Meet the Channel: Despite the Transformation Buzz, the Conversation Hasn’t Changed Much, Says SolarWinds MSP’s David Weeks
Ten years ago, when the channel started to seriously move away from pure resale to managed services, partners had to learn a whole new lexicon to use in their conversations with customers. The value managed service providers (MSP) began to bring to the table wasn’t a piece of technology they could point to and quantify its worth. The sales pitch evolved into a conversation about business instead of tech, recurring revenue instead of one-time sales, and the benefits of managed services. It was a new conversation not only for end users, but for partners as well.
Fast-forward a decade or so to today, when digital transformation is on the lips of everyone in the channel. Once again, partners have to learn how to educate customers on new trends such as the internet of things (IoT), predictive analytics and customer-experience solutions. The purview of MSPs has expanded beyond the IT department, and partners have to learn the language of lines of business, such as marketing and finance. It’s a strange dichotomy of MSPs educating themselves and their customers at the same time.
While the minutiae of the conversations have changed, the broad themes are strangely familiar, says David Weeks, SolarWinds MSP‘s director of sales for major accounts, who sat down with us to talk about what hasn’t changed in all the buzz about digital transformation. Just like today, 10 years ago there were early adopters and laggards, partners that grasp new concepts quickly and those that need more education. No matter the tech or the trends, partners still want to know two things: how to sell and how to be more efficient.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Channel Futures: Tell me what the channel was like when you got into the space. What was going on in terms of technology and also changing business operations?
David Weeks: It was 11 years ago. Before we became SolarWinds MSP, and we were N-able Technologies up here in Ottawa; I actually moved from the largest media company in Canada over to this space. I came on as a business consultant to our customers. That’s what we used to do. We started a team called Partner Development Specialists, and their job was to help the MSP understand managed services and how to grow in the space. We continued that program year over year over year, and it’s just continued to expand. That’s how I got into it. I got brought in on that team, and then I’ve just kind of grown through the company. Now I’m director of sales for major accounts.
It was interesting at that time because we were actually educating the market on what managed services was. We were talking a lot about why you want to generate recurring revenue, why you want to get out of the standard hardware sales, and really try to convince customers there was this opportunity to go in underneath this new services offering that was completely intangible. There was nothing physical to show the customer that there was value in that to help support their business and drive the business. It was all about education at that point. It’s interesting moving to today’s day and age, how that’s completely evolved. Managed services is extremely well-known, and now the end customers are requesting it.
CF: That was a very different conversation to start having with customers. How did you learn what they needed to hear in order to really grasp the managed-services opportunity?
DW: It’s interesting, that question. When I came onto the team, there were six or seven other partner-development specialists. The program had been in operation for, I believe, just over two years, so we were really starting to just scratch the surface of what is managed services, and why does an IT provider want to look at it? A lot of it was working with our base at the time and learning from them, understanding their struggles. They’d buy into our software, and then it was working within the structure of their business and their methodologies to say, “How do we fit a services offering into this?” It was very grassroots, boots-on-the-ground, figuring out where it fit in the market and how to drive that value and that perception across to their customers. It wasn’t always easy, but we learned so much in those early years that allowed us to really start to formalize and productize what we did as a consulting service. It started to fit a mold almost in a way. There’s always customization for every customer, but there was a baseline that was pretty consistent across everybody. From that point, we’ve developed a pretty in-depth consulting engagement that we can do with all different types of partners that we bring on, whether they’re standard IT services, telco or what have you, and also people who are today just moving into this space.
After several years, we went back and analyzed all those different types of customers and offerings and the business models that we helped build, and we realized there was a chunk of 30-40 percent that was standard across everybody. But then there was a customization point that filtered on top of it. It was a rather seamless transition to subscription services and into the cloud. It was a technology change, but the value of what they were delivering still really hasn’t changed a lot in the last decade.
CF: Let’s take it down from the high level and drill down into your actual job function. Tell me about how you manage your customers and your accounts today as we navigate another big change. Are there similarities to those early conversations with partners? How has the way you manage your customers and leads changed?
DW: There’s a big transition, so I’ve been doing a lot of retraining with the team lately. Now it’s not so much about the core managed-services offerings, but more about emerging trends. Obviously security is a big one, but we’re looking even further out at end-user experience management and things along those lines. We always feel that our job has to evolve ahead of the channel, so we want to as much as possible be thought leaders in what we’re bringing to our customers so we can help them with what they’re doing today, but we also want them to be thinking about what they’re going to do in six months or a year.
There are several of us in the company that do an analysis of the industry on a regular basis. We also work with some of our largest and top, leading-edge customers who tend to see further out the same as we do. We’ll bounce ideas off of them, and when we start to get the consensus that we’re on the right track, we start to formulate a premise around it so we can start to have those conversations with our customers.
CF: Are your customers doing a lot of self-education as well? Are they coming to the table with their own ideas of what they need, or are they fresh slates ready to receive that thought leadership you mentioned?
DW: I’m going to say all of the above. It depends on where they sit in their maturity as a service provider. Those who are the early adopters of managed services tend to be a little more forward-thinkers, and they’re the ones that are always looking for the next idea, the next revenue stream, the next way to mitigate risk. Then we’ve got those in the middle of the transition. They weren’t early adopters, but they weren’t late. They’re pretty comfortable where they are, and they’re still trying to hammer out the details of the process to get them maximum efficiency. Finally, with those who are just entering the market, we’re back to where we were a decade ago talking about the value of managed services. We’re training them, but we’re also giving them new ideas now than what we did 10 years ago because of market demand.
Actually, it hasn’t changed just a whole lot in the last 10 years. Businesses have evolved, but they still struggle with really two key factors. No. 1 is sales. In this space, there’s a natural struggle with initial sales and growing the business. No. 2 is efficiency in their service delivery. Those are still two areas we focus on, but we give them new ideas — for instance, leading with security versus managed services today, where it may start a different conversation with an end user that may not have seen the value in managed services, but they do in security. Then you can ride the coattails of that to up-sell and cross-sell future services.