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Most IT managed services providers are heavily dependent on some form of network assessment practice during their MSP sales process. They gather information on all the prospect’s devices, identify problems and performance-related issues, and then present a comprehensive report, with an action plan that aims to fix those problems.

Although this practice can surely help win over new clients, it also can be the single most important obstacle they face down the road, in terms of further work with them.

The mistake is that the network assessment puts the MSP into the "techy slot". This is a matter of the client's perspective; executives put potential vendors into this slot to make their busy livese easier and simplify their world. There are slots in the executives' minds for many things: roles as consultant, service provider, software company or industry, HR, IT, or accounting. 
There are also varying levels of importance to them: high (business-related), medium (operations), low (support), and of accessibility, such as the scarce/premium, easy to access, and commodities. So for IT providers to excel now in the industry, they should seek a business-related consultant slot where there are high levels of scarcity, rather than staying in the IT slot, as a service provider, low-level support or commodity slot.

The untold story is that these first impressions are very difficult to change later on. Once the deal is made with us pegged in the tech slot, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; instead of being judged on our experience and skills, we are sold short by common perception. If they see that our company is professional only on low-tech ground work, then they’ll subscribe to only low-level tech services, and we’ll of course perform those eminently well, securing their perception. A negative outcome of a positive feedback loop - closed. Done. Locked for eternity.

That’s why a different first impression is crucial. (There’s no second chance at a first impression.) If providers cannot manage this first impression, they could be dropped into a slot from which there is no way out. It is the slot we could call "the deadly tech slot." This isn’t what the network assessment is supposed to do - relegating us to the lowest possible category in the mind of our potential clients and a role as a low-tech solution provider.

Ok, I admit I’ve never actually heard any IT service provider complaining that they’re in the tech slot. They proudly purport that they’re in the business / trusted advisor slot. However we all know the difference between how one is seen and how one thinks one is seen. The fact is that there is a high chance that the client's perception is completely different than your company thinks.

Obviously, no one wants to be in the "tech slot" nowadays. It limits potential growth opportunities, control of the client, influence on decisions, profitability, and so on. Everybody wants to be a high-level outsourced IT executive and IT department for their clients. So then why and how it is happening anyway during the network assessment process?

1. Having the wrong conversation

First of all, the network assessment is driving the wrong conversation. It centers around technology-based, device-based, and tech-based ideas...about the flaws and risks and reactionary firefighting solutions.

This is a hot topic for the provider, but C-level decision makers usually don’t much care. They want a conversation about how to go from good to great, but instead are dragged into one about how to go from lame to mediocre.

The cause? The network assessment leads only to the service provider's concerns instead of the client's. There is no business-relevant context; only the "IT benchmarks" of mostly irrelevant artificial metrics that skirt around what the focus should be.
 

2. Causing the Wrong Client Feeling

Detailing to the clients how badly they’re performing puts them in a defensive position and thus puts the solution provider into an offensive light. The report can show that the clients have little control over their poor decisions, unwise expenditures, and weak ideas in the field, so they can easily feel backed into a corner.

They may even think it irrelevant - they already know they could be doing better, why do they need to sit through this - so they may not carry the conversation any further. Or when they do go through with the "investment" it’s because they’re frightened out of their comfort zones regarding potential risks, etc.

Thus, the decision is not motivated by will and vision, but by pressure, which easily fades away after the tension eases. These emotions are not ideal on which to build a relationship. Moreover, such feelings can misguide the provider about a sudden quick win-- they can sense huge opportunities that actually do not exist.

3. Creating the Wrong Environment:

 The wrong environment does not help to carry business conversations and enable positive insights about the company. It does not focus on hope, enthusiasm, optimism, or growth—the typical entrepreneurial values. The environment our clients should be given is one where they can brainstorm... about the company, future projects, improvements, etc.

If we’re not encouraging a creative, "think big" environment, there will be no major projects, improvements, or developments. Only cost will matter; they will invest as little as possible because they don’t see the real value in what we can offer. They focus on problems, (most of them artificial) and how to fix them, rather than on how to invest in the future and create a compelling vision together.
 

How to fix this process - to change the game by creating the business context first.

 Put the network assessment aside for a while, until we have created our image as business partners. It will remain a crucial element of the process, but not define the process itself. We must create the business context around the IT, and then the IT context around all the IT-related activities that the network assessment can measure. 

1. Building the business context:

We need to act as IT consultants, using techniques consultants use to acquire clients. We have to be curious about the non-IT-related fields, such as how they grow, their customer challenges, and how their industry is changing. Not in a small-talk way, but with comprehensive, tough, thought-provoking conversations.

This will push us out of our comfort zone a bit, but relax! As a fellow business owner, you have more in common than you might think. Asking questions, actively listening, and not giving any advice up front are all key.

Peel the onion; dig deeper into the why. In this way we’ll create trust and understanding. Believe me, very few companies are doing that, so the client will be delighted to talk with you. You’re going to be a very rare breed; a scarce resource to find.

2. Building the IT execution context:

Once we understand their business context, only then can we drive the conversation toward the technology field: the leadership of IT, the people inside, the users, the company culture...by actually seeing their devices, watching how they use them, discovering their personal goals, etc.

Here, the critical element is to find out why they may have IT challenges, how they are operating, who is responsible for the field, and what other duties or priorities they may have. What is the level of their operation maturity? We have to understand the management issues or problems that can cause mediocre IT performance. We have to assure them that we have a complete view of what they’re facing.

We see the root of the poor decisions they might have made, as well as the problems they face right now, so we’re starting from the very top, from the very core of the business, and most importantly, we’re considering the individual motivations. After clarifying their IT context, we can then do the network assessment to get a clear picture about the specific problems and situation.
 

The result of the process:

After gathering all the business context discovery experience, and having all the IT execution discovery experience, we’re going to see the results of the network assessment completely differently, and we won’t concentrate on problems and challenges or create fear and bad feelings in the clients.

Instead, we’re going to focus on the big picture and the potential opportunities to make their company more productive: the benefits of our initiatives and a positive picture which will be much more likely to engage them. We can and must use our existing discovery tools, but only after we’ve created the context of our presence. This is what we call the reframing sales process, where we can change the game.

Denes Purnhauser

Written by Denes Purnhauser

Denes has grown his MSP from 5 people to 17 staff in less than a year by implementing business problem focused sales processes with vCIO. He has transformed the client engagement processes of hundreds of MSPs.