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The cloud service provider (CSP) and managed service provider (MSP) business models place a lot of emphasis on remote management and automated service delivery, keeping truck rolls and customer visits to a minimum.
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With that said, service providers still need to meet with customers, no matter how efficient and well-oiled their operations may be. Industry executives believe channel partners should conduct regularly scheduled business reviews with customers, in addition to any ad hoc meetings that might arise from a technical problem or project launch.
A formal client/MSP business meeting can serve several purposes. The parties can review the service provider's track record and identify areas for improvement. A discussion of the customer's business and technology needs can establish a roadmap for future projects. The creation of that roadmap can, in turn, flow into a conversation around budget planning.
How often the meetings occur and the exact agenda will probably vary from customer to customer, depending on the size of the customer and its business environment. The important thing is to make time for periodic meetings that offer a comprehensive view of the customer relationship.
"It is definitely in the CSP/MSP's best interests to conduct regular business/budget reviews with their customers," said Jeffrey Kaplan, managing partner at THINKstrategies Inc., a Wellesley, Mass., cloud consulting firm.
Such meetings, Kaplan suggested, help service providers make the benefits they provide more palpable to customers.
"The nature of cloud/managed services is that they are virtual and remote," Kaplan said. "So it is 'out of sight, out of mind.' This means that unless the CSP/MSP 'tangibilizes' the value of their services, they won't be fully appreciated and might only be noticed when something goes wrong."
Open for discussion
Joy Belinda Beland, managing partner at LA IT Girl, an MSP based in Los Angeles, said she meets with customers periodically to conduct a business review. The first agenda item is a performance review, which will take into account such metrics as the MSP's response time, ticket resolution time and any roadblocks the company faces in being able to address a customer's concerns. Beland, who recently spoke on the client meeting topic at Continuum's Navigate 2014 conference, said the performance review part of the meeting aims to pinpoint areas where the MSP can do better.
"We are open about that and invite that conversation," she said.
LA IT Girl will next discuss the customer's needs and suggests new technologies and products. The conversation will then turn to the customer's budget. Beland said she goes through the customer's software licensing arrangements, hosting contracts and hardware. Based on that assessment, the company will see what is coming up for renewal and will work with the customer to determine which agreements to renew or replace.
Beland said her company will present a 12-month rolling budget, which will include major upgrades and IT infrastructure changes. She said planning large projects 12 months out gives the client a heads-up for budget planning. While LA IT Girl provides a 12-month budget for the business review, the company also highlights the existing quarter. Beland said she gives the customer a printed purchase order for the items budgeted for the quarter. Alternatively, she may provide the client an electronic order approval that the client can sign with their IP address and email address. That way, the quarter
s purchases and labor commitment can be approved during the business review meeting.
"We can do it all at one time," she said.
ASK, an MSP based in Lansing, Mich., also conducts periodic business reviews with customers. Those meetings focus on budget and business plans, but also include a systematic performance review of the company's work for a given client. ASK serves as the IT department for its small and medium-sized business (SMB) customers.
To prepare for the systematic review, ASK pulls metrics through its back-end tools and compiles a report, said Mike Maddox, president of ASK. The company uses Autotask's professional services automation software and Continuum's remote monitoring and management software. Maddox said those products have built-in reporting capabilities, noting that ASK also creates customized reports specific to the types of data the company wants to present to a particular customer.
ASK can show customers data points regarding such activities as patching operating systems, updating antivirus software and eliminating spam, Maddox said. The company also collects and presents data on tickets that customer employees open with ASK's help desk. Areas covered here include first-response and plan-of-resolution service-level agreements. In addition, the company reports on the average time it takes to close tickets.
The company also looks for patterns in ticket activity. For instance, ASK might discover that 30 users are experiencing problems with a particular application and that those users are on the same operating system release level. If ASK determines that an OS upgrade would alleviate the overarching issue, it will work out the cost and present that information to the customer during the meeting, Maddox said.
Maddox said the data points are intended to spark a dialog with customers. He said the numbers provide a framework to discuss the client's needs and how the MSP's program can be improved.
ASK takes a long-range view when it comes to the client's needs and budget planning. The business review will include a discussion about the customer's business plans for the next six months to two years, and how IT might contribute to the objectives. ASK will also cover hardware warranties set to expire, maintenance renewals or products heading for end-of-life status. In 2013, many of the MSP's discussions with customers revolved around budget allocations for replacing Windows XP machines, Maddox said.
Beland said the frequency of the business review meeting depends on the amount of money the customer is spending. Meetings may be quarterly in the case of a client that has a large contract with LA IT Girl. The company meets with smaller clients once or twice a year, depending on their needs.
Bruce Nelson, president of Vertical Solutions, an MSP and cloud hosting partner based in Pittsburgh, said the frequency of meetings is based on the customers' business drivers and requirements. Vertical Solutions might meet once a year with a company that isn't in high-growth mode and isn't facing any particularly pressing issues, he said. On the other hand, the MSP might meet more frequently with a large client in the healthcare sector where there are more things happening and the risk is higher -- the need to keep in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), for example.
Mike Maddoxpresident of ASK
Maddox said that by and large, customers want periodic business reviews to occur quarterly. However, some clients will request that meetings take place more frequently or less frequently. He said ASK typically meets with an SMB's owner, chief operating officer or general manager.
Regardless of the frequency of the client/MSP business reviews, a member of ASK's technical services, project services, account management or executive teams will typically be physically in front of customers at least once a month. That level of contact is critically important, Maddox said.
"Ninety percent of our day-to-day work is done remotely, so we are out of sight," he said. "If the customer doesn't see you, they don't always know what you are doing for them."
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