Guest Column | March 29, 2016

Attributes Of Successful MSPs

By Arlin Sorensen, O and Founder of the Heartland Companies which includes HTG Peer Groups

I’m fortunate to work with hundreds of MSP’s through our HTG Peer Groups each quarter, both here in North America as well as Europe and Australia/New Zealand.  Not only do we facilitate two-day interactions with these great leaders, but we benchmark their financials and have them follow a rigorous framework of planning, goal setting and accountability. 

I led an MSP/Solution Provider for 27 years and exited the business the last day of 2012 after growing the company to a few over 100 employees with seven offices across five Midwestern states.  That’s the platform from which I’ll share my observations on the habits that are consistent with MSP’s that succeed.

They know how to plan.  There’s more to planning than having a meeting and filling out a template.  Real planning requires listening to your team.  You have to have a clear mission, vision and values.  You need a planning framework that helps you create an actionable strategy.  (We use StratOp as our strategic planning system in HTG).  Plans drive the way the business operates.  It enables leadership to say NO to things that aren’t in the plan.  It is an ongoing skill that is instilled throughout the organization.

They lead with discipline.  One of the hardest things for any entrepreneur to do is stay focused on the things that matter.  We all have a tendency to chase the shiny lights all around us.  After all, one of those things may become the next big opportunity.  Or not, which is more likely the case.  Successful MSP’s have a disciplined approach to R&D.  They don’t put their head in the sand and ignore what’s happening, but that research is done with intention and isolation from the day-to-day business.

They have life under control.  Most leaders in small and medium businesses describe their roles as overwhelming and chaotic.  But those in charge of successful MSP’s have accepted the reality they have to be intentional in managing the tension between life and work.  They know what matters and have their life plan defined so it can be leveraged in the prioritization of how their 168 hours are used each week.  (We use LifePlan as our life planning system in HTG).  The number of hours they work is not a badge of honor but something they monitor and control closely with focus on making sure they are spending an appropriate number of hours on life as well as work.

They know their numbers.  It is impossible to lead a truly successful company without some way to know what good is.  So often when organizations join HTG and benchmark their financials against our community, light bulbs go on.  I typically hear something like this:  “I thought we were doing pretty well until I got to see what is possible.”  We need to be able to compare ourselves with others to truly understand what good looks like.  That happens through deep and regular benchmarking.  HTG partners with Service Leadership to leverage their amazing benchmarking platform to provide a detailed analysis each quarter on how each company is doing.

They spend time with peers.  It’s lonely at the top.  So many leaders discover that fairly quickly in their leadership journey.  You can’t talk about the challenges with your team.  Your spouse doesn’t understand what you’re facing.  You have to chat with the guy in the mirror and he/she merely repeats what you just said.  Being part of a peer group is a hugely valuable experience as you spend time with other people who are in the same boat facing the same issues.  You find out you’re not alone and get some valuable insight from others in how to address the challenges on your plate.  Investing in a dedicated group of peers brings a deeper value than spending time at many industry events where you never get beyond the surface discussions.

They commit to building a consistent sales engine.  Like it or not, nothing happens until we sell something.  Far too many leaders aren’t truly committed to building a sales engine.  It’s hard work, and the sales engine needed varies depending on the size of your organization.  Up to a dozen or so employees, or even larger in some cases, principal-led selling is often the most successful route.  Hiring a salesperson is difficult.  But managing that sales person is often even more of a challenge.  So if you’re not committed, you’ll find yourself yo-yoing back and forth along the route of building this critical engine.  It can be far more successful if you leverage learnings from peers who have been there and done that.  But you have to sell and create a mechanism for consistent, predictable sales.

They invest in growing leadership.  Whether we will admit it or  not, the lid to growth in most organizations are the people, or the person, at the top.  We tend to wait far too long to begin growing as a leader ourselves, as well as investing in those who will step up and lead alongside us.  Leaders are created through a focused and intentional investment.  Successful MSP’s are continually building their team.  They use coaches and peer groups and regular interaction to push people to expand their ability and skills.

They are process driven.  It’s a rare person that jumps up and down for joy when process is mentioned.  But truly successful MSP’s leverage process effectively across their entire organization, not just in service delivery.  Process drives HR areas like hiring, reviews, onboarding and compensation.  Process drives the sales cycle from prospecting to selling to account management.  Process guides the planning and execution of strategy and operations.  Process is king and there are resources focused on making sure process is current, implemented and followed.

They measure what matters.  KPI’s and dashboards are focused and visible.  These things measure the items that matter, that provide indication of whether the company is on track so adjustment can be made before a problem happens, not in response to it.  Visual management is a powerful way to lead.  But you have to align compensation to what is measured and managed.  Successful MSP’s limit the number of things they measure, but have identified the handful that give reliable and early information on their success.

They understand the power of relationships.  These MSP’s know that people are the key to their success.  At the end of the day, we are in the people business.  We sell and support all sorts of technology, but the people are what matter.  It begins with our internal relationship as our team is what enables any chance to succeed.  Then our vendors/distributors come along as enablers who provide the tools and products that allow us to succeed.  Our clients are obviously important as it is their needs that provide the opportunity in the first place.  The common thread here – it’s about the people.  Truly successful MSP’s know that the major area of opportunity is learning how to develop deep and lasting relationships.

There are other attributes that we could call out here, but these 10 certainly are the things I observe first and foremost when I am privileged to see a highly successful MSP.  It isn’t rocket science to lead a company to success.  It is a lot of intentional hard work.  My experience personally and from observing hundreds of other companies is that it is most effectively done alongside other leaders on the same journey.  Becoming part of a peer organization where you can walk the journey with others can help you accelerate your growth and get you to success more quickly!