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Yes, managed IT services can be offered via e-commerce

Not all MSPs believe using e-commerce is a good fit for their businesses. Dave Sobel argues the merits of adding an e-commerce option to existing sales and marketing methods.

Dave Sobel is host of the podcast The Business of Tech and co-host of the podcast Killing IT. In addition, he wrote Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business.

In this video, Sobel responds to comments he received about his previous video, "The Simple Thing MSPs are Missing in Marketing," about incorporating e-commerce into MSP sales and marketing approaches. According to Sobel, many MSPs objected to his views on how e-commerce fits into the business model. Sobel counters each objection and doubles down on his assertion that MSPs should embrace the e-commerce trend.

Transcript follows below.

Dave Sobel: So, I did a video that got a lot of attention about using e-commerce in marketing. [There were] lots of comments, pushback and discussion. For me, that's amazing. That's the point. My starting statement to those who say I'm wrong or have a long list of objections: 'Great. Then don't do anything different.' Seriously, I mean it.

I'm only offering my perspective to help business owners. I don't get paid by a vendor to sell you something. In fact, my motivation is to have as many of you in business as possible so you listen to my stuff. If you listen to my stuff, because it's valuable, I can make money. I am not selling you a solution. I am not selling you my methodology or some package you can buy from me or anything else. Alex Farling at Lifecycle Insights observed it very well. My business model is to 'say things that make MSP owners think.' Thanks, Alex.

So, my motivation is to offer you my best stuff to have you listen. Thus, if you think I'm wrong and [you have] objections, well, okay. I never claimed to be totally right. My point is to make you think.

That said, my video about e-commerce and marketing really struck a nerve. And you know what? I know I'm onto something when so many of you object so very loudly. I'm pretty sure I'm right. I wouldn't be saying it if I didn't. But let's talk about some of those objections, just so I've cleared the air a bit, because there are some good questions here. Let's work through them.

B2C vs. B2B e-commerce

There's a chorus of, 'Oh, it won't work for me,' 'Oh, my business is referral-based,' 'Oh, that won't work in my region,' 'Oh, my services are just too customized.' You know what all these objections sound like? The same garbage people told me about managed services. Seriously, these are just not objections, because let's address the market in the next objection.

Lots of listeners objected to my examples as [being] too B2C. First off, let's observe I'm telling a story. I want you to think like the buyer, not focus on the examples. The concept of the examples was that you can spend big money, but it wasn't for you to focus on the examples. The point of buying a multimillion dollar house or a very expensive car is that far bigger decisions than buying a laptop from you or even your entire service package are made online every day. But all you techies who want to argue the nuance, sure. Some of my examples are B2C. So let's talk business services. So, you say [B2B] doesn't do e-commerce, huh? Let's handle those.

How about we want to incorporate the business [online]? Check. How about we want to get a business account [online], have a relationship with a bank? Check. How about we want to hire business tax services [online]? Check. How about we want to get business insurance services? Yep, I can do all the paperwork online. Have a look into commercial real estate [online]? Check. Subscribe to payroll and HR services [online]? Check. Buy marketing services online? Check. So, 'Wah, wah, wah.' Cry me a river.

[There are] complex services with lots of questions and customizations being sold and offered online to empower the buyer.

And let me observe, you are technical people. You can't figure out a system to do this? Really?

E-commerce doesn't replace other methods

One provider just flat out told me it wasn't possible, couldn't offer any services [via e-commerce]. So, I went to their website site. Right there, on the front page: obvious solutions that could be sold entirely via e-commerce. On the homepage were email spam solutions and VoIP solutions. You're telling me those are custom every single time? Email and spam? Really? I argue [with this] because this provider had it listed front and center on their homepage. That tells me they're leading with that product set. So why not e-commerce that?

Then, so many of you instantly assumed you had to put everything online. Why is it all or nothing? Advocating e-commerce does not mean I'm saying you have to now sell everything you do online and then only sell online. That's so binary, people. This is an 'and,' not an 'or.'

Listeners also assumed that putting e-commerce on your site means you don't sell other ways. Stop that. This is not about you. You are making your services available for the way [your customers] want to buy [it], not the way you think it should be bought.

When you say, 'I don't think they'll buy this way,' you're missing that you don't get the choice. You might not buy that way, but why are you dictating the only way you're going to sell to them? I wouldn't have thought you'd buy any of the services I've already listed this way, but, clearly, people do. They also buy all those expensive items I listed online.

It's not about you. It's about the buyer. If you think you're pushing people into a single channel, you're thinking about it backwards. Instead, you are offering all of the ways people would want to buy. You aren't taking away your other methods. You're adding a new way for people to buy.

Think about that insurance sale. That insurance agent sells online and offers an agent and offers physical offices -- in some cases. This is additive, not limiting.

Think about the idea of qualifications. A set of comments here was very sharp: 'I don't want people to be able to sign up for our services unless they're qualified, and qualification does not mean [they're] able to write a big check each month.' Another said, 'A good salesperson is an educator.' What you're missing here is that your marketing is supposed to be doing this. This is particularly true about deep niche areas.

I'm going to let you all in on a secret. You know all this content I give away? You know what it does for me? It sells more. In particular, I do some work with those looking to make strategic moves in this space. I'm doing education 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because my content is doing that work for me. Does that mean I don't engage and sell myself? Of course not. Most buyers, though, have now already done a bunch of homework before they even talk to me or to you. Do you think your salesperson is the first time they ever learned anything about this space? In fact, real educational content of real value helps the buyer self-qualify -- self-qualify. Your website is your virtual storefront. [Whereas] in a real shop, you would talk to someone, a virtual buyer is learning from your site. And for most of you, many of you, it's a pamphlet at best.

Really, so many of your websites are not about the buyer. It's about you, the seller. The approach of real e-commerce is not to have someone randomly coming in your virtual storefront and go from zero to purchasing in two clicks. Instead, your virtual shop should have all the educational resources needed. And again, this is additive, not a replacement.

Objections to displaying MSP pricing

Here's another objection. What if someone rejects you because of listing price?

My counter there is easy. You do realize that some are eliminating you now because you don't have pricing, right? They go to your site expecting to see what it will cost, and it's not there. My point here is that because now it's so easy to get prices on most things, it's expected. And do you honestly think that hiding your prices is good for you?

If you believe in your value, you are proud of what you offer and you display it. And that includes the price, because you know it's worth it.

Another objection is that putting the price out there instantly commoditizes. You know what's flawed about that? You're assuming the buyer has absolutely no idea what the service should cost. Do you know how easy it is to get some sense of how much IT services costs? Go to Google right now and search, 'How much do IT services cost?' Besides the fact that all your vendors are out there providing this insight by showing off their managed services pricing e-books, don't you think customers can see that stuff, too? The data is right there. Do you really think customers and prospects get all their information from you? Do you think they don't have Google? What year are you living in?

My message is not one-size-fits-all e-commerce. I am not saying the only way to do this is a shopping cart of all your services and everything is a virtual store entirely. What I am saying is you need to enable the customers who do want to buy from you to be able to do so, much more streamlined and with a full electronic version of your process, whatever that means for you. Because it's not one size fits all. This is not a fully commoditized sale. Sure, some parts of it might be, and that is likely to drive sales, not hinder it.

The pandemic has changed buying patterns

Here's my final thought. What no one debated, what no one addressed, was the disruption that's occurred in the last 12 months.

E-commerce just surged between two and five times faster than [it had] pre-pandemic. Online doctor consultations have surged, as an example, tenfold between April and November 2020. If you're debating what has worked before and have all your knowledge gained from the times before the pandemic, it means you are totally ignoring everything that changed -- totally ignoring. You're really going to argue that there are no changes to be made due to the changes in buying patterns brought on by the pandemic? None?

The arguments I hear take into account not a single bit of current market data -- nothing about the surge, nothing about the shift in buyer behavior. It sounds like an argument from two decades ago, and I'm not playing. You can die on that hill, because for those of us living in the now and the future rather than the past, we recognize that the world has changed. Change or be the dinosaur.

About the Author
Dave Sobel is the host of the podcast The Business of Tech, co-host of the podcast Killing IT and authored the book Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business. He owned and operated an IT solution provider and MSP for more than a decade, and has worked for vendors such as Level Platforms, GFI, LOGICnow and SolarWinds, leading community, event, marketing and product strategies, as well as M&A activities. Sobel has received multiple industry recognitions, including CRN Channel Chief, CRN UK A-List, Channel Futures Circle of Excellence winner, Channel Pro's 20/20 Visionaries and MSPmentor 250.

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