What sets apart the most outstanding MSPs goes beyond just business acumen, customer empathy, and technology expertise. As important as these factors are, what I’ve observed – now from many years in the channel – to be even more valuable and determinative of an MSPs’ success is their dedication to becoming genuinely immersed in the channel ecosystem, and continually benefiting from the relationships and knowledge gained through active interactions with others in our industry.
I recently spoke with Terry Cole of Cole Informatics and Chris Traxler of Cirrus Technologies on this subject, because I believe each to be emblematic of this immersion. They constantly engage with other MSPs and with the vendor community, and maintain great relationships with those colleagues (ourselves, a vendor, included).
In exploring this concept of what makes a great MSP through our conversation, we came to focus on these four distinguishing factors:
1) Active participation at industry events and with the community.
Conferences – and there is no shortage of them in the MSP world – provide an environment for IT solution providers and vendors to become personally acquainted with some of the only other people on earth who truly understand the complex (and very, very quickly evolving) challenges they face. This is why such strong friendships and business relationships are often forged at these events. Case in point, Terry, Chris, and I all met and know each other through the conferences we’ve attended together.
But more than sharing an expo hall beer, these industry events are also a powerful opportunity (one that too many MSPs still don’t take advantage of) to exchange knowledge and understand current tools and practices, so much so that they’re just about a requisite for success. “At my very first IT conference, I had two revelations,” Cole said in our conversation. “One was, there’s people here who understand what I’m saying. We were birds of a feather – I found my brethren. The second was that I had been building my own tools without knowing what was already out there. It’s only recently that I’ve realized how the practice we run, and the value we bring to clients, is as much an amalgam of the events we attend as it is our technology. Companies out there at events are ahead of the curve in so many ways.”
“Getting out of your element to attend the tradeshows and learn something new keeps you energized and engaged to go out and do big things,” said Traxler.
2) Engaged membership in MSP peer groups.
MSP peer groups – HTG, The 20, Robin Robins, and ASCII are good examples – bring similarly-situated businesses together to discuss collective strategy. While these groups can be relatively costly to join, the connections and knowledge they offer often yield invaluable results. Most MSPs I know have found them worth the cost of admission.
“The really great MSPs are humble: they think, who can I connect with, who can I learn something new from?”
Traxler believes that “it’s very difficult – and perhaps impossible – to be successful in this industry living on an island. I’ve been in this industry for six years, and if I tried to do this on my own I would be limping along. In those six years I’ve had a compressed growth track that probably would have taken me two or three decades on my own, simply by being engaged and learning from other people. The really great MSPs are humble: they think, who can I connect with, who can I learn something new from?”
Both attending events and active peer group participation require pulling away from daily business operations in order to learn, as well as accepting the challenge of embracing new tools and new approaches. While this represents a significant investment of both time and money, successful MSPs recognize the dividends of knowledge, camaraderie, and perspective to be an investment that’s smart to make.
3) Understanding the difference between vendors and true partners.
MSPs tend to throw the term “partner” around somewhat loosely, using it to describe any vendor whose products or services they purchase. The most successful MSPs recognize and value partners that meet a higher definition: those that work to ensure their solutions offer a strong fit for the MSP and its customers, while complementing the MSP’s business model as well as the vendor’s own.
“There are vendors, and there are partners,” said Cole. “The best partners are like an extension of my team. If there’s a customer problem we need to solve involving their product, they’re a phone call away from being with us with their sleeves rolled up.”
“The best partners are like an extension of my team. If there’s a customer problem we need to solve involving their product, they’re a phone call away from being with us with their sleeves rolled up.”
“The best MSPs make an investment in their vendors and partners, and really work with them,” argued Traxler. “That spurs an evolution in development, in terms of fixing flaws or adding new features that make for a better product.”
4) Leveraging relationships to discover new vendors and seamless integrations.
The most successful MSPs also rely on their trusted relationships, including with vendors, as information resources when it comes to finding other complementary products to fulfill their needs. Interestingly, vendors often know the other products in the space, and often have MSP partners using those solutions alongside their own. It happens that MSPs will approach two vendors whose products they utilize with problems or incompatibilities they need resolved in order to better use those solutions in tandem, and vendors will often work together to fix such issues. In this way, vendors who are authentically immersed in the channel help one another out much like MSPs do, mutually recommending each other’s complementary products.
“The channel is a very close-knit group,” said Traxler. “I’ve definitely had vendors introduce me to solutions that I wouldn’t have looked at otherwise.”
By actively engaging with the channel community at industry events, joining peer groups, recognizing partners that truly support their business endeavors, and relying on those trusted vendors to discover compatible and beneficial new products, the most successful MSPs are able to operate at a higher, and a more highly-connected level. (And here’s a longer look at my conversation on this topic with these two MSPs.)
Photo: Olivier Le Moal / Shutterstock.