Early Discussions

people-notes-meeting-team-7095It’s pretty much a given that at some point early on, you’ll sit down with your prospective client and discuss what services they’ll need, but what information should you actually get from your prospective client, and how?

First, remember that while this early meeting is about getting the information you need to take care of your client, you don’t want them to feel interrogated. Even if they’re clueless or deliberately evasive, if you have a list of what you need to know, you won’t be put off guard.

Second, it’s also about presenting your services, but don’t make an exhaustive sales pitch of all your offerings unless you are asked to. If the deal is already pretty certain, don’t oversell. If it’s not, don’t feel pressure to make offers of service or discounts. Speak plainly about what you could do for them and be frank if you need to think about anything.

Third, realize that sometimes you’ll deal with the owner and sometimes you’ll deal with the office manager. The latter is the more valuable contact at this point, because office managers usually know more about the office’s needs than owners do. Even if there is no office manager, there’s usually a secretary or associate who handles the managerial end of office duties.

Fourth, try to get a walking tour of the office. It’s a great way to sense the intangibles of an office. You can learn a lot from seeing how neat the place is, how employees interact, whether they have personalized their space, and whether people look up from their work to acknowledge you.

You can also learn a lot about the computers from seeing them in person, like how personalized the desktops and physical systems are, whether there are passwords posted everywhere, whether they’re neatly set up, whether they’re numbered/labelled, and so on. Even a quick tour gives you details you can’t get from a list of their systems and services, and those details will help you decide whether you and this client will be a good fit.

Fifth, and obviously, ask about the services and support they get from their current MSP, if they have one. The odds are that they don’t know some or most of what they’re paying for, especially regarding software licenses, so you really need to have your own checklist of items to inquire about.

Sometimes they’ll break out a bill and be willing to share it, but you can’t really ask for one.

Remember too that some business owners don’t care about the details of their tech services: they just know that they pay and that they are taken care of, or that they don’t like x, y, or z about their current provider. That’s good insofar as it may indicate they’re willing to pay if you’re willing to do what they need, but it means you have to be very careful to understand their needs.

On the other side, be wary about people who spend too long ragging on their ex(provider). It may be a sign that they’re impossible to please or constantly hopping from provider to provider, and probably aren’t worth the hassle as a client.

Sixth, at this phase of your partnership you need more information about your prospective client’s network and they would probably appreciate an independent, objective analysis of their network. Network assessment tools can quickly give you a lot of raw data about their network and systems and give your prospective client an unbiased assessment of their security needs. There’s also something about a hefty pile of charts that tends to persuade clients, many of whom often minimize their needs, that properly taking care of their office is a lot of work.

There are a couple caveats to these assessment tools, though:

  • They’re usually paid for on subscription, so you’ll pay for it when you don’t use it.
  • They may scare off paranoid prospectives, who won’t want you to run anything on their network

Seventh, you have to talk money a little bit. If you refuse to give an estimate, it may look like you’re hiding something. If you give an estimate, often that will be all the client remembers and they’ll etch it in marble. So feel free to give one, but be clear that it could change and don’t be bullied or cajoled into offering prices or services you haven’t fully considered.

Finally, suggest a period of weeks or months for getting on the same page and leave them with a copy of your contract that you’ll expect them to sign after that. This is a pragmatic move because it shows them that:

  1. since you’re willing to put something in print you’re not trying to hoodwink them
  2. you’re not a pushover and you know to protect yourself,
  3. and that you’re not too eager to get them on the hook.

Taking the Reins

time-for-change-sign-with-led-light-2277784I’ve handled this well and I’ve handled this badly, so: A Tale of Two Clients

Taking the reins from my predecessor went very well with my first client. I made several checklists of things to discuss and I went over it with one of the associates, who green-lit everything. I followed up with some timetables, and things went mostly according to plan.

Several parts of the migration from their DaaS (Desktop-as-a-Service) provider took longer (migrating the data, tweaking the new system and MS Office settings for their workflow), and there were some hiccups (the provider deleted their MS Office Users instead of just removing the licenses, a lot of older files needed to be converted), but they were patient, accepted downtime for the changeover, and we were in good communication throughout.

My second takeover should have gone better, but it didn’t. I got a tour of the office and made copious notes. I sent back a detailed list of my recommendations. A month went by. I did a hardware upgrade on one system. Another month went by. Then I got an emergency call to restore a deleted file, during which visit I installed my agents on their lunch hour. Then they never cancelled their old MSP, so one day my agent disappears from their server. And on and on the confusion went, much of it stemming from the bad transition.

As a businessman and professional, the errors were mine and they were mostly mistakes of assumptions. I assumed they’d accommodate downtime. I assumed they were going to take my recommendations. I assumed they’d be eager for improvements. I assumed they’d communicate in a timely fashion.

So early on, get the information about what your prospective client wants and make your precise recommendations. Be clear about what you need and how long it will take to get the job done. I they’re not going with your exact advice, then be clear about why you don’t recommend what they’e asking for.

Then, be clear about timetables. Finally, ask whether they understand your recommendations and if they agree to what is going to happen and when. You don’t have to be rude or excessively forthright, but make it clear that things won’t proceed unless you have what you need, whether that’s a payment or a date or a signature.

Make sure you always know what you’re doing, when you’re doing it, and that you have what you need. You need to stand your ground on this issue, because once you start, you’re responsible. It’s important to avoid positions where you’re not doing you best work and you’re sticking your neck out for no real reason other than to be accommodating.

Evaluating New Clients

two-person-in-long-sleeved-shirt-shakehand-955395When I first started teaching high school I took over in January, the middle of the school year. My predecessor had grown frustrated, complacent, and really lost his handle on his classes. Some of the students, then newly my students, wasted no time blaming him for their lack of knowledge. They were excited at the prospect of a new teacher, some in part for a new opportunity to learn, but the worst because they knew they could game the transition to avoid responsibility.

The same kind of thing can happen with new clients: something hit the tipping point with their last IT guy and they’re eager to lambaste him. You, meanwhile, are eager to please and think you’ll be the perfect match to make them happy. That’s probably not quite the full story.

The likelihood is that there’s blame on both sides of the soured relationship you walked into. Sure the breakup might have been a blowout over a big security problem or ill-timed hardware failure, but it’s likely that communication got bad or was bad from the beginning.

Clients have a habit of not communicating their needs in time for IT staff to respond with adequate preparation, and IT staff have a bad habit of not getting the information they need and communicating timetables and updates. Combined, those habits are a recipe for confusion, frustration, and even suspicion. So two suggestions:

First, have policies, and moreover have them in print and formally part of your business arrangement through your Statement of Work and Contract. This includes what you do, what you don’t do, time frames for projects, support request response times, client responsibilities for payment, acceptable means for contacting you, and so on.

Second, have a trial period of a few weeks, a month, or even a quarter. I err on the side of longer, only because the first few weeks of taking on any new client are either stressful as you are adjusting to each other’s needs, or a honeymoon. In both cases the first few weeks are often not a a reliable indicator of what will become your business arrangement.

But if after a few weeks they’re not abiding by the stipulations of what would be your contract and statement of work, or they’re already haggling with you over your prices and responsibilities, or the bills are coming in late, or you just plain aren’t getting along, it’s a good idea to consider whether you’re a good fit.

Templates

templatesMost jobs boil down to repeating common tasks. Scheduling scripts is your way of handling common computer tasks, templates are your way of handling common communications with people. This sounds rude and impersonal, but in fact it’s better for you and your client.

First, obviously you can respond more quickly, which pleases you by getting something off of your plate and pleases your client because they aren’t in limbo wondering what’s going on, which is stressful.

Second, when you start with a template you don’t feel the pressure to compose the perfect email, so you don’t get stressed and start writing poorly, which makes you look unprofessional, rushed, surprised, and unprepared.

Third, when the issue is tendentious, you’re not tempted to ramble and go off on people. You can send them the acknowledgement template, get to work on the issue, and then follow up later when you’ve cooled off.

Fourth, the act of making templates is an implicit acknowledgment that certain types of things are going to happen eventually. This means you won’t be surprised when they come, and it gives you the advantage of planning your response in both word and action, so that you’re not winging it when it happens. You get to choose, and avoid, without the pressure of an urgent problem.

 

Automation

taskIt’s easy to get caught up in the monitoring aspect of the RMM business, but there is a lot of management to be done too. Moreover, you really don’t want to start a remote session just to delete or move files, start or stop services, log out users, pull system information, and so on.

It’s a huge help to create scripts for your most common tasks for two reasons.

First, you won’t have to start a remote session. Instead, you’ll simply be able to launch the script from your RMM console.

Second, you’ll be able to schedule these tasks, either through your RMM software or through the Windows Task Scheduler, so you’ll be able to run them at the most convenient time for you and your users. Depending on your RMM software, you may find the Windows Task Scheduler has more settings for triggers, repeats, delays, expiration, etc. In either case, after the tasks are set up, you only need to set up a notification to check the status of your tasks.

So it’s definitely to your advantage and to the advantage of your users that you learn some Batch, Visual Basic, or PowerShell scripting to automate your management.

Finally, more sophisticated RMM software has more powerful task execution capabilities, more specifically conditional automation. This means not only that you can set up conditions to trigger tasks, but also subsequent and different actions to be taken if the issue recurs again. This basically creates the ability for your RMM software to auto-remediate the problem and then, if needed, only send the notification after various auto-remediation attempts fail.

If you invest the time in writing the needed scripts and configuring the tasks and workflows of tasks, this kind of RMM automation saves you a lot of time chasing after notifications.

Response Times

marketing-office-working-business-33999You can’t treat every client support request with the utmost urgency, every day, all the time. Sometimes you’ll be updating the books, other times placing orders, other times trying to find new clients. In any case, you can’t always drop what you’re doing to answer a support request. You have to triage.

More importantly, you have to help clients self-triage. A good support request system will allow clients to set the priority to their request, a feature which encourages clients to moderate their sense of urgency. Combined with your stated response times, it should not take too long to align their expectations with your offerings.

Consider a sample of response times:

  • Critical (20 Minutes)
  • Elevated (One Hour)
  • Normal (Two Hours)
  • Low (End-of-Day)

Be upfront about these response times early in your business with your clients. You may be inclined to be extra attentive at first, and you can be, but it’s important to keep to your policy. Remember that your boundaries exist to carve out space for you to manage the whole of your business and not just one client and their most current need.

Remember also to include in your advertised response times how quickly you can be on-site, should the need arise.

Support Ticketing

supportWhen you get your first client you may be inclined, especially if they are of a small or moderate size and if you are eager to please, just to tell them to call or text you when they have a problem. This approach won’t scale, though, as you and they grow. No matter how big you or your clients are, you should probably handle support requests through a ticketing system. Why?

First, you can’t be barraged by calls and texts. When your phone rings, you answer it, or you at least check it, and you can’t do that for even a modest volume of support requests on a daily basis. That will eat into your time to manage systems, keep up-to-speed on news and updates, update your books, contact new customers, and so on.

Second, without a ticketing system, you’ll have no way to triage the requests. You can’t respond urgently to all of them, so you’ll end up jotting them down somewhere, which inefficient and prone to error.

Third, without a ticketing system you’ll have no records, or at least poor records. You don’t want to be searching through email, voicemail, or texts to look for support requests. A ticketing system will allow you to search by date, user, system, tag, message content, and so on, which is not only helpful for finding a particular request, but helpful for viewing all the requests associated with a particular system, user, problem, etc.

Fourth, using email, text, and phone for support requests won’t at all scale if you have employees. It will quickly become a mess trying to assign tickets and verify if they’ve been completed.

So what do you want from a ticketing system?

At a minimum, you want either a desktop app or web portal that clients can access on their systems and use for submitting their problem and its priority. Other useful information—such as the system, user name, date, etc—will be automatically generated. Then you can handle the requests yourself or delegate them to your employees. That’s the minimum.

At the next level, you would want those requests to integrate with your billing system, so that when you check off that you’ve completed the request and entered how long it took you and your notes, that information automatically gets filed into the client account and is automatically included in their invoice.

Also, a surprisingly useful feature to have for the client-facing portion is a dropdown box with a list of prefab choices they can select to help explain their problem. This feature helps clients getting frustrated trying to explain their problem in detail. (Remember, they’re not the experts and moreover, they lack the technical terminology to explain the problem.) It also helps you avoid needing to decipher those explanations and it gives you better information with which you can look into the matter before calling them or starting a remote session.

Finally, remember that a good ticketing system helps keep you and your clients in good communication. They have a consistent way of contacting you and you have a consistent, structured way to manage the variety of support requests, with all their different issues and priorities, across all of your clients.

Hourly Rate

silver-and-gold-coins-128867The common advice about your hourly rate is right: don’t sell yourself short.

First, the labor of your hourly rate is one of your chief sources of revenue. By cutting down your hourly rate, you’re hitting yourself where it hurts.

Second, there’s a lot of truth to “value-based pricing” by which a price revolves around what a customer thinks the product is worth. You don’t have to price that way entirely: you can factor in what you think is reasonable for someone of your abilities with your level of experience relative to your competition, for a particular client. Realize, though, that there’s a point at which you’re priced so low that you appear to be low quality instead of high value at a great price. Right or wrong, people assume high price indicates high value.

Third, you have overhead. It’s easy to put yourself too much into the position of your client, imagining how much they’re paying for a project, and forget that a lot of your hourly rate is going toward taxes, rent, subscription fees, etc.

That said, you can’t just start your business and charge hundreds of dollars an hour. Whatever skills you bring, you need to build your business’ reputation. You can price yourself above your competition, but you probably can’t throw up tent with double your established competitor’s prices.

You’re of course also limited by what people will actually pay. In a big city, demand is high and big businesses may pay top dollar if your skills and services can put them ahead of their competition. In small towns, that’s not often the case.

So don’t sell yourself short, but don’t be blind to your position and what your clients expect of IT services in general.

Margins II: Profits

person-holding-coin-1602726The second half of the margin question is naturally, where do you make the meat-and-potatoes of your profit?

The answer lies in clients purchasing a monthly subscription of:

  1. hours of support
  2. per-system monitoring/management/maintenance
  3. software/service administration (MS Office, Adobe, LogMeIn, etc)

Hours of Support

You can automate a lot, but every client needs at least a couple additional hours of your time to handle hardware replacement, random problems, and general support.

If they are willing to prepay for hours, you can give them a discount on your rate and/or offer to roll over unused hours quarterly (or more, if you want), but remember that prepaid hours are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they make your monthly income more stable and your monthly workflow more predictable. On the other hand, clients often want to use those prepaid hours:

  • on the day before they expire
  • on impromptu projects
  • on a bunch of stuff they’ve neglected to mention, but will want fixed “while they have you on the phone”

The bottom line is that you (most likely) need to sell a certain number of hours of your labor per month, so in the first couple months of service really try to understand your client’s needs both in terms of the direct support users need and the technical upkeep their office requires. Then, recommend some monthly package of hours discounted/and or limited as you see necessary.

For example, maybe you’ll let the hours roll over quarterly, but they only apply to support requests. Or maybe you’ll discount the hours, but not let them roll over. Or don’t discount them and stipulate limitations. It’s up to you, but remember you need to sell the hours, take care of your clients, and protect yourself from clients gaming your system and slamming you with work in ridiculous situations. It’s hard to balance all three, and you’ll need to handle different clients differently.

Per-System Monitoring

This is an easy matter to manage each month: every computer occupies a seat in your RMM plan and is cared for by your maintenance and management policies, which you monitor for anomalies, errors, failures, etc. You want to automate this maintenance as much as possible with scripts and an RMM system that has flexible automation features and you want to set up notifications so that you can review alerts for problems that were auto-remediated and get alerted for problems that need your intervention.

The better you get at this process—which has a lot of variables and will be the the subject of a separate article—the more systems you will be able to manage with fewer support requests from users.

Software & Service Administration

Some software and services that either you retail at-cost or that a client purchases themselves might still be in need of your administration or management. A client might want you to add/remove users/licenses for a MS Office 365 subscription or various others, monitor their cloud backup, and so on for various other hardware and software needs.

It’s advisable to consider these needs separate from System Monitoring and Remote Support needs for three reasons.

First, you’ll have a definite relationship with the service: it’s either in your scope of responsibility or it’s not. Don’t consider “System monitoring” to include “whatever happens to be on a client’s computer” and don’t consider “Remote Support” to include “whatever conceivable issue arises.”

If you’re not supporting it, there’s that. If you are, then you’ll be keeping up with its issues and updates month-to-month, so you won’t be surprised by something you’re not familiar with. It also means your client be able to count on your help and in a moment of urgency, you won’t have either to say that the task falls outside your scope of services or fumble around unprepared trying to fix it.

Second, you’ll have access, in terms of both permissions and passwords. You don’t want a call that “Office won’t open” only to find out their credit card on file with Microsoft expired and they forgot their password.

Third, you can profit from the work. Sure, you can say that X, Y, and Z fall outside your scope of services, but it’s better to gain competency, help your client, and make money, all by effectively managing their needs. Sometimes, though, it’s necessary to say “No,” and refuse to support things you aren’t comfortable being responsible for, either because it’s a poor product or it’s not feasible for a third party to administer or manage the service.

Similarly, charging for administering these services can make up for not charging for the licenses themselves.

In Conclusion

A. Try and keep your overhead down. Don’t sign up for services just because they’ll help you a little or even because they’re very good, until you’re sure they’ll help you do work for which someone will pay you.

B. Office space and its associated costs are expensive. At least consider a cloud-oriented model, a PO Box, or a rented space just for meetings.

C. RMM software can be expensive. Demo software and choose something with flexible starter-friendly pricing so you don’t shell out thousands when you only have a few dozen systems to manage at the beginning.

 

Margins I: Expenses

cash-dollars-hands-money-271168The next step is to make a detailed study of your expected finances. Every business has margins, that is to say, the difference between your costs and your prices. Managing your margins comes down to keeping an accurate accounting of your  overhead and getting clients to subscribe to your core services. In the MSP business, you’ll find that your costs fall into three categories.

The first category consists of business essentials that are not for any particular client or service, but make the whole business possible. This includes costs for:

  1. Liability Insurance
  2. Business License
  3. Domain Name & Web Hosting
  4. Bookkeeping & Time-Tracking software
  5. Microsoft Partner Pack
  6. Your Hardware
  7. Advertising
  8. Loan Interest
  9. Fees to Professionals (lawyers, accountants, etc)
  10. Taxes

This category also includes office expenses, such as:

  1. internet
  2. utilities
  3. rent/mortgage
  4. renter/owner insurance
  5. transportation expenses
  6. business cards
  7. flyers and brochures
  8. basic office items (toner, envelopes, paper, etc.)
  9. security
  10. office repairs

The second category includes whatever software (other than Microsoft licenses included in your Partner Pack) you need to actually do your work, such as:

  1. RMM Service
  2. Adobe CC/DC Apps
  3. Various one-time purchase software

The third category consists of software you purchase and sell to clients but don’t directly profit from. This might include licenses you sell at-cost for:

  1. Microsoft products
  2. Antivirus
  3. Remote Access

(Yes, you can mark up each license by a few bucks and make a slight profit, but it’s unlikely to add up to much because, if you charge too much more, clients will be enticed to buy their licenses directly.)

Most of that will be paid annually, though some RMM software gives you granular control of adding/removing features as needed, so be sure to average those costs, spread it out over the year, and mark the expense in your monthly budget.

When you add up the aforementioned, you’ll get a sense of how much you need to make to break even and then, to turn a profit.