Guest Column | April 11, 2014

MSPs And The Cloud: Finding The Right Vendor Partner

Luke Walling, VP Sales & Operations North America, AVG Technologies

By Luke Walling, VP Sales & Operations North America, AVG Technologies

It’s no secret that the managed services provider (MSP) business is a large market and has been growing steadily. In recent years, it grew by 13-16 percent to reach US$60-65 billion. The shape of the market continues to evolve and mature. As this happens, MSPs are demanding more, not just from the technology and tools that power their businesses, but also from the vendors that supply them.  

The MSP story, while certainly not a new one in 2014, continues to attract new partners to the model every day. Break-fix solution providers are looking for ways to gain stability and revenue that can be forecasted, while new segments are jumping onboard like those partners that have traditionally been focused on the VoIP and copier/printer segments.  Fast-eroding margins in their customary space demand that solution providers of all shapes and sizes adapt their business model to one that generates predictable revenue flow and customer value now, or they will face a struggle for survival tomorrow.

The changing nature of the types of companies now attaching themselves to the MSP umbrella means buyers have to understand what they are looking for from their relationship with their IT services provider. In consequence, customer expectations about what they should expect from service providers are also changing. For example, clauses relating to vendor management and the number of monthly proactive interventions are starting to be commonplace in MSP contracts. While larger enterprises still make up the bulk of MSP customers, the average size of a business using MSP services is falling.

Similar forces for change are at work in the service provider sector. New cloud-based service platforms are appearing that allow everything to be managed remotely, eliminating any need to have your own advanced remote administration or complex scripting tools onsite. Already, some of the larger MSPs have a regional focus, and it won’t be long before platforms like these allow them to offer their services across international borders.

MSPs typically manage a wide range of services for their clients from broadband communications to network infrastructure, from web hosting to the security of their computers, and looking to the future — perhaps even their mobile devices. Most MSPs have acquired multiple toolsets from a wide variety of vendors over a number of years to manage their customer environments. The main challenge is that virtually all MSPs have multiple solutions from different vendors with no easy way to integrate between them. This is taxing for support engineers who constantly have to log in and log out of different applications in order to complete relatively simple tasks.

It is of great interest to MSPs, therefore, that new and established software vendors are starting to introduce portal-driven, cloud-based remote management application suites into this space that offer simplification and centralization of services delivery together with much deeper levels of integration.

For the majority of MSPs, this means finding the right partner with a delivery platform that transitions them away from managing IT complexity and helps their customers take full advantage of the cloud. Complexity is out, data protection — whether it’s data at rest, on the move or in storage — is in. Front-end support to the partner and back end support within the vendor’s organization is important, but managing cloud reliability and uptime is equally as important.

One of the key benefits of using cloud services is rapid deployment, since there is no hardware to set up or complex server-side deployment required to get started.  This can lead some MSPs to only become aware of deficiencies after the services have been deployed to customers. When things go wrong with services, customers tend not to blame the cloud vendor; they are more likely to hold the MSP responsible — appropriately so in many cases, since the MSP recommended and implemented the services to them in the first place. Cloud often permits a great product that works out of the box to be deployed quickly and easily without vendor contact more readily than in the past, leading many solution providers to not have a full picture of how their vendor will support them — until something goes wrong.  

Some of the top assets to look for in a vendor partner include:

  1. Ease of implementation and use. A vendor’s cloud services application suite needs to work well with your other services. It should reduce complexity not add to it.
  2. Centralized services management via a single, integrated pane of glass. Confirm that a vendor’s platform roadmap focuses on giving you the clearest possible integrated view of your customers’ networks.
  3. Don’t make a decision solely based on a great price. The reality is that there are several factors that far outweigh the price tag of a key application that drives your business. Many partners fall into a price trap very quickly.
  4. Willingness to go the extra mile. Customer service is king. Take a good look at the support mechanisms in place even if you don’t need help from your vendor during the deployment or testing phases of your evaluation. Be sure they are quickly available by phone, email, and that they allow easy access to management in case of serious issues with your product or relationship. You are, after all, partnering with a vendor to support your customers. Expect the same from your vendor.
  5. Active and thriving partner community. Take a look at their partner forum. What is their track record of listening to their partner community; does it come across as a priority? 
  6. Open attitude to third-party vendor relationships. Are they publicly committed to working cooperatively with third-party vendors, including competitors, or will they try to force you to adopt their cloud services platform?

In conclusion, most tools and platforms offered today are robust and mature. What sets a market leader apart from the pack is how they handle the seriousness of your mutual partnership, both on the pre- and post-sales side, if they are innovating by offering ahead-of-the-curve technology and if they are ensuring tight integration between their product and other industry leaders.

The best products powered by the best vendor partnerships are the ones that will lead to improved productivity and profits and in turn, happier and healthier customer environments that drive retention and more customer referrals. And, that’s what we all want!

Luke Walling is the Vice President of Sales and Operations at AVG North America, overseeing all aspects of channel engagement from sales to technical support. He joined AVG in June 2010 through an acquisition of his business, Walling Data, which focused on value-added distribution of products and services to the Channel and to non-competitive end user segments, as well as a locally-focused MSP and Break/Fix business. Since Walling has been both a channel reseller as well as vendor, he has unique insights into the needs of the customers he serves. Walling believes that providing top-notch customer and technical support is the key to successful partnerships.