It’s an interesting study to see how technology and small business mix. The results are extremely telling in determining how time and discipline can either be your friend or become your enemy. The company we’re studying began life as a custom software developer as I discussed in my last blog post. The business plan was reasonably well thought out with revenue targets and numbers of customers it would take on a recurring basis to make the company viable from the profit and loss point of view. However, as with all business plans, things don’t always go as planned. Changes needed to be made.
Risk Management aka Plan B
This is something many small businesses don’t give the needed attention. Oh, it’s in the back of your mind but, it’s never quantified, planned for, or laid out with cost, schedule and performance in mind. For the small business, most times, it’s a fly by the seat of your pants evolution. Something usually drives you to make the change. In the case of this company, it was both a push and a pull event. The sales on software development alone weren’t meeting the goals to support growth and staff retention. A new line of revenue and profit was needed. A new push for business was needed. Then, the opportunity presented itself in the form of pull from the customers asking for technical and infrastructure support to keep the custom software apps running smoothly including some new software programming to increase and automate capabilities. Thus, the IT Support Group was born. Plan B became an effort to support the custom software and also assume network administration duties for the small businesses they had sold the custom software to. Keep in mind that we are doing this without a real plan and just making it up as we go.
The Dreaded Hybrid Solution aka the Light at the End of the Tunnel
The light is the dawning of the realization that there is a less chaotic way to take care of this new line of business. We can reduce the daily stress and automate the process at the same time. Those answers lie in adopting the structure and technology to bring things back under control. Even though the challenge is manageable at a staffing of five IT technicians, it won’t be at ten or even twenty if our sales goals of custom software are realized.
The structure is to bring all the clients under one standardized set of processes. In this case, that means persuading all the existing clients to agree to set up their support services as a managed services agreement. Under that scheme, the client signs a service level agreement (SLA) and pays a set fee each month as an automatic payment via credit card or automated clearing house (ACH) direct payment from a bank account. The cash flow for you becomes predictable and steady and the client doesn’t have to worry about receiving invoices for hours worked and cut a check multiple times a month.
The technology is the financial interface solution to accomplish the automated payment system. Then, a remote monitoring and interface software solution that allows the support group to do remote preventative and corrective maintenance on the client network. This prevents the inherent delays and loss of productive hours in having to arrange for access in response to a problem being identified by the client via phone or email.
But, you end up with a percentage of your existing clients on managed services and the rest on cost per hour team support to answer the phone or respond to email when problems arise. The dreaded hybrid solution is upon you. You need more people because you can’t be proactive and solve problems on your own. Extra techs are being paid to watch the phone and email. The remote monitoring solution is only being partially used and isn’t integrated into your other technology tools. Well, you get the picture. You’re only part of the way home.
The Rest of the Story
It’s time for you to buckle down and bite the bullet. Right now, you’re just throwing money and people at the challenge. It’s time to plan and assess with an eye toward making the IT support process integrate with the rest of your business. The bolt-on mentality has to stop. You have all the pieces of the puzzle. It’s just a matter of putting them together so they fit.
- Your workflow management system (e.g. SharePoint) needs a new input, the work orders that are generated by your client network interface solution (e.g. LabTech).
- Up until now, you implemented the network interface solution as a separate piece of software. Now, it’s time to learn what that software can really do and eliminate the manual tracking of work orders and taskers being sent to other business units (e.g. software developers) and automate the process. I’m guessing this tool has reports and a work order creation module that can be leveraged.
- Increase the level of sophistication of your project management efforts. Remember, you’re doing this so your company can grow. Things will become more complicated. Select a project management appliance that can accept inputs from your workflow manager and create a task that can be scheduled, costed and evaluated for performance and resource management i.e. do I have enough people or are they all fully tasked.
- Bring your human resources (HRM) appliance to the party as well. Create a pool of potential labor resources in your project management tool (resumes and CVs on file complete with skills and capabilities identified along with interview notes).
Now, you have the makings of an efficient solution to your managed services challenge. The processes and forms needed to make this all flow smoothly can be created in each part of the integrated system. The employees need to be trained to follow the steps and you, as the small business owner, can sit back and monitor the system performance on a dashboard displayed on the 65-inch screen on your wall. Automatic alerts will tell you when looking isn’t enough and action needs to be taken. Experience will tell you what the data is saying and those insights can be fed back into the system to improve the processes and data flow.
In the long run, new customers will all be in managed care with an SLA and secure automated payment options identified. Over time, old clients that are resistant to the managed care option, even after a genuine attempt to explain the benefits, can be dropped in favor of reducing the overall cost of your operation and making it lean and mean. Yeah, it’s a hard decision but that is what running a business is all about. In this case, heed the advice of Mr. Spock, “The good of the many outweighs the needs of the few.” Be discriminating and make the call.