The Fall of the Era of Free IT Advice

Posted by Denes Purnhauser on Jan 21, 2016 6:57:21 AM

In vCIO, IT management, MSP vCIO, MSP Sales, MSP, Virtual CIO, CIO, consultative sales

 free IT adviceMany IT managed services providers (MSPs) and internet telephony service providers (ITPs) are suffering the challenges of charging for IT consultation. The IT industry has taught its customers that we sell big expensive boxed packages that come with free consultation, placing the value in the big boxes and none in the advice. There are no big expensive boxes anymore, but still the advice remains free. However a systemic shift is taking shape finally reversing this conundrum. It is about offering low-cost SaaS applications and solutions with high-grade consultation fees, placing more value in the advice rather than the tool.

What has happened?

Let's go back over what happened. We sold expensive systems to SMBs such as MS Exchange with servers. The process of selling these projects included high-level consultation: checking the environment, creating architectural designs, and putting together migration plans well before we got the deal signed. Part of the sales process was to create a complete Project Plan (many unbilled hours) for the investment, deployment, and implementation of those items. Because everybody made a decent margin on those package items plus the accompanying service project and because the closing rate was high, we were happy to include the initial consultation work in the sales process.

But over the last few years most SMEs have been moving into the cloud to some extent. They are buying Office 365 monthly subscriptions instead of buying servers and exchange licenses paid upfront. We do earn commissions, but is there more? Do we need to plan things out? Do we need to integrate the systems? Do we need to do consulting work? Sure we do, and it’s just going to grow as the system gets more complex.

The fact is that clients never really get used to paying us for IT advice and IT consultation, but now we don’t have those big lucrative projects to cover our work.

Rise of the SaaS applications

The SaaS model is widely misunderstood. Most people think that the main benefit of SaaS was that you don’t have to install the application, making it easier to use. That’ just one of the perks along with all the other technical advantages such as mobility, platform independence, data storage and so on.

The big deal of SaaS is the business model. You might think that this is all about paying monthly instead of buying the license. This is a different and very important aspect. Paying $100/user for a decent CRM for five users is $18,000 for three years. The same with on premise, is you’ll pay the upfront license + 20% upgrades every year. Without the hosting fees it’s around a $12,000 CRM package just to start; we often forget that there are always implementation costs - we’ll get back to that later.

From a psychological point of view, paying $500 per month is a much lower hurdle than committing to a $12.000 upfront fee, if you sign a 12 month contract, which is now less often required. It makes SaaS applications selling easier.

From the perspective of the application developer however, this is a whole new game. Now the application company does not get $12,000 for the license upfront, and risks losing the client at any time. The app developer has a bunch of upfront costs developing the tool, and then more selling it. You (believe it or not), marketing, and sales and customer management can quickly eat up 50% of the lifetime value of the client. That means the motivation for the application developer is no longer just to sell the tool, but to acquire and keep the client as long as possible, and to upgrade to the highest package possible.

Now the goals of customer and the application developer are aligned: get as much value out of the application as possible. The big deal of SaaS is common motivation.

Distribution of work with SaaS

The second big shift very few people yet see clearly is the change in work distribution. Providing a $500 CRM service for five users is a pretty lean operation. This equals 3-4 hours of consultation rate, so the SaaS provider has no financial support to do the work for the client. The client has to do it for themselves.

Take a look at Hubspot. Hubspot is an inbound marketing application. It helps you put together a decent website, blog, email workflows, calls to action and to run a great web based system.

They have to educate their customers on inbound marketing strategies, copywriting, blogging, sharing content, grow-to-hack, choosing the right color for the calls to action - you name it. If they don’t, the customer is not going to build up a decent system, and won’t see the expected successes, benefits, or value, and will eventually drop out.

Hubspot is an extreme example of how much a client needs to put in to make an initiative successful, even with a great starting product.

The best part is the following: most clients have been there, done that and know that IT initiatives are the hardest to manage, and that they require their investment. Buying Hubspot and figuring it out along the way doesn’t work, and the costs of not paying attention are higher.

However most customers don’t have the resources or the people available to learn the best color for the calls to action and how to increase the traffic in the Facebook page. They rely on Hubspot certified partners to do the job. These partners are helping clients implement the tools, and further along the way. They have a huge upfront charge to kick things off as well as additional monthly recurring charges. In most cases the overall payment for the partner far exceeds the payment for Hubspot for the tool itself. 

The paradigm shift: they are paying for the success, not for the advice...

The latest IPO and stellar growth of the Hubspot partner community is proof this is happening.

Put it together

Ok. Let's recap the points:

  1. we see that the old model was to sell the big upfront project with free advice, 
  2. we see SaaS companies motivation is now 100% aligned with the customers’ success
  3. we see clients are willing to pay for success if it is made tangible

What’s the point, you might ask? How do we make money as MSPs, we don’t know Hubspot!?

Many SaaS based applications are more affordable than complex packages and usually solve one problem, such as:

  • Project Management tools (Basecamp, Asana, etc.)
  • Lightweight CRMs (Zoho, Sugar, etc.)
  • Process Management apps (ProcessPlan, ProcessStreet, etc.)
  • Collaboration (Slack, Hipchat etc.)
  • Meeting Management (Lucid Meeting, Do.com, etc.)
  • Integration tools (CloudHQ, Zapier, etc.)
  • Vertical based solutions

We can continue this list for a long time. Any ordinary 20+ sized company would need one application at least from the app categories above.

Let's check our SaaS application grader which helps you and your clients understand what part of the business is not leveraged with a lightweight web app:

The problem is still that they don’t have the resources to master these applications; they don’t have the time to choose, learn, implement and integrate. Even though these apps are solving basic problems, understanding the business process and implementing a Trello.com card system for managing it isn’t a trivial effort. Most companies don’t perceive a part of the potential these tools could do for them.

That’s the void; what’s missing. Both the application developer and the customer need this role filled.

How do MSPs make money with that?

A traditional MSP is not going to make a dime with this model. They are infrastructure focused companies, not application focused companies (yet). But they can easily step into this role, because they have the support and the client base, and are already familiar with the applications world.

1. Do not do hourly rates, but fixed scope projects

Selling it for $150 per hour is not going to work. But selling Slack the internal chat tool, putting together the basic processes and rules, with ten channels and five integrations for $2000 and $100 support per month is workable, predictable and drives success. The vCIO is the ideal candidate for those projects. He knows the business, understands the processes and can communicate the need.

2. Oversee the portfolio, not just the individual apps

As you deliver more and more apps to clients, someone has to be the owner of them, or there will arise islands of different types, with no integration and no control. Again the vCIO is ideal for the control of that management role: making decisions on which apps to implement, governance, subscription management, etc.

3. Come from the business world, not the technical

Don’t provide "ProcessPlan" as an app. That is not a value. Provide operational excellence with well defined processes and automation that uses ProcessPlan to deliver value. Again, being a virtual CIO, you are going to easily spot these opportunities and make it happen.

4. Have a platform, a business application solution stack, and vertical focus

For a base infrastructure, Office 365 or Google should be among your choices, and for all the typical applications - calendar, note, workflow, project, collaboration etc. - there should be a stack the engineers know can bundled together and integrated. Also be familiar with vertical based stacks for accountants, law firms, professional services, etc.

5. Test it, live it, support it

It’s important to use the same stack internally (you probably already are) so that your team has experience with it. The support will be more “User Enablement”, helping them with hints and tricks, to take away some of the heavy lifting from the vCIO’s shoulder. The Virtual CIO is busy doing the planning and the implementation. Then the team is backed to support it.

There are cases where managed services providers have bundled together a “SaaS Office Suite”, reselling, implementing and supporting many applications per user. In this case it’s an addition to the current MSP package but with licenses, subscriptions and services inside as well.

Our MSP switched to this mode 18 months ago and are now packaging the full SaaS application suite with all desktop support and remote monitoring in one bundle. That is a client experience of value.

Conclusion

Let's shift the paradigm from "Expensive boxes with free advice" to "Cheap applications with paid advice."

This is the fall of the era of free advice and the dawn of the profitable vCIOs!

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