IT engineering staff retention: 3 tips for building VAR employee loyalty

Penalizing customers for poaching your engineers may do more harm than good. Read about other, effective methods of ensuring employee loyalty.

When Atrion Networking Corp. first opened its doors in 1987, the IT services company routinely included clauses in its customer contracts that discourage them from hiring away its engineers. Often, there was a financial penalty when it happened.

But the company's philosophy about this has changed dramatically over time because it can send the wrong signals to both customers and IT engineering staff, said Tim Hebert, CEO of the Warwick, R.I.-based company.

"We realized it could be bad for relations and that we have to focus more on making sure employees didn't want to leave in the first place," he said.

This dilemma is faced by many VARs, managed service providers (MSP) and services firms that place engineers on-site at a customer for extended periods of time.

Having a person embedded within an account can be incredibly useful for helping identify future project needs or business practice opportunities. But when an engineer or technician spends more time with a customer's team rather than his or her actual employer, it's easy for the lines of loyalty to blur.

So how are technology solution providers coping with this challenge? While there is no right recipe, here are some strategies for staff retention being used to good effect.

Create reasons to reconnect

While it may be tempting and good for the bottom line to make sure a service technician's time is almost fully booked, it's beneficial to pull them into meetings back at home base, Hebert said.
Atrion Networking actually has a person dedicated to maintaining an ongoing connection with services personnel attached to long-term engagements in order to keep the human connection. At least once every six weeks, they are involved in either training or strategy sessions at the headquarters office.

While this was initially a culture shock -- some employees were leery of being pulled out of the field -- this initiative not only offers them a better sense of career development, it also helps reduce tensions if there is a situation where someone wants to leave because Atrion Networking's managers have a better sense of that person's career interests.

The company's voluntary turnover rate (where people leave for other employment opportunities) is 5% to 6%, Hebert said.

Serve accounts with teams, not individuals

One staff retention strategy used by Heartland Technology Solutions of Joplin, Mo., involves assigning teams to projects, so that more than one person is responsible for keeping an account happy.

This serves several purposes. It can ensure that a client's needs are met promptly, while exposing more than one person to the account's ongoing needs, said Jane Cage, former chief operating officer and now a consultant to Heartland, which was acquired by WesTel Systems in early January.

Your company culture is probably what attracted the majority of people to work for you in the first place, so you should make sure you continually steep them in it.
Robby Hillpresident and CEO of HillSouth Inc.

In addition, it encourages Heartland engineers to align themselves in teams, which forges a tighter connection back to the IT services firm.

"It changes the approach. Very seldom do we send people out always for the same specific work," Cage said. "Especially in SMB accounts, we don't have people at places long enough that they become attached."

Crafting managed services that are delivered remotely, something that most technology solution providers are already doing, can help make this more practical.

Ensure employees have a clear growth path

Although it sounds like common sense, creating a very specific, well-managed career path for IT engineering staff can be beneficial for staff retention, said Robby Hill, president and CEO of HillSouth Inc., a 21-person firm in Florence, S.C.

His company recently adopted a program that gives cash incentives to technicians to increase certification levels. They literally receive a check every time they pass another certification. But to keep the money, the engineers have to stay with the company another six months.

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HillSouth also avoids assigning any of its on-staff engineers to long-term on-site technical support contracts. Instead, it keeps developing a steady stream of candidates that it can refer for these positions, recognizing that many of these assignments can wind up becoming full time, he said.

"The customer is simply using you as a placement service," Hill said. "At the same time, in anything that we do as a solution provider, we don't want our customer to look elsewhere."

HillSouth also actively spends time giving employees a chance to interact outside of work hours, with casino nights and lake weekends. It also encourages ongoing connections with the local IT community through technology user groups, knowing that one day, some of these people may eventually join its staff.

"In my experience, the formal things don't breed loyalty. Your company culture is probably what attracted the majority of people to work for you in the first place, so you should make sure you continually steep them in it," Hill said.

About the author:
Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist in the New York City area with more than 20 years of experience.

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