Being an MSP means juggling lots of things. So you’ve got the MSP Software and other tools in place. But what about the occasional late paying client and hiring the right people? Have you got that sorted out? And how about handling after-hours calls and dealing with sales? You’re trying to do it all, but sometimes you encounter situations that leave you scratching your head.
Whether it’s the personalities involved or the problems that hit you out of the blue, we’ve collected some wisdom over the years and share it with you here.
HANDLING A TOUGH CUSTOMER
Most of your clients probably pay right on time. They’re happy to have you watching their backs and are glad to write the checks every month. Then there’s the other kind of customer. Nothing is ever right. They’re up in your grill and want everything yesterday—except when it comes time to pay you. Then they’re nowhere to be found.
Handling the mood swings requires a deft touch. Be patient and ensure your team (if you have one) doesn’t respond to the outbursts in kind. You should be a calming presence in the roiling storm of negativity.
Now, as far as getting paid is concerned, that can be tricky. But you can do a few things ahead of time to ameliorate any problems.
First, make sure your payment terms are clear, and don’t sell yourself short. Charge a bit more. Then, set the terms to net 15 or due on receipt. Do this knowing that most people will ignore it, but add a note that anything over 30 days will have a late fee added on. Don’t be a jerk, but make it clear at the outset that heeding the payment terms is important.
If yours is a one-person shop, and this client is getting you down, contract some of the work out to take off a bit of the burden. Firing them might not be an option, but a buffer will help.
GROWING AND HIRING THE RIGHT PEOPLE
You hit lots of speed bumps when you run a business, but finding the right people can be one of the most vexing issues. And if you’re a small MSP looking to get bigger, adding people—whether as employees or contractors—is the only way to do it.
Think about what makes a good employee or contractor. You want someone who gets along with others, and can work as part of a team or individually. You want a critical thinker and hard worker. You want a person to gel with clients and not overreact to the inevitable crises. Those are all character traits that are hard, or near impossible, to teach.
If you’re hiring experienced people, make sure you check all of those boxes before assessing their technical know-how. A whiz-bang technohead will do you no good if they can’t interact with their colleagues or clients effectively.
If you’re hiring a less experienced person, you should understand that technical skills are teachable (if you have the time) but the character and personality traits are not.
DEALING WITH AFTER-HOURS CALLS
The old line in politics applies to our business as well: Who do you want answering the phone at 3:00 am? If you’re like most people, the answer is, “Definitely not me.”
An answering service runs about $200 a month. Sure, it’s not cheap, but it’s great peace of mind. Make sure all your clients have the after-hours number (put it on your voice mail messages) and set up an escalation tree that the answering service can use until someone picks up (you can change this as needed and make it granular enough so that problems go to the right people). Make sure the service takes a complete message with as much detail as possible.
Maybe you’ll get a few calls a night or a few calls a week. Either way, having this kind of service in place will make it simpler for a client in dire need to reach someone. And, after a few calls, see whether there’s a trend. Maybe there’s something you can do during the daylight hours to stop the annoying late night calls.
MANAGING IT INSTALLATION COSTS
Installing hardware is not as simple as unpacking the box, plugging it in and waving goodbye. If it were, then your clients would be doing it themselves.
You need to build clear labor estimates based on reality. A workstation probably runs about two hours. Sure, it might be possible to do it quicker, but think about all the unboxing and preparation you do on site or back at the office.
Sometimes the specific needs of a client—virtual machines to access archives, arcane software, unique configurations, etc.—can make the installation more complex. Use the two hours as a baseline and make it clear that you’ll bill hourly for all labor overages.
In addition, you should have general estimates for server deployments, mail migrations, and so forth at the ready, all based on an hourly rate.
DEALING WITH SALES AS A ONE-PERSON SHOP
You might be a break/fix guy or an MSP. If you’re like your peers, the way you’ve sold your services is by word of mouth. Maybe when you started, you knew a few people, grabbed their business and things grew from those connections.
You could take the next step and start marketing your business. But before you make that investment, think about what you really want to be. Where do you want your business to go? If you’re happy with the number of clients you currently have and see revenue growth coming from that set of folks, then focus all your efforts on them.
If you want to grow beyond your current client base, short of spending some dough on marketing, the best approach is to network, network, network. Join the chamber of commerce and the Rotary Club. Go to their lunches and breakfasts. Raise your profile in the community. Join a non-profit board. Make sure everyone you meet knows what you do. Plan these interactions by knowing what you’ll say about your business: write an elevator pitch that you memorize. Keep it short, but make sure to hit the main points.
STAY TRUE TO YOURSELF
We could go on, but the critical ingredient in each of the points we just shared is to stay true to yourself.
If you find yourself dealing with a tough customer, and it makes you uneasy, you need to have a think about whether they’re right for your firm. If you’re struggling with finding the right people, reexamine what it is you need in people. If you keep getting after-hours calls, see if there’s something you can fix in the daylight that would stop them from coming in. If you’re struggling to price installations (and still make a profit), be honest with yourself and your clients. If you want more sales, don’t be shy about telling people all about you and your business—over and over and over again.
On each of these points, you’ll be glad you followed your instincts. That’s what got you here, and it’s what will get you to an even brighter future.
Photo Credit: David Siglin