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Managing For Success 2012 – A 3 Day Online Conference for Computer Consultants

Managing For Success 2012 LogoI often speak about the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to learn my trade from some of the best people within our industry space. Both here in the UK, as well as in North America, Europe and Australia, there are some individuals who have been incredibly generous with their time and experience in sharing their knowledge with me and in many cases, the wider Community.

Karl PalachukAt the top of that list of individuals is Karl Palachuk. As well as writing what I consider to be the premier blog within the SMB IT industry – Small Biz Thoughts – Karl is a prolific author and has shared countless hours of knowledge through his blog posts, webinars and Podcasts that I personally have found invaluable, and I know many others have too.

Karl is now trying something new by hosting a 3-Day Online Conference specifically for Computer Consultants, in June 2012. The conference will focus on building successful business processes and will feature some of the best business and technology speakers in the U.S.

The online conference – Managing for Success 2012 – is the first event of its kind targeting technology providers and computer consultants.

Two of the keynote speakers at the Conference are Stephanie Chandler and Patrick Schwerdtfeger. Chandler is the author of seven books, including Own Your Niche on the Internet and Beyond. Her Business Info Guide web site – www.BusinessInfoGuide.com – is an extremely popular destination for small business owners. Patrick Schwerdtfeger is an internally recognized authority on social media marketing and the author of several books, including Marketing Shortcuts for the Self-Employed.

Other speakers include some of the most influential pioneers and opinion leaders in the world of technical consulting. But this is not a technology conference. As Karl says “This is a business focused conference for I.T. Professionals. We want to help computer consultants to be better business people, with a vision for the future and strategies for success. That’s why we named the conference Managing for Success 2012. Conference sessions will cover managing a business, marketing a business, creating standard operating procedures, building a strong team, and even buying up your competition.”

The conference is online only and will run 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM EST on June 26-28, 2012. Whilst that might mean some late nights for those of us in the UK who will be participating, I’m more than confident that the content will be worth it and as attendees can choose to listen live or also have access to the recorded sessions – you can revisit anything you miss. In all, the conference will broadcast eighteen hours of programming in three days.

The conference registration and information site is now available – so if you’re interested in learning from some amazing presenters, I’d encourage you to check it out.

Good luck to Karl and everyone involved in the event!

Five Questions to ask when choosing an IT Support Provider

Computer Engineer with HammerChoosing an IT company to look after your Small Business IT Infrastructure can feel like a tough job. There’s no shortage of IT companies out there that will offer to help you, from the “one man band” all the way to high-street names. So how do you choose the right partner that is not only going to be able to keep your IT systems running, but that you can trust both with your sensitive business data and to give you advice that in your best interests?

Since the beginning of this year I’ve been asked to act as an independent advisor to a number of businesses who want impartial advice on their IT strategy, and guidance on the questions to ask when trying to choose an IT partner to work with. Whilst the questions you ask may vary from company to company, industry to industry, here are an overview of the five basic questions I think you should always be asking of a potential IT Support provider.

How do you charge for your services?

Traditionally IT Support companies worked from a model best known in the Plumber or Electricians world, the “Break/Fix” model. Something goes wrong with your IT systems, and you pay the IT company to resolve that problem.

This model “feels” comfortable for many small businesses who look upon IT as a necessary cost to their business, rather than looking on IT as something that can be leveraged to help their business grow. Many businesses also resent paying someone to fix something that in their eyes “should just work”.

The reality of IT is that just like a modern Motor Car, it needs maintenance to keep working. A lack of maintenance means things will go wrong.

The challenge with the traditional break/fix model is that really, there is no motivation for the IT company to fix the problem permanently. If they fix the problem permanently, they are no longer going to get called out and paid for their time.

Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not suggesting for a moment that an IT company would purposely leave something to break again in the future, but if they are being pressured by the client to keep the cost of their visit down – that often means putting a sticking plaster over the problem rather than spending the time required to fix it properly.

A better approach is to agree a monthly flat-fee with an IT provider, who will then monitor and maintain your systems as a “Managed Service”, fixing any problems as and when they occur.

Think about this scenario. It’s in the IT companies best interests to seek out and fix problems properly so those problems don’t return – the less time they as an IT provider spend fixing things, the more profit they make from their agreement with you. It’s also in your best interests as a client, as you want your IT systems to run smoothly without any problems, but when (not if!) problems do occur – you don’t want to be worried about a large bill for time spent remedying that problem.

A flat fee arrangement allows you as a small business to financially budget for IT Support on an on-going basis, and just as importantly builds an on-going relationship and trusted partnership with an IT company. You’re then in it together – working towards the best relationship for both parties.

 

Can you show us an example of the Health-Check Report you send us?

So if a flat-fee “Managed Service” model is the way forward, and an IT Support company says they will both manage and monitor your infrastructure, pro-actively seeking out issues to help keep your business running smoothly – how do you know that your IT company is actually working away behind the scenes to keep things ticking over?

Example of IT Health Check ReportAn IT company worth its salt will have no problem in sharing with you an example of the report they send to clients to demonstrate the checks they undertake on your systems to make sure they are running, and to highlight any underlying problems they’ve found and resolved.

This report should not be hugely technical in nature. It should be simple for you to read and understand as a business owner who is interested in one thing – are you looking after my business?

Many IT companies provide a Daily Health Check report to the Office Manager, and a Weekly or Monthly Summary Report to Decision Makers or Business Owners.

Either way, a regular, easy to read report demonstrates the effort the work the IT provider is putting in to monitoring and maintaining your systems.

 

What Qualifications do your engineers have?

Trying to gauge an IT Providers credentials and qualifications can be a challenge.

Ask an IT company if they are a Microsoft Partner, and you’ll find virtually none who say they aren’t. At its simplest level, becoming a Registered Microsoft Partner is not much harder than signing up to receive the regular Microsoft Partner newsletters.

There are Silver and Gold Microsoft Partners too. This means they’ve achieved certain levels of competency, and invested both time and money into their relationship with Microsoft.

Microsoft Small Business Specialist LogoFurthermore, there are Microsoft Small Business Specialists – individuals and companies who have passed an exam to demonstrate they understand the SMB market and in particular, the popular Microsoft Small Business Server product. If your business is running Small Business Server, then look for the Microsoft Small Business Specialist “blue badge”. Many engineers think they know SBS, but only those with the “blue badge” have proved they do.

But company wide qualifications aside, as a general rule of thumb, ask how many engineers are within the IT providers business, and the qualifications they each have individually.

If your IT infrastructure mostly consists of Windows XP and Windows 7 PC’s, then it would make sense that the engineers supporting them would have qualifications in Windows XP and Windows 7, that they have passed an exam and actively demonstrated they know what they are doing.

If you’re told an engineer is “working towards” a qualification – ask when they expect to have passed this qualification. IT is constantly changing and evolving, so an engineer who achieves the latest qualifications demonstrates that he is keeping up with change. The engineer who is still only qualified in Windows 2000 demonstrates he’s most likely too busy to keep up with the changing landscape.

And if an engineer says he doesn’t need a qualification to demonstrate his knowledge in a certain area, then consider what other standards the engineer might not feel he needs to adhere to within his industry.

 

Tell me about your relationships with other IT companies?

The best IT companies will focus on one or two core competencies. For the majority, this will be the maintenance and support of IT Infrastructures.

These IT companies will know what they are good at, and stick to it. To ensure you, the client, receive the best support – they will take time to forge professional and trusted relationships with other IT companies who also specialise in their fields. This might be a Data Cabling company, a Telecoms company, a Web Design company, a Software Development company. They aren’t afraid to sub-contract or refer you to a trusted 3rd party who can deliver the best in their field.

What’s more, most good IT companies will manage your relationship with your existing providers. This means you no longer need to telephone BT to spend time in a queue working out why your Broadband isn’t working – your IT provider should manage that job for you.

Question the experience of those IT companies who say they can do everything for you themselves without external help. IT is a specialised field, and in the same way you wouldn’t hire a Plumber to design, specify, build, wire and insulate your house – you will probably need more than one IT specialist to achieve all your business requirements.

 

How often do you perform Business Reviews?

IT isn’t just about fixing things. The days of the “IT Guy”, who comes in to fix stuff when they go wrong are dying out. In bringing on board an IT Provider, you also want to bring on board a Trusted Business Advisor.

As well as monitor and maintain your network, as well as fix problems as they arise, as well as manage your other IT suppliers for you, an IT Provider should be your go-to guys for advice or pointers on Technology trends, on Social Media, on how to use IT to grow your business.

It’s easy to forget this part due to the busy nature of business. Therefore most forward thinking IT Providers schedule regular appointments with their clients, perhaps on a Quarterly basis, where they sit down and talk about your business. Based on that conversation, they can make recommendations and suggestions over how Technology may help you achieve your business goals – and plan for how that might look.

 

***

IT has evolved, and the service that IT providers give to their clients has evolved too. Using IT within Small Business does have a cost involved – but whether this cost is seen as wasted money or an investment, and the amount of value you, as a small business owner, realise from it can heavily depend on the IT Provider you work with.

“IT Guy” or “Trusted Business Advisor” – make sure to ask the right questions to help you make the right choice for your business.

If you’re a Small Business who would like advice on choosing the right IT Provider, impartial guidance on deciding IT strategy, or understanding what you should be paying for your IT Support – do feel free to get in touch with me.

 

Building a Community – Lessons from GFI Max

One of the ways you can tell if a good product or company is gathering momentum and becoming popular is by how much of a community is building up around that product or company. When people are passionate about something they want to talk to other likeminded people about it.

GFI Max LogoOver the past couple of years, GFI Max is one such company where I’ve observed a growing community of people who want to spend time together talking about the Max RMM tool.

Whilst this isn’t something that has happened entirely by design, it’s not something that happened by accident either.

LinkedIn Forums

GFI have helped facilitate their community by providing the GFI Max LinkedIn Forums – a place where Max users can chat, exchange ideas and give feedback to the GFI team – good or bad. Whilst these forums are monitored and members of the Max team participate in discussion themselves, they aren’t moderated in the sense that if a Max client has a gripe about the product or the company that they air with their peers – the GFI team don’t delete the message or shy away from it, they respond to it directly. This attitude towards being open and transparent hasn’t gone un-noticed by the SMB Community.

Members of the GFI Max LinkedIn forums are usually the first people that get to hear about new features and the forthcoming Max Roadmap too, further building a sense that the community is valued.

User Groups

Earlier this year, GFI responded to a request from the Thames Valley Small Business Specialist User Group led by Chris Timm. The group, which has a high proportion of GFI Max users within it, was looking for a new sponsor, and GFI agreed to step in and help that group continue to grow.

All of these things on their own aren’t enough to persuade people to use GFI Max products. You still need a really good product and service delivery (which I believe GFI Max has). But if all things are equal, and an IT company is faced with choosing between two or more really good products – as is the case in the RMM market populated by GFI Max, Labtech, Kaseya and others – people tend to choose the product that their peers have recommended to them.

Make it, don’t fake it

You can’t fake this stuff. Building a community of raving fans isn’t something you can acquire. People can tell the difference between a paid endorsement and genuine goodwill towards a company or product. It takes time and it’s not easy. Most IT vendors give up because it’s too hard. They want immediate returns. Those vendors will still sell stuff, because generally their product is good, but retaining clients and as importantly, having clients who will talk about their product to others? That takes commitment.

Conferences

GFI Max Global Conferences 2011Over the next few weeks, GFI Max will be taking another step towards supporting their community and will be hosting their first GFI Max Global Conferences at four locations across the globe.

The UK Conference takes place in Oxford on October 20th.

The USA Conference takes place in Florida on November 8th and 9th.

Not forgotten, Australia gets it’s Conference in Sydney on December 1st, and Europe has a Conference on November 23rd in the Netherlands.

I’ll be attending the UK Conference on October 20th, and will be looking forward to getting together with a whole load of GFI Max users.

Are you a GFI Max user and attending too? Let me know!

CompTIA EMEA Conference – London, 9th November 2011

CompTIA EMEA Conference 2011 LogoA heads-up that registration has opened for the CompTIA EMEA Conference at the Hilton London Metropole on Wednesday 9th November, 2011.

You can register for the event here. EMEA 2011 is open to both CompTIA members and non-members.

The last two years conference has been very well attended, and over 400 UK IT industry peers are expected to attend this year. With a wide variety of interesting speakers and break-out sessions, previous key-note presentations have been from Sir Ranulph Fiennes and James Caan of Dragons Den. I’m counting on this years event to be equally as interesting!

If you’ve not attended before, then you can get a feel for this years event by looking at the highlights of the 2010 event here.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to be one of this years presenters, and I’ll be presenting a “Quick Start Guide to The Cloud”.

What’s more, the CompTIA UK Channel Community will be in town the day before the EMEA Conference – meeting on Tuesday 8th November at the Hilton too. I’d expect a large turnout for this event – you can find out more about the community at www.channelcommunity.co.uk

I hope to see you at one or both of the events!

Looking at Managed Anti-Virus for MSP’s

Last year I gave a series of presentations to a number of SMB IT User Groups about my belief that one of the keys to growing a successful IT Managed Service Provider (MSP) is to move away from the “big bang” model, and to instead be looking for recurring revenue opportunities.

Never is this more apparent than with Anti-Virus products.

Managing Anti-Virus

Weekly World News paper headline "Computer Virus Spreads to Humans!"I know I’m not alone in saying that managing and maintaining Annual Anti-Virus renewals is a chore. You’ve got numerous problems, not least of which is the admin overhead of expanding the Anti-Virus (AV) license when a new workstation or user is added to a client’s network. Sending multiple invoices throughout the year with Pro-Rata costs for new licenses is a chore, and worse, if pro-rata *isn’t* available from your AV Vendor of choice, you’ve got a whole heap of licenses with different expiry dates to manage.

The trouble with annual AV renewals

From a clients perspective, Annual AV renewals are a pain because they are inflexible. With the economic downturn of recent years, I’ve seen MSP clients who were reluctant to sign-off on an Anti-Virus renewal for x amount of licenses because their gut-feeling was that in 3 months time they’d actually only need x minus 3 licenses, due to reductions in staffing. As the MSP you get into that sticky situation where you’re chasing the client to renew their license renewal in order to keep their network safe, but the client themselves are in no hurry to sign off.

Then there is the fact that traditionally Anti-Virus Vendors offer juicy incentives to new clients to lure their business away from competitors. Your client approaches you to say he’s seen an offer for Anti-Virus that is half their current Anti-Virus renewal rate – and you have to spend time trying to persuade them to stick with the solution they’ve already got.

So it’s fair to say that Annual Anti-Virus contracts are typically are a chore, for both MSP and client.

Anti-Virus for MSP’s

Then there is the actual Anti-Virus product itself. Many products are not aimed at the MSP market. For years, AVG Anti-Virus was one of my MSP’s favourite products for the Small Business market, because it was aggressively priced and reliable. But as we added more and more MSP clients the reality struck us that we were doing a lot of remote administration across a variety of admin interfaces – very inefficient. Wasn’t there any way to administer all of these clients sites from a central console? With AVG, the answer was sadly no.

The Anti-Virus product any MSP chooses to work with nowadays should be fully multi-tenanted. In other words, you should be able to manage as many functions of the product as possible (starting virus scans, dis-infecting files, responding to alerts) from a single interface covering all your clients, rarely having to remotely connect to a clients server through Remote Desktop or a similar tool to perform functions.

So as an MSP you want a multi-tenanted Anti-Virus product that does not bill on an Annual basis.

Rolling Anti-Virus contracts

The solution is a rolling Anti-Virus contract with an MSP aware AV Vendor. My own MSP moved away from annual renewals to monthly recurring contracts around two years ago, and life became much easier – both from a technical management and an administration perspective.

Trend Micro LogoAt that time we moved on to using Trend Worry Free Business Security under the Trend xSP model. Put simply, Trend provided us with a license code which enabled us to install to as many end-points as we chose, be they workstations, servers or machines that were off the main company network – very useful if the Managing Director or his family want their home computers covered and managed by their MSP!

Each month, we would bill the client for the number of licenses that they had used. If a client added or removed machines during a month, the number of licenses for the following month would be amended appropriately.

Once a Quarter, we reported back to Trend on the number of licenses we had used during that quarter – and paid our bill appropriately.

The benefits of working monthly

From our perspective as an MSP, we were never laying down cash for AV renewals on behalf of our clients because we’d already received payment from our client on a monthly basis. We didn’t have to pay the Vendor for their licenses until the end of a Quarter, we were much more efficient from an administrative perspective, and we made a tidy profit to boot.

I’m also a believer in the more line items you have on the monthly invoice you send to a client, the “stickier” you are likely to be with that client. Always be letting the client know the reality of the wide variety of work you do for them every month, to help them understand the value in your relationship with them.

From the clients perspective, they had the flexibility of only paying for what they used and as they paid monthly they didn’t have to suffer the “big bang” of annual Anti-Virus renewals.

What’s more, as an MSP working with a MSP savvy Vendor in Trend, we were given a single web interface (Trend Worry Free Remote Manager) that allowed us to be much more efficient about managing our client machines from a Technical perspective. From that web interface our engineers could respond to Virus alerts, remotely kick-off virus scans, amend AV engine settings and monitor the status of dozens of client sites from a single location.

Innovation in Managed Anti-Virus

The product wasn’t perfect, by any means. As an MSP we were not alone in becoming used to experiencing issues with Trend’s “Smart Scan” function which seemed to kill certain machines performance. There was still a need to remotely connect to clients servers to perform certain tasks which we’d have preferred to have completed centrally, and deployment still required work on the client site too. We’d also have liked the Anti-Virus reporting to have fed back to our PSA Tool (ConnectWise) to enable alerts to be managed through a single interface and reports to be delivered to our clients in a single uniform fashion – but these points aside, it was fair to say that Anti-Virus management with a Managed AV product such as Trend Worry Free Business Security was infinitely easier and more profitable than with traditional AV products.

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to have a play GFI’s new Managed Anti-Virus offering – which integrates into their RMM tool, GFI Max.

GFI Max LogoGFI Managed Anti-Virus (MAV) has caused quite a stir in the MSP community since it’s release a few weeks ago, with lots of chatter on LinkedIn and Twitter about it.

The killer feature here is integration. If you’re an MSP running GFI Max as your Remote Monitoring and Management (RMM) tool, that word “integration” is very significant!

Vipre Anti-Virus

imageGFI Managed AV is built on the Vipre Anti-Virus product, produced by Sunbelt Software. GFI acquired Sunbelt and the Vipre product in July 2010, and have been working on incorporating Vipre into their Managed Service Provider range since.

The product is priced aggressively, and MSP’s can bill their clients on a monthly basis for the product and receive payment from the client before GFI ask for their license payment.

Tracking license usage is very simple thanks to GFI Max’s strong reporting features. There’s no danger of an engineer deploying to a new workstation and your billing department forgetting to invoice – everything is automatically tracked.

From a technical perspective – rather than go over the features the GFI Managed Anti-Virus brings to the table, here’s a short video of the product that managed to sneak it’s way onto YouTube ahead of the actual product launch recently.

Wish List

There are still some features that I’m sure MSP’s would very much like to see – for instance, there is rarely a MSP client who doesn’t already have an AV product installed, so a tool to automatically remove existing AV products before deploying MAV would be a boon. That said, many GFI Max users have already created scripts deployed through GFI Max to automate some of that process, and I understand the Developers at GFI are working on an official tool to achieve the same goal.

But the real benefits are seen in on-going management terms. Rather than you or your engineers having a separate interface to visit to manage AV (such as Trend Worry Free Remote Manager) they simply visit the GFI Max Dashboard and use the same familiar interface to deal with Virus Threat alerts, Scan Results and Virus Quarantine.

GFI Max Dashboard Anti-Virus Features

All issues and alerts are reported into this central dashboard, which means they can automatically get raised (and closed) as tickets within your PSA tool of choice – ConnectWise or Autotask.

Time Saver

The ability to set Anti-Virus Policies centrally is a time-saver, both in terms of setting up and the amount of on-going maintenance it minimises. I’ve seen many MSP’s who struggle to uniformly deploy AV using the same policies (such as directories to exclude from File Scans, etc). MAV uses a hierarchy similar to Active Directory, so you can amend policies at the Client, Server or Workstation level – but easily use a standard set of policies across multiple deployments.

The reason I’ve always personally been a very vocal raving fan of GFI Max is the simplicity of their products. As a very small MSP, there simply wasn’t time for me to take deep-dives into products before I started using them. As my MSP grew in size, I wanted engineers to hit the ground running rather than having to be extensively trained in a product. The GFI Max Dashboard is easy to learn and use, and now that ease of use has been made available for an Anti-Virus product too.

All under one roof approach

Whilst I’ve traditionally been a huge fan of “Best of Breed” for MSP’s when choosing products to deploy at their client sites, I’m rapidly warming to the idea of having many products within a single dashboard for the efficiencies it provides. What’s more, whilst I’ve no prior experience using Vipre as a stand-alone product so am still learning about it’s weaknesses, I’d be stunned if I found any other AV that was so much better than Vipre that I’d be persuaded to use it in preference to those integrated features we’ve covered.

Switching to GFI Max MAV

If you’re an MSP using GFI Max as your RMM tool, then MAV is going to be a no-brainer for you to adopt. The benefits of having AV in the same interface your engineers are used to is the killer feature.

If you’re an MSP with no RMM tool currently in place, then MAV may persuade you to adopt GFI Max. You’re probably already frustrated with having multiple interfaces for all those different AV’s, and using MAV quickly kills that frustration off.

If you’re using a competing RMM tool such as Kaseya or Zenith Infotech which already has an AV bolted into to it, then you’re probably happy with it (and have invested a lot of time into getting it working as you like it) so I’d actually urge you not to check out GFI MAV for fear of becoming envious.  Smile

The bottom line

The bottom line here is that if you’re an MSP or IT Support provider using a variety of Anti-Virus products across many client sites, typically on an Annual Renewal basis – then you’re probably not making life easy for yourself. Problems with billing, problems with administration, problems with maintenance.

Standardising on a product, especially one that is multi-tenanted and MSP friendly, brings many efficiency benefits and starts to help you to increase your recurring revenue stream.

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