Experience Matters

Think of it as a paradox of managed services today: the more MSPs prosper in aggregate, the harder it is for them to prosper alone.

That they are prospering in aggregate is undeniable. Per a recent study from Canalys and N-able, over 340,000 channel partners globally will collect more than half a trillion dollars of managed services revenue this year. That’s great news for MSPs collectively, but poses a strategic dilemma for them individually: how do you stand out in a crowd of competitors 340,000 thick?

Monitoring networks, managing endpoints, and reselling cloud apps are clearly not the answer, because all three services are thoroughly commoditized. So what might work better? Delivering outcome-oriented solutions? Going deep on security? Being a trusted advisor on AI? Simply being better than everyone else at explaining what IT providers do in an age of self-serve hardware provisioning and product-led growth?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But I’ve grown increasingly convinced in recent years that wrapping the same services as everyone else in a superior customer experience could be an easier and equally effective answer.

Note that we’re talking customer experience here, not customer service. Customer service is a measure of how well or promptly you assist clients. Customer experience is how every stage of a client’s journey with your company—from their first visit to your website, to the sales process, onboarding, technical support, renewals, and beyond—leaves them feeling about you.

“It’s every aspect of the relationship,” says MSP consultant Don Crawley (pictured), author of The Compassionate Geek: How Engineers, IT Pros, and Other Tech Specialists Can Master Human Relations Skills to Deliver Outstanding Customer Service.

And he really does mean every aspect. Tacky office décor could leave you swimming in the wake of competitors. “That seems absurd, but it might be something as simple as that,” Crawley notes.

Sound superficial? Get used to it. “We are a very superficial society in a lot of ways,” Crawley says. “We look at appearances, and that’s why it’s really, really important to make certain that every aspect of the customer experience gives off an air of professionalism.”

Now more than ever, perhaps. Just under three-fourths of customers are apt to take their business elsewhere after poor experiences, according to recent research from Vonage, and 46% are likely to dump you after just one or two bad encounters. Customer experience leaders, meanwhile, are 37% better at new logo acquisition and 22% better at customer retention, according to revenue growth consultancy The Alexander Group.

Oh, and their EBITDA is 13% higher on average too.

MSPs in particular need to pay extra attention to CX these days, moreover, now that most of the decision-makers they interact with work outside IT, according to George Humphrey, distinguished vice president and managing director of offering and delivery research and advisory at the Technology & Services Industry Association (TSIA).

“We’ve seen it flip from three out of three decision makers were IT organizations to now two out of three are business buyers,” he says, noting that business buyers are less likely to judge you by the technical stuff than by more or less everything else.

Ultimately, however, everyone with customers should be thinking hard about experience right now. Including vendors. Including me. Including Crawley.

“It’s not just MSPs,” he says. “It’s all businesses. Even my business.”

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So what next?

That’s the why-to of taking CX seriously. Here are five suggestions from Crawley and Humphrey on tackling the how-to:

1. Appoint a secret shopper. Or better yet, be the secret shopper. “Start by being your customer,” Crawley says. “Go to the very first step of that customer experience, walk through it yourself, and see what’s happening.” Does someone answer the phone when you call? How long does it take a salesperson to respond after you request a quote on your website? Any interaction less than impressive is a candidate for improvement.

2. Meet your clients where they are on communication. Sure, you like speaking by phone, but what if your millennial-aged customers are more into Slack? “Those of us who are of a certain age need to be aware of the fact that our chosen method of communication may not work with people of a different age and vice versa,” Crawley observes.

Indeed, most of the digital-first buyers who increasingly dominate the IT market don’t want to speak with you at all, per Canalys analyst Jay McBain. “75% of them would rather not talk to a human, ever,” he says. “They’ll make a million-dollar software purchase, they’ll buy a car without ever talking to a human in real life.” CX leaders accept that preference rather than fight it.

3. Leverage AI, cautiously. As most IT management vendors already know, generative AI can make technicians significantly more productive. Used properly though, Humphrey notes, it can also make clients happier. “We can create chatbots that are actually delivering on the promise of a chatbot that will have intelligent conversations to get the right information to the right customer at the right time,” he says. “Our sales teams can use it to make sure that we’re proposing the right solution to the right segmented customer.”

That said, Crawley suspects that as AI-powered experiences become more common, even customers who don’t relish human contact will appreciate the occasional reminder that they’re doing business with people rather than machines. “The ability to serve and to collaborate and to have great relationships is going to become even more important,” he says.

4. Emphasize onboarding. Only have time to invest in one dimension of customer experience? Focus on onboarding, Humphrey advises. “Typically, within the first 90 days is when we see the customers decide whether or not they want to continue staying married to this MSP,” he says.

5. Ask. Net promoter score and CSAT surveys are useful, according to Crawley, but imperfect. “In my experience, people will go for the easy answer,” he says, rather than share an honest one. Ultimately, there’s no substitute for simply asking your clients how your customer experience measures up.

“That, I think, is where you start to get the truth about how well you’re doing compared to your competitors,” Crawley says.

Liongard goes back to the future on attack surface management

We live in happy times for anyone who likes having lots of attack surface to target. To take one of many possible illustrations, the average SMB was using 253 cloud apps as of last year, according to SaaS intelligence vendor Productiv.

Conversely, however, it’s a tough time to be responsible for defending all that attack surface. So why does IDC’s latest forecast for the attack surface management market, published this week, project -0.2% growth through 2028, down from this year’s $574 million?

Because, the analyst says, ASM is set to become a mandatory, built-in feature of vulnerability management systems and other security solutions. In other words, the need for ASM as a security function has grown so vast that demand for it as a stand-alone product is actually shrinking. MSPs and IT departments increasingly want it everywhere all the time, not off in its own silo.

That’s an encouraging trend for self-described “configuration change detection and response” vendor Liongard. ASM, it seems, is barreling toward exactly where the company began when CTO Joe Alapat and CMO Vincent Tran co-founded it in 2015.

“That was their vision,” says Michelle Accardi (pictured), who became the vendor’s CEO last April. “The words ‘attack surface management’ weren’t in existence, but they saw this as a necessity—to understand what’s in [an environment] from an IT asset discovery perspective, what’s the surface area that you need to protect, and then what’s changing in that surface area that’s creating risk and vulnerability.”

I met Alapat and Tran for the first time at a conference in 2018, where I watched visitors to their expo hall booth fall hard for something else the system proved good at, helping MSPs reconcile billing on SaaS subscriptions by tracking which applications their customers were running and how many seats were in use.

“That sort of took us off the original course,” explains Accardi, who’s been steering the company back to where it started since last summer, when Liongard began repositioning its solution as a “left of boom” platform that mitigates risk before hackers strike by mapping and monitoring a business’s attack surface.

“If you don’t know what assets and users you’re covering, if you don’t know their current configuration state and where there’s drift, how can you ever have good security?” Accardi asks. “It really is the cornerstone, and I think MSPs are waking up to that.”

Next steps in Liongard’s return to its ASM roots include rolling out a series of attack surface management dashboards. The first, a cyber risk dashboard aligned to cyber insurance controls, arrived last November. MSPs who wish to, Accardi notes, can expose it to their clients.

“Now you’re able to prove your value and actually monetize attack surface management to your customer,” she says. “It’s pretty powerful.”

Interested in compliance?

Then you’ll probably enjoy the latest episode of MSP Chat, the new podcast I co-host. This week’s show is sponsored by security/compliance specialist Beachhead Solutions.

Don’t be fooled. It’s still dangerous out there.

At first blush, this chart from the just posted 2024 SonicWall Annual Cyber Threat Report looks pretty good.

Alas, like so much else in cybersecurity and as SonicWall itself points out, there’s a gray lining to this silver cloud:

While down for the year, ransomware volumes rose 27% in the second half of 2023, according to SonicWall.

Ransom payments topped a record-setting $1 billion globally last year, according to Chainalysis.

“High-severity detections” at Barracuda’s SOC rose steadily in 2023 to a total of 66,000, per new data published this week, and IBM’s X-Force security team recorded a 266% surge in credential-stealing malware last year.

So sure, maybe there were fewer ransomware incidents last year, but the trend line’s headed in the wrong direction, payments are at an all-time high, and threat activity more generally is skyrocketing.

Here’s a teeny ray of encouraging news, though, if only for SMBs: Ransomware attackers seem to be increasingly interested in “big game” victims with the financial wherewithal to cough up $1 million or more to get their data back.

Also worth noting

Upgrades in the new release of Acronis Cyber Protect include a feature that lets ordinary users recover the latest backup of their machines after an attack with one click.

Sophos has a new “Partner Care” program offering access to a dedicated, 24/7 team of experts for non-sales questions and operational support.

Like Atera, ConnectWise, and others before it, GoTo has added an AI assistant to its RMM platform.

ConnectWise will be hosting a three-day M&A deep dive at its Tampa HQ week after next.

ConnectWise has also, more urgently, lifted license restrictions on its ScreenConnect remote access offering, to ensure that everyone has a path out of exposure to the scary, recently detected vulnerability in that system.

CrowdStrike’s added more GenAI to its Falcon XDR platform.

Check Point rolled out 10 new high-performance, AI-powered firewalls.

ManageEngine’s SIEM solution now offers analytics across the exploit triad (users, entities, and processes).

Liquid Networx has inked a resale deal with Auvik.

Identity and access management vendor SailPoint is the latest security vendor to add an MSP partner program.

Kyndryl is Veeam’s latest professional services partner.

UCaaS solutions from Wildix are now listed on the HubSpot marketplace.