Exploiting network expertise and remote access technologies, content management integrator Silicon Plains Technologies cuts costs by remotely providing installation, configuration, and monitoring for its nationwide customer base.
Your cell phone rings during dinner with the family. Your best customer's system is down. The application is mission-critical for the customer and downtime costs are adding up as you speak. There are no more flights tonight, and your closest technical staff is hundreds of miles away. The best case scenario is that you'll have someone at the customer site late the next day. Will he call another integrator to solve the problem? Even if he doesn't, what are the chances he'll renew his service contract with you or give you any of his future business? Some integrators fear this is a risk VARs (and their customers) take when they pursue national deals from a regional office. ECM (enterprise content management) integrator Silicon Plains Technologies, Inc. (West Des Moines, IA) has avoided this potential pitfall by developing extensive remote installation, management, and monitoring capabilities to address customer needs.
A 28-person operation, Silicon Plains was named one of IBM's top 50 software resellers serving the small- to medium-sized market in 2001. Co-owners Greg McCormick, president and CEO, and John Lockard, VP and CTO, have been able to attain this distinction by using technology such as remote installation, management, and monitoring of hardware and software to extend its customer base, aid troubleshooting, and create recurring revenue. "Nearly all of our customers use our remote capabilities for some aspect of their solution," states McCormick. "About 30% are serviced almost entirely remotely."
Short of hardware installation, there is practically no content management service Silicon Plains can't provide remotely. It can install, configure, and deploy new software and content management systems. Conversions from existing systems can also be done remotely. This represents a significant opportunity for Silicon Plains, as about 25% of its business involves a conversion from one content management system to another. Silicon Plains also maintains a complete lab for on-site development. As a result, it can mirror a customer's existing operation, make any changes or additions, and test the new setup before deploying it remotely to the customer site. Since Silicon Plains' target vertical markets include regulated industries such as finance and insurance, the reduced risk associated with a solution that was tested before it was implemented is very attractive.
A National Presence Without Leaving Home (Much)
As pleasant a community as West Des Moines, IA, may be, it offers limited opportunities for an integrator like Silicon Plains. In fact, the metro area accounts for only about 20% of Silicon Plains' customer base. Like many highly successful VARs, it maintains regional sales offices and pursues opportunities nationwide. Managing these widespread installations would be difficult if all work had to be completed on-site. "Travel costs usually get passed on to the customer, so reducing them makes us more competitive," says McCormick. "In some implementations where there is lots of interaction with the network, we would practically have to live at the site. With remote capabilities, we can be on-site for the rollout and major milestones only and not price ourselves out of a deal." Of course, McCormick points out that every deal requires a certain amount of face time as well.
While McCormick emphasizes that Silicon Plains competes on business value rather than price, he admits companies are cost-conscious. With many big-name ECM vendors suffering economically, McCormick sees direct sales forces from those companies pursuing smaller deals than they might have previously. In the past, many of these companies would pursue only the largest enterprise installations directly and leave the less lucrative deals to local or regional integrators. "My biggest fear with some of those vendors is how dramatically they will cut prices to generate cash flow," comments McCormick. "I will get aggressive with pricing, but not desperate." Offering many services without the additional cost of travel expenses can make a solution more financially appealing.
Use Remote Capabilities To Create Recurring Revenue
Many VARs and integrators realize a dependable income by offering service and support, and Silicon Plains' remote capabilities put a new spin on that. The company offers everything from complete managed services to system monitoring. Under a managed service contract, Silicon Plains essentially becomes the customer's IT department. System monitoring supplements existing IT resources and offers an array of options for companies of all sizes. Over the four years Silicon Plains has been offering remote services, it has created a pricing matrix based on the number of servers a customer has, the load and volume of the system, and the frequency of monitoring. Customers can opt for monthly or weekly monitoring of logs, hardware status, and other potential problems such as unusual warnings. Silicon Plains' technicians can also perform services such as database tuning and capacity planning.
"Remote monitoring has been very attractive for customers who are looking for help managing their systems," says Lockard. "There's no way they can monitor to the level that we can, especially at first." Consequently, Silicon Plains bundles three months of remote monitoring with all implementations. After that period, users can choose to extend the contract or bring monitoring in-house.
McCormick and Lockard find that requiring customers to allow remote monitoring for a period of time aids troubleshooting and increases customer satisfaction. For instance, with optical systems, many customers opt to have data remain on the server for 90 days before it is automatically migrated to a permanent archive. Until that three-month period elapses, there is no way to be certain the migration will work on the first try. With remote capabilities, Silicon Plains can oversee the process without leaving the office.
Remote Services Need Networking And Security Expertise
"You have to really understand networking and security to offer remote services, or you'll be eaten alive by the customer's system administrator before you can even close the deal," warns McCormick. Though McCormick and Lockard make their living in ECM, both have an extensive background in networking. Despite the fact that it doesn't pursue networking opportunities, about 75% of Silicon Plains' employees have networking expertise. In their customer engagements, Silicon Plains' technicians have to interact with a number of systems, including a large number of mainframe environments, so the knowledge of diverse network configurations is invaluable.
Being able to capably access and interact with the network is sometimes critical to the success of a content management system and maintaining customer satisfaction. "Our systems run on TCP/IP [transmission control protocol/Internet protocol], and 9 times out of 10 a gateway or router setting needs to be changed," comments Lockard. "Or we'll get a call about a performance problem where things are running slow and find there is a router loop on the network. When we call the system administrator back, he'll admit that everything had been running slow, not just the content management system." Without the ability to track these issues from its office, Silicon Plains would be forced to send personnel to troubleshoot network inefficiencies affecting the content management application.
To address security concerns, Silicon Plains often uses a VPN (virtual private network) to access customer networks. A VPN creates a secure "tunnel" over public infrastructure, such as the Internet, and allows Silicon Plains direct access to a customer's network. Encryption capabilities protect data and provide security. Silicon Plains also uses technologies such as the Lotus Sametime server, which enables secure application sharing and proxy capabilities.
Security is a major concern among end users in virtually all vertical markets, but with customers in financial and other regulated verticals, it's crucial. Though it would seem such customers would be opposed to allowing access to their secured environments, their sophisticated networks are designed with potential internal and external threats in mind. As a result, they often have the ability to segment portions of the network that are off-limits if their policies require it. To date, the only customer that has refused any remote connection whatsoever is the Federal Reserve. However, one customer has gone so far as to require that Silicon Plains call in advance so a modem can be connected. After the work is completed, the integrator must call back so the customer can disconnect.
While remote services are still only a fraction of Silicon Plains' revenue, the integrators have found it so beneficial they plan to focus more resources on growing that portion of their organization. As a result, McCormick and Lockard can build a successful business and still enjoy an uninterrupted dinner with their families, at least most nights.