Magazine Article | June 19, 2013

Product Review: PSA (Professional Services Automation)

Sarah's BSM Team Headshots

By Jay McCall

Autotask ConnectWise Tigerpaw Logos BSM ReviewThree MSPs discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their Autotask, ConnectWise, and Tigerpaw Software PSA solutions.

If you’re an IT solutions provider that’s considering selling managed services, it won’t be long before you’re ready to trade in your Excel tracking and ticketing system for something more robust. Many of the PSA offerings on the market today include modules for project management, resource management, CRM (customer relationship management), and knowledge management. Most MSPs will agree that the time and project management savings from a PSA alone are worth several times the cost of the software.

It should be noted, however, that selecting a PSA solution is a serious commitment. Once you make your decision — even if you find out a few months later that you’d like to investigate another PSA — it’s probably not going to happen. Because of the long learning curve and time investment required to adequately compare PSA products, the traditional lab test was ruled out for this product. Also, the fact that PSA reaches so far into the organization — sales, marketing, accounting, purchasing, line of business managers, and even the executive suite — is another reason the traditional testing method is difficult to use for this software.

Rather than avoiding this topic altogether, we found a workaround. I found three successful MSPs who have at least three years of experience working with their respective PSA solutions:

  1. Brad Horsley is the CTO of Choice Solutions, an MSP who was featured on the cover of our October 2012 issue. Horsley’s company has been a ConnectWise user for more than three years.
  2. Elizabeth Elder is an IT manager, consultant, and certified PMP (project management professional) at Choice Technologies, an MSP that was featured on the cover of our February 2013 issue. Elder is the Tigerpaw Software expert at her company and has been using this product for the past nine years.
  3. Dale Walls is the president of Corsica Technologies, an MSP who was featured on the cover of our August 2012 issue. Walls has been an Autotask user for the past seven years.

Each of these MSPs was willing to sit down with me and talk candidly about the strengths and weaknesses of their PSA software. What follows are the highlights from those conversations, which will help you make a more informed decision as you consider a PSA for your business needs.

PSA Price, Delivery Model Considerations

Like many products we’ve evaluated — especially software products that are often bundled with maintenance and update fees — pricing is a tricky subject. Not only that, but you should avoid using price alone to determine your PSA buying decision. You’ll see why by the end of the article. But, here is what we do know about the pricing for the three products we analyzed.

Autotask, which is a SaaS-based PSA, starts at $55 per user per month for its Essentials Edition, which is the version of its PSA used by most small business MSPs and/or those just getting started with managed services. For a higher monthly fee, the vendor bundles its most commonly purchased extensions and add-ons in its Premium edition and even has an Ultimate edition for MSPs requiring more customization, a development sandbox, and direct developer support.

ConnectWise offers its product in a SaaS model or an on-premise model. Additionally, users can pay a monthly fee for the on-premise model. (ConnectWise did not release any information about its pricing.) Horsley’s company has used only the on-premise version of ConnectWise for the past four years. “When we first purchased ConnectWise nearly four years ago, we bought 50 licenses, and we haven’t needed to add any more since then,” he says. “We paid one flat fee per person, and then we pay an annual fee of around $2,000 for support, maintenance, and upgrades.”

Tigerpaw Software sells its product as on-premise only. One thing that stands out about Tigerpaw’s pricing is that it uses a concurrent licensing model, which means that if you have 30 employees who will be using the software, but no more than 20 will ever be using the same module at the same time, then you only need to purchase 20 software licenses for that particular module. Additionally, your sales reps, who use only one or two modules from the PSA software, will pay a lower licensing fee than your project managers, who will need access to everything. According to Elder, the cost per user can range from $250 to $750. In addition to that one-time fee, there is an annual fee for maintenance and renewals, which is approximately 20% of your one-time licensing fee. Tigerpaw also offers users a monthly payment option, which starts at $89 per user per month.

Before concluding the price discussion, it should be noted that even though the SaaS models have monthly recurring fees and appear to be more expensive than their on-premise counterparts, you need to factor in that SaaS products don’t have the costs associated with server acquisition, the maintenance, licensing, and data backup costs you incur with on-premise PSA. Indeed, the SaaS-based offerings feature 128-bit SSL data encryption; separate, dedicated databases for each customer; and so much server redundancy that outages per year are measured in minutes, rather than days.

Integration Can Make Or Break Your PSA User Experience

When the PSA discussion turned to the topic of integration, it stirred some passionate responses from the participants. One of ConnectWise’s claims that separate it from its competitors is the fact that ConnectWise made major investments into LabTech Software (remote monitoring and management [RMM] software) and Quosal (quoting software), which gives its users a “single pane of glass view of data from all three software applications.” Horsley confirmed that one of the primary reasons his company chose LabTech Software for its RMM solution was to have that experience, and he believes the claim is true. “If our RMM tool detects that a backup doesn’t perform properly, the RMM automatically creates a ticket in our PSA software,” he says.

Tigerpaw has a list of eight RMM vendors on its approved integration partner list (i.e., Continuum, Dell PacketTrap, Ipswitch, IT Control Suite, Kaseya, LabTech, Level Platforms, and N-able) that provide the same level of automation ConnectWise offers Horsley’s company. However, Elder’s company uses GFI MAX for its RMM, a vendor not currently on Tigerpaw’s approved integration vendor list, which causes a few extra manual steps for the MSP. “Our quoting software is integrated into our PSA the same way the other PSA vendors integrate with their quoting software partners,” says Elder. However, for every problem detected by our RMM, such as a failed backup, we have to manually copy that event into our ticketing system, which takes approximately 30 seconds per incident. It’s not that it’s a major time drain, but it’s always better when manual data entry can be reduced or eliminated.”

Walls’ experience with Autotask was the same as Horsley’s with ConnectWise. “We use N-able for our RMM software, and any problems detected by N-able are automatically dropped into our Autotask system as a ticket,” he says. “Autotask also acquired a quoting software company a couple of years ago called VARStreet, and the quoting process is very integrated as well.” Your key takeaway here is to ensure that whichever PSA platform you chose, your RMM tools are as tightly integrated as possible (or you require).

Key PSA Features To Look For: CRM, Ticketing, Reporting, And Project Management

The needs of your business might differ slightly from those of other MSPs or VARs becoming MSPs, but there are some core tools no IT provider should be without. The following are the core components of a PSA that you should be aware of when making your selection.

CRM — None of the three MSPs felt there were any advantages of using a standalone CRM such as over what was included with their PSA. Elder listed Tigerpaw’s CRM module as the PSA’s number one feature (followed by its ticketing module). “It allows seamless customer interface by anyone in the company,” she says. “Anyone at our company can know how many locations a customer has, the primary points of contact, sales quotes, open tickets, emails sent to the customer, and the customer’s inventory.” Tigerpaw’s CRM also includes the capability to create, track, and analyze marketing programs.

Both Autotask and ConnectWise have very similar CRM capabilities to Tigerpaw’s. The one difference Autotask does offer, however, is integration with for customers who have already invested in and don’t want to switch.

Horsley summed up his experience with ConnectWise’s CRM with, “The only hesitation I would ever have recommending this product is with an MSP that has more than 50 employees and is getting to the point in their growth where they need more sophisticated integration with marketing tools. For example, if we purchase a prospecting list to add to an email campaign, we have to manually format the file to meet ConnectWise’s requirements before we can import it into their marketing tool. We’re getting to the point where we’re starting to do enough marketing that we need a more robust marketing tool than what ConnectWise currently offers.”

Ticketing — Ticketing is another core component of a PSA solution, and it’s where many of the efficiency gains are realized. A ticketing module helps MSPs manage the complexity of assigning technicians, who have varying billing rates with projects that require varying skill sets to complete. Walls listed ticketing as the number one feature with Autotask. “One of the newer features in the ticketing module we like is the stopwatch feature, which makes it easier to track the billable hours for our techs,” says Walls. “It also allows us to track block hours and overages, too.” 

Elder adds, “Ever since we started using Tigerpaw nine years ago, the ticketing functionality has been an absolutely necessary addition to our workflow. The ability to search tickets, record time by technician, and integrate with our accounting system makes the ticketing module a huge asset to our company.”

Horsley concurs that ticketing is a key reason his company uses the ConnectWise PSA. “What really makes this module effective is its integration with our RMM,” he says. “Any time our RMM detects a failure event, such as a failed backup or server approaching memory capacity, the ConnectWise system automatically opens a ticket that’s associated with that customer’s record, which makes it easier to keep track of and prioritize customer issues.”

Project Management — Project management allows users to organize projects into phases, track time and material at each phase, report on work in progress, and perform profitability analyses. This third core PSA element turned out to spark the most passionate responses from two of the three MSPs. “During the execution of a multilocation project, it is difficult for the other team members to use the Tigerpaw project module,” says Elder. “For example, if you have a project with a customer that has five locations, and all locations will be impacted by the project, there is currently no way to associate that service with a single master project. You have to create five service orders. It would be much better if you could associate all service orders for the same customer into one project. To manage multiple location projects, we reference the other service orders within the internal comments field. It is a simple solution but it is not helpful for any kind of earned value calculations, not to mention the potential confusion or human error in not seeing the internal comments. To ensure that doesn’t happen, I have to personally follow up with other team members to confirm their work was completed and then to confirm the task was completed in the project management module.”

With regard to Autotask’s project management, Walls shared, “We don’t use Autotask’s project management module. We use SharePoint instead because we found it to be simpler and more flexible when we started using Autotask seven years ago. In all fairness, Autotask has made improvements to its project management module since then, but we haven’t reviewed them to consider a change in our processes at this time.” Also, at Autotask’s recent partner conference, considerable changes to its project management were announced for an upcoming release.

Horsley’s company uses the ConnectWise project management module and didn’t have any complaints. “This module includes a project board that allows us to manage projects using ITIL [Information Technology Infrastructure Library] and other project management best practices,” he says.

Reporting — All three of the MSPs relied heavily on the reporting capabilities of their PSA — not only for internal purposes, but also for their customers. Because MSPs often can detect and correct their customers’ IT problems before customers are even aware of them, reports that describe such incidents are a good way to help MSPs justify the value of their services to their customers.

Walls’ only complaints with Autotask’s reporting was during the times when he needed to create customized reports. “If a customer wants a customized report, there are a lot of manual steps you have to go through to create those reports,” he says. “For example, even though the interface looks similar to an Excel spreadsheet, you can’t copy text from one cell to another.  Also, there is no wizard to use when creating reports; it’s just not intuitive.” However, once he creates a customized report, which can take between one and two hours, Walls is able to save his customized report template, so that future customized reports can be generated much more quickly.

Horsley had a few frustrations with his PSA’s reporting in the past. “ConnectWise offers an embedded Crystal report module, but it produces only canned reports,” he says. “We can’t put our branding on the report, and it has very limited functionality.” To get around this issue, Horsley’s company purchased Crystal reporting software and hired a Crystal reporting consultant to build reports for his company. “We’re now in the process of migrating over to ConnectWise’s SQL reports, which can be output to PDF, Word, or Excel and offer much more flexibility. Had I known then what I know now, we could have skipped the Crystal reporting workaround altogether and gone straight to SQL database reporting,” he says.

Elder’s only complaint with Tigerpaw’s reporting was tied to the PSA’s knowledge base.  The Tigerpaw knowledge base uses plain text only, according to Elder.  “If you want to share images, you have to create a separate document attached at the bottom, but only one attachment is allowed per knowledge base item. When distributing company materials, we like to present a common look and feel, and while that could be done via the knowledge database through the linking at the bottom of each page, the presentation is lacking.” Elder’s company uses a wiki through SharePoint’s site to share information. (Note: Horsley’s company also found ConnectWise’s knowledge base to be lacking and instead integrates with SharePoint to overcome these limitations. Walls did not use Autotask’s knowledge base in the past — he also uses SharePoint — but, he recently started using Autotask’s knowledge base, and he’s planning to use it more often in the future.)

Clearly, there’s a lot to consider when selecting a PSA. Generally speaking, all three of the reviewed software packages offer more functionality than many MSPs will even use. Your tough decision will most likely be based on the features you need right now and the pricing and delivery model with which you’re comfortable.

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