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After-sales service defines success for managed service providers

After-sales service is good customer relationship management for VARs; for managed service providers (MSPs), it's the key to survival.

Successful managed service providers (MSPs) head off IT problems at a customer's sites before they even begin. Like a no-hitter baseball game, the best scenario is when nothing happens at all.

The challenge comes as managed service providers work to make sure that their customers really understand the value they are getting in after-sales service.

"I visited on-site with one of our fairly large partners last month, and they were doing a good job of customer acquisition and had brought on 60 new contracts in the past year," said Mike Ellison, director of partner development at N-Able Technologies Inc., an MSP software vendor in Ottawa. "Unfortunately, due to poor communication, they were losing 40 contracts per year."

Make sure someone is in charge

From the day the contract is signed, managed service providers need to make sure that customers feel connected to the organization and know who they can call for service after the sale.

"Part of our ramp-up procedure is to do everything we can to make sure that the customer feels instantly that there is a difference," said Rory Sanchez, president and CEO at SL Powers, an MSP in West Palm Beach, Fla. "We make our initial project team a SWAT team -- we send in everyone necessary and make sure they see a lot of us. We put a mouse pad with our name on it on every desk."

Graphtech Systems in Deerfield, Ill., assigns consultants to each of its customers to make sure they are getting what they need, to act as a virtual chief technology officer (CTO) in a sense. "The consultants have three jobs: quality control, reporting and proactive consultation," said Steve Feldman, president of the MSP. "We have to make sure that we are embedded with our customers beyond just fixing their computers. We need to understand their businesses."

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Alpheon Corp., an MSP in Morrisville, N.C., meanwhile, assigns each customer to an account manager for after-sales service.

"This is the one person who is their non-sales individual who happens to work in the sales department," said Greg Donovan, CEO. "They are a nontechnical person who can be an ear for the customer and ask them how things are going. It is amazing what the customer will say to a nontechnical person."

At the customer, though, managed service providers should strive to have multiple points of contact within the organization. N-Able, for example, recommends having a small committee of major stakeholders at the customer who attend a quarterly or semi-annual review of results and plans.

"With just one contact, if that person is a poor communicator or doesn't understand the situation or leaves the company, you are lost," Ellison said. "Even if you are talking to the president alone, the odds of him knowing the needs of every department head and stakeholder are pretty slim."

It's all in the relationship

Most of all, managed service providers need to make sure that they build strong and deep bonds with their customers. "First and foremost, it's about building a personal as well as professional relationship with a client," said Tim Hebert, CEO of Atrion Networking, an MSP in Warwick, R.I. "A lot of sales organizations teach their people to build rapport but it is superficial. We are training our team on building more meaningful personal relationships."

In order to forge close ties -- and as a routine part of after-sales service -- those supporting the account should be willing to talk about difficult issues such as budgets and the tradeoffs between different technology options, he added.

It's also important to make sure the customer clearly understands both the difficulties that close monitoring has averted and how it has positively affected the company's bottom line.

"Be certain to report the number of incidences that have been avoided, including near collisions and close calls," said Ellison. "The MSP should also be talking about the notion of downtime and how it affects productivity, security and more."

Making data digestible

The key to successful reporting is to be brief and clear and to focus on the data in a way that clearly points to the business benefits achieved for the customer, said Justin Crotty, vice president of services at Ingram Micro North America in Santa Ana, Calif. "The correct use of information can make huge and justifiable profits for the MSP," he added. "Ideally, it allows solution providers more sales leads, opportunity identification, up-selling and cross-selling opportunities than they've had before."

Managed service providers should also work to deliver information in a format and timeframe that works for the customer. SL Powers, for example, has created a customer portal where their customers can log in to see monthly reports or to draw just-in-time data whenever they want it. The company has also has created a virtual CIO role, staffed by a technical person who is charged with going over customer reports in detail and then bringing to the customer's attention anything that is really important.

"He's there to uncover opportunities for the account manager," said Sanchez. "The customer understands that he is there to make sure the engineer does a good job for them and to act as a liaison to sales so they don't have to call sales, but he doesn't gain anything from a customer buying more or buying less. That role has become very important to staying in touch with the client -- and the client feels like he cares about their business and how they are using technology."

No matter how the data is delivered, a comprehensive report can help answer many customer concerns before they arise, said Donovan, adding that they routinely tell customer how many trouble tickets were handled, whether they were flagged by the system or reported by the company, how many issues were stopped before they began, the number of viruses blocked, software patches that were applied and more. "You have to quantify what you were doing in the background so the customer understands what the invoices were for," he added.

Whenever possible, frame the results of the report in terms of dollars and cents. "Remind the customer that if they had been billed by the hour to fix the problems that were resolved or averted, they would have been paying this astronomical amount instead of this little amount," said Charles Weaver, president of the MSPAlliance in Chico, Calif.

Looking into the future

Finally, managed service providers need to make sure they keep their finger on the pulse of their customer's ongoing needs. "Don't assume the contract is going to be there," Ellison said. "Upgrading and lifecycle management, security and compliance and data protection: all of it is a moving target and it is important to keep talking about it."

These close alliances and constant communication ensure that customer loyalty remains high, even when a competing service provider comes knocking at the door.

"The customer starts to see you less as a vendor and more as part of the company," said Lane Smith, president of Do IT Smarter, a San Diego-based distributor of managed services. "Once that happens, even if there is a customer service issue, it is a whole lot less impactful. If there's a relationship, the conversation will revolve less around accusations and more around getting the problem fixed."

After-sales service is about taking the time to make the customer feel attended to and understood -- it more than makes up for the time saved in not having to look for new customers.

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