I’ve been making the rounds at IT Service Management trade shows. The impressive array of tools and technology now available to IT service professionals makes me jealous compared to what was available when I was struggling to build my managed services practice. Back in 1996, with a nascent Internet, we had few tools and even less in terms of metrics or methodology. How many desktops can one service technician manage? How many servers can one administrator handle? These numbers have changed, significantly! Where we measured capacity in the dozens, today individual administrators can handle hundreds if not thousands of servers. Still, while the tools have made life easier for Managed Service Providers (MSP), the fundamental success principles are still the same. I learned it wasn’t the tools that ensured success, but these principles: expectations, communications and alignment.
Setting — and Managing — Expectations
If you do nothing else, do this: set and manage expectations. As a service provider you need to teach your customers how to do business with you. Outsourcing is not a simple process and your customers go into it with needs and expectations that may be difficult or even impossible to meet. As a service provider it’s important to realize the gap between what you are selling and what your customers think they are buying.
The important word is “think.” Outsourcing is not like buying a piece of software or hardware. It’s a partnership that will require careful planning and implementation. Whereas hardware and software require maintenance to remain effective, so does the MSP relationship. It requires constant and consistent maintenance of expectations.
A perfect example of this is the beginning of an outsourcing relationship. The customer thinks it’s as simple as turning on a switch, but as an MSP we know it’s a process that will have to be revised and iterated to the point where all parties are comfortable. I always made it a point to say to a customer that it would be a process of several months and that there would be bumps along the way, that we would work through them, and they shouldn’t evaluate the efficacy of our service until then. If you’re not setting expectations for customers in this regard, particularly at the beginning, you’re sowing the seeds of failure.
It borders on cliche to say communication is important to a successful MSP relationship. And yet in conversations I have with practitioners it’s still at the top of the challenges they face with their customers. What’s the key to communication? A good start is to reduce the effort required to make it happen. Take steps to create transparency in your service delivery (statuses, reporting). Don’t make it an extra step. Make it part of the process. Conflict generally arises when there is uncertainty. Take steps to reduce uncertainty.
A very common complaint is “what’s the status of…?” If you’re getting that question you aren’t doing a good job of transparency in your communication. It could be as simple as a regular status report (old school), or a dashboard that gives visibility into your service desk (better).
Another strong refrain I hear in IT service management circles is aligning IT with business. This may be the most difficult challenge in the MSP relationship. In this relationship there are two business goals: yours as an MSP, and your customer’s. As a business, you want to deliver services at a level that allows you to sign and retain customers while being able to make a profit. For your customers, their goal is to run their business without worrying about the services you provide, expecting that you will help them accomplish what THEY need to be successful. It’s important to have this conversation not only with your customers, but with your staff. They need to realize that at the other end of the desktop or server they are managing is a business need that is being satisfied.
Where I see the most conflict here is the gap between the technician and the business need. When you have a technician working on tasks for multiple customers the business need could get lost in the shuffle. Take patch management, for example. It may be your policy to apply patches and reboot servers on the same day every month. However, one month this may conflict with an extraordinary event or cycle on the business end. It’s expensive for you to deal with exceptions, but it can cause even more disruption (and expense) on the business side. It’s a balance that you need to maintain.
As the philosopher wrote: the more things change, the more they stay the same. So while technology advances at a breathtaking pace, the fundamental principles for MSP success remain the same. You need to set and manage expectations, communicate effectively, and work hard to align with what your customer needs to be successful.
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