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VAR service portals build tighter customer bonds

VARs build their own customer service portals to better track IT assets and service requirements.

The concept of asset management isn't exactly new, but savvy VARs are building their own customer service portals to keep better tabs on customers' infrastructure and service contracts and to better anticipate business opportunities.

Some providers use specific services from companies such as Managed Maintenance or custom modules for the ConnectWise professional services automation (PSA) tool to keep tabs on this information. Others, like Laurus Technologies in Itasca, Ill., developed the requisite software themselves. What are they displacing? In some cases, spreadsheets. In others, customer service portals are going in where no central repository of any sort existed before..

"Our customers have been telling us for a long time that it was a nightmare to manage all these maintenance contracts," said Brian Wolfe, partner of managed services with Laurus. " We took this feedback and developed a set of Web-based tools."

Wolfe says the tool is used extensively by the Laurus sales operations group, which tracks everything from which software licenses are associated with a particular piece of hardware to when a technology asset might be nearing end-of- life. The application, which was developed using feedback from 15 large Laurus customers, also keeps track of support contracts and service-level agreements that might apply to a managed service. Among other things, the information is used as background when new project opportunities arise.

Although Laurus doesn't charge customers for access to this information, building the database might require a professional sales engagement in order to "discover" relevant assets. "The overall response when customers see this information is 'wow,' " Wolfe said.

Custom portals help VARs be proactive

David Bennett, president of Connections for Business, a managed services provider in Hollywood, Fla., likewise wrote customized software that works with his ConnectWise PSA. He sees this knowledge as critical for helping his customers plan for the future: If they know a maintenance contract will be up in 12 months, they need to know now in order to set aside the budget. His team now references this information before virtually every customer interaction. Like Laurus, Connections has opened up this information to customers, which has generated tremendous good will, Bennett said.

"It helps us do our job better, with less errors. Without documentation, you can't have best practices," he said.

Gary Sharp, vice president of sales and marketing for E-Safe Technologies, a technology solution provider in Pittsburgh, viewed his company's ability to offer proactive insight into customers' service and maintenance needs as a competitive differentiator. His company has teamed with Managed Maintenance to collect and mine this information.

"It's tough to walk into a new project opportunity and name a technology as a differentiator," Sharp said. "I am not there to displace a product relationship. I am there to provide better service."

Every new sale made by E-Safe is automatically reflected in its Managed Maintenance portal; if a customer wants historical information, it can contract with Managed Maintenance to build this database and true up their knowledge of their infrastructure. "We normally see that about 45% of those approached are willing to have this assessment done," Sharp said.

Chris Pyle, president and CEO of Champion Solutions Group, based in Boca Raton, Fla., said his company's relationship with Managed Maintenance has created a maintenance revenue stream that helps the company weather quarterly valleys in its hardware business. Under that relationship, Champion Solutions pays Managed Maintenance a percentage on new business that it uncovers, he said.

Like the other solution providers interviewed for this story, Champion Solutions has exposed this information to customers as evidence of the value it provides. For example, using the portal, Champion Solutions was able to show some customers that they were still paying maintenance on hardware that had actually been retired.

"When we showed this to customers, that was it. Not only did they want the business we were pitching at that moment, they noticed that there were other services that they could buy from us," Pyle said.

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