse applica-tion needs to come from the business side. This changing profile is another reason why agency staff are best to ensure the necessary flexibility and background,? he says.
?Agency people often have wider experience of working in changing environments and are better able to work with end users to develop new applications. They have better developed soft skills. They listen better to users and can better guess what it is that those users need from a business and technical perspective, even if the users can?t articulate it.?
Ripley says: ?The problem many resellers are facing is that deadlines are getting shorter and they need the right skills at the right time. It is impossible to have the full gamut of skills always available, so agencies are the obvious backstop. It is unfortunate that they often have a bad reputation. I can?t think of any reason not to use them.?
Molloy suggests a reason when he says: ?So many business solutions are now based on the business implications, and it is impossible for a temporary agency person to acquire overnight the understanding necessary to sell and support our systems. In the short term you may get flexibility, but agency people are not a proper solution.?
For those who want to try the agency route, the basic rules are the same for any third party ? check them out thoroughly, talk to other clients and forge personal relationships with the individuals you will be dealing with. Ripley says: ?When it comes to choosing an agency there are a number of essential points to consider: reputation, who they supply with staff, geography, specialisations and value-added services. An increasing number of agencies are developing the value add side, and are offering training deals, electronic links and so forth.?
Ripley adds: ?The main benefit to reseller firms is the cost saving of using an agency, because of the time they save in not having to interview people. We will interview as many as necessary and weed out those that are no good, so the reseller only sees the best of the bunch. There is no charge for that.?
Brian Thoroughgood, pre-press systems manager at William Reed, says using agency staff enables his firm to offer clients a wider range of services. He adds that the key to a successful agency strategy is selecting the right agency and working with them for a long time. ?You have to build relationships,? he says. ?Now they know what we need, and we don?t have any problems.?
Another key, says Thoroughgood, is to select specialist agencies for each skill area. ?We have a specialist Mac operator agency, another for editorial staff. You can?t expect one agency to provide every skill.?
Hermann adds: ?Bringing work in-house is usually a very expensive way of saving money. It?s much more cost-effective to use agency people.?
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