You know what drives me nuts? Guys in enterprise roles who see local business IT support as strictly “beginner-level” work. I mean, I get it. From first-hand experience, I know that a LAN for 6 people is much simpler than a WAN for tens of thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of schoolkids.

But IT work for local businesses comes with its own set of challenges, so keep these things in mind:

Communication is king

These businesses don’t have a CIO or in-house IT professional to liaise with. You’re either dealing directly with the boss, or an offsider who’s “good at computers.”

Now let me be crystal clear: I’m not trying to disparage these people. It’s actually pretty hard to keep a good business ticking over without some amount of intelligence, work ethic, and good faith dealing. It’s just that, while you and I were up to our armpits in routers, firewall rules, and voodoo black magic, they were getting really good at dentistry, accounting, running moonshine, or whatever they do.

So, it’s annoying to us when they ask if you can come in to “update the server.” What does that even mean? It’s kind of the ideal recipe for important tasks to be missed because you were just never told about them. This adds extra difficulty to project planning. You really need to scope and spec everything to within an inch of its life.

To some extent, this is just about covering your backside — so when that database goes missing in the infrastructure migration, you can document that you were never told about it. The real goal here is to avoid this problem in the first place. You can’t rely on these customers to know exactly what they need from you, because they often just don’t know.

Don’t be afraid to douse the whole network in gasoline and set it on fire

Not literally, of course. Small business computer networks can be a bit like Charles Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos Islands. You discover all manner of unique and wonderful specimens that simply don’t exist anywhere else, in their natural habitat.

You might chance upon a router, plugged into another router, plugged into a switch from 1998, and for some reason there’s a Raspberry Pi involved — all just to connect four people to the internet. And you bet your butt that none of it is documented.

These spectacular works of modern art come about because so many small businesses go as long as they can without getting a technician involved. They get a friend or someone’s cousin who doesn’t really know anything about industry standards or best practices, to figure something out as they go along.

Often, these networks work — for a while, anyway. The moment they don’t, they’re completely incomprehensible to deal with. You can spend hours on it and still not understand it.

Whenever you find yourself face-to-face with an undocumented catastrophe, ask yourself “Am I absolutely certain it would be quicker just to unplug everything and put it back together?”. If the answer is yes, then do so.

Be completely expendable

How important is it to keep things neat, tidy, and well documented enough that any techies worth their salt could pick up where you left off?

I mean, we’ve all heard of “security through obscurity” and know why it’s a bad idea, but what about “job security through obscurity?” If you can configure a few networks that nobody else on the planet understands, then you’ll always be in work, right?

In my view this is a dirty way to treat your customers — especially if you’re doing it on purpose. It’s also no way to treat yourself. Keeping this racket running means trading away so much power and control over your work/life balance. When you’re the only person on the planet who can keep their show on the road, then you’re the only one.

If you do good work and get results, customers will keep coming back anyway. They’ll refer you too. You might even get to the point where you need to take on another employee. This is when you’ll be thankful that others can easily understand your work. Your goal here is to go the rest of your life without ever using an SSH client from the beach.

The customers that you provide managed services for are more than just participants in a regular business relationship; they are valuable partners. By operating in an open and transparent way, you not only make your life as an MSP easier, but you build a stronger relationship with these partners. These positive relationships will only lead to more benefits down the road for your MSP.

Ready Set Managed

Photo: jannoon028 / Shutterstock.

Grant Hamono

Posted by Grant Hamono

Grant Hamono has been running networks and servers since 2001 for businesses and educational institutions of all sizes. He now leads DXM Tech Support, a provider of IT support services to small businesses in Melbourne, Australia

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