I have recently been contacted by several people asking me how they can differentiate their managed service provider business from the competition. At first I thought that they were asking me because they were having a hard time getting their message across to potential new clients. But this isn't the case. What they are really having trouble with is finding something that makes them stand out from the crowd. The MSP market has matured; now everyone is an MSP. The competition is stiff, and the message that competing solely on price is a foolish strategy has gotten across. But back to the problem: How do you find the unique feature that is going to make your business stand out from the crowd and get that potential customer to sign your contract?
Once upon a time, being able to monitor systems was a unique service that you could offer. But not anymore. Monitoring is even becoming something of a farce. Personal Information Protection as a Service business LifeLock (yes, that's a tongue-in-cheek reference to “the everything as a service” trend), has a series of commercials out that says, "If you monitor it; you must fix it." In this commercial, the bank guard is the monitoring tool. When asked to do something by the frightened bank customers on the floor during a robbery he says, "Oh, I'm not a security guard. I'm a security monitor. I only let people know if there's a robbery." It's hilarious.
LifeLock is using this commercial to differentiate themselves from monitoring services. I don't see this problem as limited to fraud monitoring but as a commentary on the effectiveness of all monitoring, including that done by MSPs and other IT professionals. MSPs should sit up and take notice of this commercial. Monitoring is not a service. Monitoring is something that software does. The service is what you do after your tool alerts you that there's been a problem. You actually do something about those alerts, don't you?
Faster, better, more
My problem with monitoring isn't monitoring itself. It's mostly monitoring tool misuse and grandiose claims. I continue to see claims of 24/7/365 service. This is supposed to be a selling point. But honestly, it makes it sound like you're staffed by robots, or worse, by a call center.
MSP services typically reside in the small and midsize business (SMB) market as an outsourcing strategy. The potential client is looking to get a level of expertise that they otherwise couldn't afford by direct hire. By hiring you, they get a broader skill set for less. But the SMB market is a people business. They don't want to do business with your monitoring tool, your network operations center, or your ticket-submission website. They want you.
This scares some MSP owners. They harken back to that day they hung their shingle out and all the customers knew them by name. The MSP owner was the chief helpdesk, engineer, web designer, sales, and marketing engine. One to one, from the customer to you. You can be your business, but only if your business behaves like an individual. Do individuals work 24/7? Nope. Do individuals hide behind automation? Nope. They are personable and they work with and for people. MSPs are in the people business, and the rise of automation has pushed that to the background in many cases. This is one reason why potential clients are having a hard time figuring out what the difference is between MSP A and MSP B. They are both selling 24/7/365 with the fastest service. The only response to that marketing strategy is going to be, "How much?" When that happens, you're off to a race to the bottom.
If you really want to separate your MSP from the herd, you will need to focus on something unique, because every competitor that walks in the door offers the same features as you. They are just as full of monitoring tools, are super-fast, and have skilled people.
Missing the fuzzy edges
There are still a lot of IT professionals out there that are shying away from the cloud because they don't see a way to sell their core services against it. If they get the app from the app store instead of from you, what do you sell them? If your clients are using Office 365, Salesforce, Azure, AWS, GSuite, GoTo, and mobile apps but you aren't involved with what is going on with the most important parts of their existence, where's your value? MSPs have to get to where the data and applications are today.
Many MSP management tools do have cloud application monitoring components. But the MSPs that I've talked to are still focused on the traditional network. Heads up on this one: The client/server network model is fading fast. It's a has-been, and if your business is focused on supporting client/server networks, then soon you'll be a has-been as well. Marketing your client/server skill set won't get you noticed with new business owners. That you understand the fuzzy edges of networking might. That murky space where the legacy client/server network meets the mobile app, cloud app and distributed storage is where the problems are, and where there are problems there are opportunities.
The fuzzy edge is where new happens. The smart MSP is moving away from the traditional MSP by offering custom services to their clients. They are specializing in something that is important to their client base. Whether it's compliance, an application, or a specialized hardware solution (think security systems). It could also be a vertical niche market that you have particular expertise in.
Those that jumped on the medical vertical found out quickly that it paid to specialize. Medical professionals are specialized, and so they like to do business with other specialists. Legal practitioners often feel the same way. They want to know that you are an expert in servicing their field. To do that you need to become an expert in the applications that they typically use, and you need to understand the pain points that exist in that vertical and target them.
Doesn't every business that you currently work with believe that their business is unique in the market? Of course they do. Honor their uniqueness; don't put them in a standard MSP box.
Finding your uniqueness
If you don't know what makes your business unique, how do you find it? Try these exercises to expose what your differentiator might be.
- List your clients by vertical. Is there a big bunch of one type of business? If so, you've uncovered a vertical specialization.
- List the applications that you support. Cross off the standard stuff like Microsoft Office and QuickBooks. Now which one stands out? You've uncovered an application specialization.
- Look at your tickets. What does your staff spend time doing? Is there a project type that you seem to be doing again and again? You've uncovered another specialization.
- Look at your projects. Which ones are most profitable? You need more of these, so focus your marketing on this project type.
I'm not the only one talking about how to differentiate your MSP, so read a bunch of articles on the topic. MSPMentor recently published a blog that says to focus on improving your customer service reputation. OnPage says to extend your hours beyond 5 p.m. GMSLiveExpert says to focus on your home-town advantage. Intronis says to stay focused and don't try to do too much.
After all of that, you should now know what makes your business unique. It's time to focus your marketing on that one thing and go back out into the market with confidence.
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