Automation, IT Talent Shortage Emerge as Top Areas for MSPs to Address

Monday’s MSP Summit panel yielded lots of recommendations and guidance for channel partners.

Kelly Teal, Contributing Editor

November 2, 2021

6 Min Read
MSP Summit Panel

MSP SUMMIT — Managed service providers need to automate processes, address the ongoing IT talent shortage and keep looking for ways to deliver top-notch customer service.

Those were the top takeaways on Monday during the MSP Summit panel, “2021 MSP 501: Meet Today’s Influencers & Innovative Leaders,” hosted by Channel Futures editor Allison Francis. The emphasis on those three pieces of advice came largely as a result of lessons learned during the past 18 months of COVID-19. As the world shifted to cloud computing to accommodate remote work, and as societal awareness grew around diversity, the MSPS on the panel have adjusted. And those who haven’t yet, must.

For starters, machine learning and robotic process automation help end users make the most of their “scarce resources” amid the IT talent shortage, said Kurt Guenther, group president, business solutions, Computer Services Inc.

“Automation is going to be the future,” he said. “If you’re not talking automation, I think we’re going to have some problems.”

Rob Stephenson, CEO and board member at Thrive Networks, agreed. Most of the company’s engineers live in expensive markets — Boston, London, New York City. That’s a hefty amount of salary overhead to pay each year. But the company did not want to risk losing good people, especially at a time when they have their pick of enviable jobs. So, to save money, Thrive Networks turned to automation.

“We bought a SOAR that plugs into our SOC and ServiceNow and allows us to automate client issues,” Stephenson said.

Relieving pricey staff of those more mundane duties took some worry off Thrive Networks.

“Our engineers had tons of opportunity,” Stephenson said.

Addressing the IT Talent Shortage

Indeed, the IT talent shortage is very real. MSPs are having a hard time hiring skilled people who know security, cloud, data and analytics, and other pressing subject areas. They need to take more steps to attract and retain new workers, including older people with experience and savvy, yet who might require more help understanding newer technology. Automating processes can help meet that challenge, Guenther said.

“But if we don’t do that, it takes so long to educate, train, onboard … I think we need to take a look at that not only as an industry but as a country — let’s train staff to come in a lot earlier.”

Thrive Networks, for its part, is trying something new. The company started Operation Rising Tide, where it hires people with little or no experience, and trains them so they and their peers can move up through the ranks. Thrive Networks sees this strategy as one that will help it combat the IT talent shortage.

“It’s a lot cheaper to keep your employees” than to bring on new ones, Stephenson said.

Of course, the IT talent shortage is hurting customers, too. End users can’t afford to lose people, either. That’s where tools such as machine learning and robotic process automation come into play for an MSP.

“That gives you a second touchpoint … because there’s no labor in the marketplace,” Stephenson said.

As a result, he added, MSPs can change the sales conversation.

“Forget IT, you’re doing that,” Stephenson said. “Let’s talk about digital transformation, business and operations, processes.

Winning Amid Pandemic Conditions

But COVID-19 didn’t just put end users in tough situations — it tested MSPs, too. For example, Insight, like thousands of organizations around the world, suddenly had to get its people working from home.

“The bigger issue wasn’t moving technology but the actual collaboration environment,” said Stephen Moss, senior vice president and general manager at multinational MSP Insight. “And we still had to hire people.”

For Stephenson and Thrive Networks, a major challenge lay in figuring out …

… what the company needed to do “to make our employees happy.” For instance, the MSP had to let some people continue to come into the office because their homes could not accommodate remote work. Still, most took advantage of the work-from-home program.

Of interest is the rise in productivity Thrive Networks has seen from now-remote employees “We are 26%-27% more efficient with work-from-home,” Stephenson said.

Such increases trickle down to clients. With a little more time in their days, MSPs and their employees can find new or better ways to serve customers. In the era of ramped-up cyberattacks, that could mean a greater emphasis on security, for instance. Or it could look like making sure SLAs never become a point of contention, a reflection of superior customer service. A little more breathing room could even provide a chance to consider engaging in M&A — a significant industry trend that stands to stick around for a while. (Hint to MSPs who might want to find a buyer: Make sure you have automation in place that reduces costs, or Insight, for one, will pass. “It’s too hard to retool,” Moss said.)

Along the way, pay more attention to the details.

“We do need to get better contracts in the industry,” Moss said.

Sometimes MSPs don’t describe the entire scope of work, he said. Then they miss out on added revenue.

“Be more transparent about what’s included and what’s not, and add modularity in a simple way,”  Moss said. Doing managed services right will lend itself to that model, he noted. But beware — if contracts restrict that ability, MSPs can “end up in ugly situations.”

“Be focused on contracts; it will make a difference in accelerating sales,” Moss said. “It’s a lot more fun having a business conversation than a legal conversation.”

Focus First on Employees

Achieving all of that, though, starts with building a solid culture for employees — and stemming the IT talent shortage.

“I’ve become more open-minded,” Guenther said. “I’ve had to stretch myself to try to find even internal biases that I had and try to work with others to meet them where they are. We need to do more of that with our employees and understanding their points of view.”

Moss agreed, noting that he’d always felt good at accommodating times when employees faced big personal challenges. However, he realized as staff worked from home that he previously “didn’t have a strong appreciation for everyday aspects all families were dealing with.”

Now Moss spends much of his time talking with employees about how Insight can do better. And that’s a tough road to map, given that the company operates in so many different geographies.

Stephenson, too, has “had to adapt, a lot.” Throughout the pandemic, that has meant hosting more company meetings over video, and shifting employee awards from quarterly to monthly.

“It’s about adapting, understanding, empathizing with our employees,” he said.

That is key, as Guenther pointed out.

“You’ve got to focus on your employees — there’s a lot of churn going on,” Guenther said. “Keep them happy and focused and balanced. …You need to do what’s best for your organization, for your employees.”

The inaugural MSP Summit is co-located with this week’s Channel Partners Conference & Expo.

Want to contact the author directly about this story? Have ideas for a follow-up article? Email Kelly Teal or connect with her on LinkedIn.


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About the Author(s)

Kelly Teal

Contributing Editor, Channel Futures

Kelly Teal has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist, editor and analyst, with longtime expertise in the indirect channel. She worked on the Channel Partners magazine staff for 11 years. Kelly now is principal of Kreativ Energy LLC.

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