Magazine Article | June 14, 2013

Services 101: Automation Tools For Retail VARs

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By Jay McCall

It’s time to understand the roles RMM (remote monitoring and management) and PSA (professional services automation) tools play in your success and how they differ from other tools out there.

Many retail-focused resellers as well as general IT VARs now describe themselves as managed services providers (MSPs) or as selling managed services, but industry research from CompTIA reveals that only 40% of the channel is actually selling managed services. Where the discrepancy lies is that some resellers confuse selling warranties and professional services with selling managed services. Even though warranties are a type of service and professional services such as network assessments and troubleshooting are services that MSPs may offer, what makes managed services different is the ongoing monitoring and management of the customer’s IT hardware and software, retail or not, which is sold to the customer as a monthly subscription.

RMM’s Role In Your Managed Services Business
When you understand that by its very definition managed services entails the ongoing management of IT assets, it only makes sense that an RMM tool is a critical component to selling managed services. There are a lot of RMM tools to choose from, however, and there are a few things you should know about RMM before selecting one for your business. “The three areas retail-focused VARs need to keep top of mind as they evaluate RMM solutions are: application and hardware-specific agents, strict adherence to PCI [payment card industry] standards, and support,” says Andrew Kurtz, CEO of Vigilix. “Most RMM tools designed for broad IT support do not have agents that are designed to monitor the specific conditions that are most critical to the POS application.” Here are some other important RMM selection tips that retail VARs should consider:

SaaS vs. On-Premise — Like so many other software vendors, many RMM vendors now offer SaaS versions of their software. As a managed services provider, you’ll likely have SLAs (service level agreements) tied to your service contracts, so it is essential that your RMM tool is always available. If you’re going to install the software at your facility, you’ll at least need to make sure to have adequate server redundancy and power backup in place before you start selling managed services. If you don’t currently have that kind of IT infrastructure, which you probably don’t, you may want to select a SaaS-based RMM product that places the RMM uptime burden on your RMM vendor.

Agent vs. Agentless — Installing agents (small programs that capture key metrics and report back to a central host) on monitored end points can be a time-consuming part of a setup. But, does the time-saving nature of an agentless system pay off? According to Eric Brown, CEO of MSP company Remote Technology Management (RTM) and an RMM tester for Business Solutions magazine, “In situations where you just need to count devices and capture basic information such as computer brand and the type of OS it’s running, agentless is fine. However, there are always going to be situations where you want to capture much more granular information, such as all the software installed on a computer, the BIOS version, a service tag number, and warranty details, which can only be achieved using an agent.” It’s important to keep this in mind as you consider this question for your retail customers. If you’re leaning toward the agentless model, be sure to first validate that it will be able to capture the necessary metrics on your customers’ POS and other IT assets. If it can’t, you may need an agent-based option. Either way, keep in mind Kurtz’ advice and make sure your RMM vendor supports the retail-specific hardware and software you’ll need to monitor.

NOC (Network Operations Center) Services — Within the managed services space, some providers handle all of their own services, which could include 24/7 support in some cases. Other service providers act more as agents and outsource their customer support to thirdparty NOC service providers. RMM vendors offer varying levels of NOC services — some include it as a free valueadd and others charge a fee for it. Depending on whether you’re planning to provide your own troubleshooting services or outsource some or all of your support to a third party, this will determine how closely you should consider an RMM vendor’s NOC services offerings in your overall evaluation process.

MDM (Mobile Device Management) Support — Nearly every vertical market, including retail, is seeing an explosion in the use of mobile computing devices like iPads. Keep this trend in mind as you evaluate RMM solutions, as there is a big disparity in the mobile platforms RMM vendors support, ranging from no MDM support to those that support all the major mobile platforms (Android, BlackBerry, iOS, Symbian, and Windows Mobile).

Don’t Neglect PSA’s Role In Your Managed Services Success
One of the tools new “as a Service” providers may try to get by without is the PSA tool. On the surface, you may think that you can use Microsoft Excel to keep track of your service tickets and your billable service hours, but any seasoned MSP will tell you that a PSA solution will pay for itself several times over and is a must-have for your retail managed services business. Many of the PSA offerings on the market today include modules for project management, resource management, CRM, and knowledge management.

One point that can’t be said often enough, however, is that selecting a PSA solution is a serious commitment. Once you make your decision, if you find out a few months later that you’d like to investigate another PSA, it’s probably not going to happen. To help you select the right PSA for your retail practice, here are some important tips to consider:

SaaS vs. On-Premise — Since we already covered this topic with RMM, there’s not much more to say about it except for the fact that some PSA vendors only offer on-premise versions of their software. So, if that’s the model you prefer to use, make sure you have the server and network infrastructure in place to support it because, like RMM, it will always need to be available.

Ticketing — This is one of the core functions of a PSA, and it’s where many of the efficiency gains are realized. The ticketing module helps MSPs manage the complexity of assigning technicians who have varying billing rates with projects that require varying skillsets to complete. One of the must-have features most MSPs insist upon is integration between the PSA and RMM. Each PSA vendor has a list of preferred vendor partners that it integrates its product with. If you choose a PSA that’s not on your RMM vendor’s preferred vendor list, you’ll be stuck manually adding incidents discovered by your RMM into your PSA ticketing module, which not only slows down your business processes, but it also introduces the possibility of human error.

CRM — This is another core module included with PSA tools, which allows users to gather key intelligence about customers and prospects that can be used in a variety of ways. If you’re not already using a CRM program, it’s highly recommended that you use your PSA vendor’s CRM because of its integration with the other PSA modules. If, however, you’re already using an application such as Salesforce.com, be sure to check with your PSA vendor, and find out whether it offers any integration services with your CRM.

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. In this month’s issue of Business Solutions magazine, we have a product analysis of three PSA tools. This topic sparked the most passionate debate among the testers we used in the review and could turn out to be the source of your buyer’s remorse if you’re not careful. The important thing to check for here is whether you work with multilocation retail customers or not. If you do, make sure to investigate how the PSA provider helps you keep track of these types of projects, and be sure when checking a PSA vendor’s references to confirm this topic with a couple of its customers.

Reporting — You might not realize it at first, but reporting is a very important tool for an MSP. The reason is that when you manage your customer’s IT resources, you’re often able to troubleshoot and resolve their IT problems without their ever realizing there was a problem. What can happen is that over time, the CFO or other person paying the bill starts asking the question: “I can’t remember the last time we had an IT issue — why do we need to pay this company every month when there aren’t any problems?” MSPs use reporting tools to show their retail clients what could have gone wrong had the retailer not been paying for these services.

Reporting has another important benefit as well, which is identifying trends. For example, through reporting you may discover that most of your tech support time is spent servicing a particular monitor, bar code scanner, or printer. Armed with this information, you can better determine whether your techs need better training or perhaps you need to drop a faulty product altogether.

Whether or not you’re currently selling managed services to your retail clients, the fact remains that this is the direction the industry is heading. By doing your homework now, you can prepare yourself for this inevitable change and start reaping the benefits the recurring revenue model offers sooner rather than later.

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