Ask an MSP Expert

Q: We’re experiencing some challenges in managing project workload, which has become more challenging as we’ve added more customers and vendors over time. How can we effectively manage and organize projects when we are working with more than one vendor?

As technology continues to evolve, juggling projects for customers is inevitable – this could mean helping them move their applications to the cloud, setting them up with a new infrastructure, securing their assets, and more. The term “project” though, is up for interpretation. Is it a half of a days’ worth of work?

Chris Johnson, cybersecurity compliance strategist at OnShore Security, suggests that if you have a specific request from a client and it requires more than one vendor, it is best to call it a project. Chances are, if you need to talk to more than one vendor, it is going to take more than a day to resolve. To help you effectively manage project workflow, Chris shared his strategies to help you stay organized, manage roadblocks, and eliminate scope creep.

You aren’t in this alone

When we talk about managed services — as IT providers — we are often quick to dismiss the fact that we are using other vendors or parties to help us deliver a solution stack or complete a project, Chris shares. Not necessarily because we don’t want anyone to know, but it isn’t something we think about.

“My role has shifted quite a bit to be more consultative side of the things, but one thing I have observed is that when I work with other MSPs, they don’t like to articulate who the other players are. And I used to be the same way.”  Recently, I completed a project that involved five different vendors. Before, if I was talking to anyone else in the managed service space, I wouldn’t admit that there was anyone else involved.

With any project of substantial size, we are not doing it by our self. Unless you are a very large MSP, you aren’t just working with one vendor. There are several vendors involved, which is why it is so important to stay organized.

Get organized

Don’t rely on your email to keep track of your project status – even in the rare case that there is only one vendor involved. Instead of letting the project statuses get buried in your email, implement some sort of software to keep track of who is doing what and when it is due. This can be as simple as implementing a tool like Wrike, a spreadsheet, or a PSA tool to track what vendors are doing.

When you’re developing the project scope (which we will go into further detail later), it is important to define which pieces need to be in place first. Not defining these parameters can cause problems when multiple pieces are held up by another one that needs to fall into place.  

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Once the agreement has been signed, host a kickoff meeting with your customer. This allows you gain additional insight before the project is started and ensure that everybody agrees on what is going to get done, and when. When is oftentimes more important than what. For example your customers might not care what firewall they are getting, they just want a firewall. If in the middle of the project you change out your vendor and end up going with something else, no one cares unless it impacts project timeline.

If your timeline looks like it is going to be impacted, the number one course correction action you need to take, is to meet with your customer. Get on a call and communicate the change with your customer. Before you go into that meeting, be prepared to provide options and solution strategies. Project delays happen. However, if you go into a meeting and you don’t know how long it will be delayed and aren’t able to provide any suggestions for avoiding the whole project stalling, you’re just creating a bad situation. Have a well-thought out plan first.

Avoiding scope creep

As an MSP, it’s tempting to hurry through the scoping process to get the agreement signed, so you can start working on onboarding the client. This puts you at risk of scope creep, which often happens when the project details are too vague. When this happens, it’s hard to say what is included or not because it isn’t black and white in your project plan.

There are two reasons why there is scope creep: either the scope was poorly defined in the first place or the client has provided unclear objections. If the first is true, shame on me. If the second is true, as a vendor—and if I wrote my scope properly—there should be an addendum to course correct.

For example, about a year ago, I had a client that was opening a new location. They had purchased all the equipment and started hiring more staff.  A few days before it was to be shipped to the location, they put the project on hold. The equipment had been set up and configured—it was all ready to go. We were over three-quarters of the way through the project. But, at what point do you as the vendor stop the project without payment? What point do you let them back up without paying the full fee? These contingencies need to be in place, so that if something unexpected were to happen, you can still be properly compensated for the time you have already invested.

While the contingencies are important to outline in your scope, the most important thing is to make sure that everyone is on the same page. For the most part, we are at the mercy of our clients when it comes to how and when we can implement technology. However, there are times where you need to be able to put your foot down and explain the pieces that need to be put in place to make that happen. To avoid confusion, communication needs to happen at the beginning. Schedule dates and times on when things are going to happen, and keep them in the loop as you approach your implementation date. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to them when they need to update their systems, have an hour of downtime, etc. when you are putting the new systems or services in place.

Execution is key when you are implementing a new solution, service, or project for a customer. But, having an accurate scope of the project, stay organized, and commit to communicating with your customer, your next project should run smoothly.

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Photo:  NicoElNino /Shutterstock.

Lauren Beliveau

Posted by Lauren Beliveau

Lauren is a content and product marketer with several years of experience in the IT channel. She has created and developed content that helps managed service providers grow their business, and has written many articles featured in SmarterMSP’s The MSP’s Bookshelf and Ask an MSP Expert series.

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