The scenic mountain town of Saint-Sauveur, Quebec, provided a refreshing backdrop to this year’s ChannelNEXT East, and the opening panel discussion, “VAR MasterMind,” set the tone for the event. The program billed the panel discussion as an exploration of challenges facing VARs and MSPs, but I felt the focus was more on solutions than on challenges. Julian Lee, president of ChannelNEXT organizer TechnoPlanet Productions, held court with three other eloquent professionals on vital topics facing IT service providers: social media, CRM, and the becoming better business owners.
Can you sell to “C” people?
Lee kicked things off by issuing the challenge, “Can you sell to ‘C’ people?” simultaneously evoking C-level business leaders and the cloud. Both are vital to the success of VARs, he said, because the opportunities lie where business execs are already sold on cloud services. When prospects already understand the role of MSPs, discussions can skip right to solutions.
He then threw out a series of follow-on challenges. Are you ready for recurring revenues? Are you ready to let third-party companies bill for your services? Is your technology up to speed? Technology changes quickly, Lee said, so it’s up to VARs to stay on top of things. VARs stand both to benefit from and struggle with these changes, so keeping current should be a business priority.
Social media is mission-critical for MSPs
Marlene Mullowney, whose company Bright Beam is a social media consultant and advisor to the MSP community, spoke next. Asserting that social media mastery was mission-critical in today’s business world, she listed the three most important social media sites for small businesses: LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Interestingly, Mullowney ranked Google+ as a qualified No. 4, explaining that the true nature of this site remains poorly understood.
Mullowney added a fifth site, YouTube, after one audience member pointed out the value of video to convey ideas, the site’s organic search metrics, and its integration with Google. All of five of these vehicles can play a role in transforming MSPs, driving sales, and establishing market leadership.
It’s important, she said, simply to get onto these platforms and start building a following by posting news and ideas about topics relevant to your business and to your clients' businesses. You also need to balance the business, technical, and fun elements in your social media. This right balance, however, should emerge organically over time, and your brand voice will get stronger as a result.
All MSPs have CRMs—whether they know it or not
The third speaker was Rick McCutcheon, president of Full Contact Selling. A VAR business consultant and sales coach, Rick suggested that all businesses have a customer relationship management (CRM) system, whether they realize it or not. It might be an Excel workbook or even Post-It notes plastered on a bulletin board, he said. No matter how rudimentary, any method for tracking contacts from initial touch to longstanding account is a CRM.
After this eye-opener, McCutcheon made the case for NOT using Excel and relying on purpose-built CRM platforms like Microsoft's Dynamics CRM or Salesforce.com instead. These platforms, he advised, force structure onto the sales process. We all develop CRM processes through trial and error, but a good, purpose-built CRM will both simplify contact management practices and provide insights into how to do things even better.
MSPs need to be better business owners
The third panelist, Randal Wark, president of the startup VAR consultancy IT Revolution, boldly challenged audience members to raise their games. Most of us, he asserted, just “fell into” the MSP business, identifying and then seizing the opportunity to go it alone. Some of us may have had some experience running our own businesses, but many more have not.
Compounding this challenge, small business customers have grown increasingly savvy about IT and want to bring their own ideas to the table in collaboration with their solution providers. This power shift, he said, makes it imperative for IT solution providers to sharpen their sales and marketing processes and actively collaborate with both their vendors and their clients.
Wark also advocated Mastermind Entrepreneurs groups, local networks of independent business owners who share information on a peer-to-peer basis. This prompted Lee to add that this peer-to-peer knowledge exchange is the very goal of these ChannelNEXT events. Lee pointed out that event sponsors like Intronis are another important resource for business owners looking for business and technical help.
The panel discussion thoroughly whetted everyone’s appetite for conversation, making the Speed Introductions (think: speed dating for VARs and vendors) an excellent segue to the keynote presentations. Though Saint-Sauveur’s pristine surroundings and colorful shops might have competed with typical business events, ChannelNEXT East pulled out all the stops to keep things fun and rewarding. Over the two days, we were treated to technical workshops, a variety of networking activities, and excellent food and drink. If you’re an IT solution provider, you should check out ChannelNEXT as a vehicle to broaden your horizons and tighten your alliances.