Working for a living isn’t easy for most, especially if you’re a small business owner who has to address a number of issues every day (and some nights). If not addressing a client or system problem, employee and other operational concerns require your full attention—and sometimes they come to light when you least expect or want them. Not every issue is a big one, but as the interruptions in your work or personal time increase in frequency, life becomes less enjoyable. So what problems are most common among solution providers, and how can you reduce the disturbances that cause you headaches or at least keep you awake at night?
This was one of the topics of discussion at last week’s CompTIA Breakaway, including a panel of esteemed MSPs who shared some of their most challenging experiences and how they dealt with them.
The session (Business Operations Challenges: What’s Keeping Solution Providers Up at Night?) covered a number of real world issues, including saying no or “firing” troublesome customers, vendor program issues, and automation challenges. I also asked several other MSPs in attendance about the business problems that give them the most heartburn and assembled quite a lengthy list. Many were specific to particular markets (such as dealing with a particular attorney who seriously threatens to sue them if their systems go down), though several issues rank high on many providers’ lists. Here are a few of those shared problems (in no particular order) and some of the suggestions we discussed during Breakaway:
Handling HR issues—the hiring and ongoing personnel responsibilities can be harrowing for many MSPs, but the vital part it plays in your business success can’t be stressed enough. The most common advice I heard from attendees at the show was to invest time taking a course at a local community college or through an online program. You can also join professional IT associations such as ASCII or CompTIA, the latter which offers a customizable employee handbook which you can tailor to your own business needs. These tools serve as a guide or outline to assist, but each company will need to adapt the specifics to their environment, as well as state and local regulations.
The alternative is to contract with a local HR specialist to outsource many of your departmental needs. One downside to this approach is that a contractor is likely not going to be onsite, so they would be more of a consultant on disciplining or rewarding employees. The best option is to hire an operations professional with HR experience (such as an office manager) when the business can support the expense.
Securing a professional sales team— this issue is also a significant challenge for many solution providers, since the investment of time and effort you put into building a great sales professional can be gone in an instant if they walk out the door. I’ve seen a number of companies flounder when they’ve placed a significant amount of their resources on just one representative and that individual leaves them unexpectedly. The blame for their departure could be placed on either side, but the end result is the organization struggles to recover from the loss.
The amount of advice on this topic is too voluminous to cover here, but experienced MSPs focus on a couple of options. First, if your company is just starting out, consider providing your valued sales professionals with a stake in the organization or profit sharing as an incentive. Most employees with an ownership share have not only a motivation to stay, but to do what it takes to keep expenses low and continually improve their sales skills.
The other suggestion is to expand your sales team (when possible) and ensure they get the training required to be successful. If you can develop your pipeline and grow sales, it will obviously give you the cash needed to increase the sales force. This may also require and expansion of marketing (leads) and technical resources to support the new business, so not every company is poised to take advantage of this. But if at all possible, this approach leads to less reliance on certain representatives and allows you to focus on the entire sales process, including incentives and other programs to retain key employees. Check out this guest post Wayne Goldstein wrote on Incentivizing a Successful Help Desk Experience.
Staffing a solid tech team—by now, you’ve likely seen the trend: most issues facing MSPs are employee related. The technical team is that other key ingredient and ensuring that the services sold by your sales team are properly supported is crucial to long term success. A high-caliber technician is as valuable as a top sales professional, especially when they have the ability to work well together. Client retention is closely tied to customer service scores, so when you have a skilled team it helps increase recurring revenue—instead of just replacing expiring contracts and lost customers.
So how do you make sure your best technical people stay and you can recruit more of them? With some minor changes, the suggestions are the same ones used with staffing a good sales team. Offer the best ones an ownership stake or profit sharing, and encourage all of them to get advanced training. As the team expands skills and gets cross-training, it lessens the damage to your business from any one of them leaving your company. Remember, not every loss is personal. Sometimes employees need to relocate or quit for family reasons, and nothing you do can prevent that.
The other suggestion is to align yourself with an outsource partner to fill in gaps or solidify your technical team. Of course Live help desk services can alleviate a significant amount of calls your team takes and allow them to focus on higher-priority issues. But they can also supplement the skills your bench doesn’t possess, such as mobility or VoIP support.
Managing accounts receivable and cash flow—this area of your business requires someone with the training and accounting skills most IT providers will never grasp themselves. That’s not a slam on MSPs, but shows the need for most tech companies to either employ or outsource these professional services. CompTIA and other associations do offer rudimentary training for solution providers looking to manage these parts of their business themselves but, unless you have the time and desire to properly manage this critical process, it’s best left to the experts.
Time management (balancing business with family life)—this final issue is the most difficult one to manage, not just for MSPs but for all of us. After all, why build a successful organization if you never get time to enjoy the fruits of your labor?
The advice in this area is plentiful, but most of it centers on automating your business and hiring the right people to help you grow. Implement tools such as PSAs and RMMs to streamline your business, but ensure you continue to take advantage of the complete platforms. Don’t just drop an agent on your client devices and then manually process and route tickets after that. If you don’t have the time to properly implement each tool yourself, assign it to an employee as a continual assignment. Review the status of these system implementations and training each month and help that team member uncover other ways to leverage the technology.
Another way to bring balance to your life is to research collaboration options. Are there other MSPs or outsource companies you could partner with to support a specific client or market? If you’re tired of the 24/7 emergency support line being your bedside phone, it’s time to look at these options. Let your partners assume the part of your service that stresses you the most; in many cases this may not only save you considerable frustration, but allow you to grow your business and save you money in the long run. You have options…