THE OLD SAYING, “”Two heads are better than one,”” seems extra fitting in today’s complex and varied tech environment. Almost no channel pro can understand or support all of IT on their own, which makes partnering with peers more essential than ever.
“”In today’s world, having another set of eyes, especially in terms of security and knowing how to fine-tune some of the configurations and setups, is really important,”” says Lori Tisinai, owner of Computer Concepts USA, an MSP in Lake Bluff, Ill.
Partnering can also drive your business forward in several ways: expanding your service offerings, providing the ability to respond to a surge in demand, and increasing your geographical reach.
“”Because we have built these communities [of peers] with each other we have the ability to interact and talk to people in other places,”” says Stanley Louissaint, principal and founder of Fluid Designs, an MSP in Union, N.J. “”I think that definitely helps us to be able to expand our own footprints.””
Of course, no reward is without risk. Customer poaching, however, is more fear than reality, according to Paco Lebron, CEO of ProdigyTeks, an MSP in Chicago. “”We as MSPs have this notion that everyone’s coming for our business and our hard-earned dollars … [but] I think what a lot of MSPs really should see is there’s enough business for everyone.””
The real risk, says Louissaint, is angering or losing a customer if a partner does a poor job, or worse, fails to show up.
Indeed, not partnering in unfamiliar fields can put you at a disadvantage. Louissaint, for instance, readily admits his firm isn’t skilled in access control, “”but I know how to sell it, and I know how to get my partner to come in and handle the executing of that.”” Lebron, for his part, partners with a security camera expert who better understands the liability issues. And they both partner for their low-voltage wiring needs, not because they don’t have the skills, but because it’s not where they want to expend their resources.
Outsourcing day-to-day activities like data recovery or system configuration, on the other hand, is how Tisinai meets client demands without hiring lots of additional staff.
Like Louissaint and Lebron, Tisinai has two types of peer partner relationships: subcontracting and referrals. Subcontractors represent Computer Concepts USA when they perform work for clients. “”I work really hard with the branding, making sure that they’re using our processes, our phone, our email,”” she says.
Louissaint handles subcontractors similarly. “”The big thing is making sure that as far as the client is concerned, we’re the ones they’re interfacing with. Our agreements are between us and the client. And then obviously we have our agreements between us and our partners.””
The same is true when Louissaint’s firm is the subcontractor in a partnering arrangement. “”Anything that happens, I go back and tell them, ‘Hey, this is the conversation with your client. This is what they want to know.’ Everything funnels through them.””
Referral partners typically do business with clients under their own name. Some arrangements involve a finder’s fee, others are more informal. Lebron, for instance, refers residential computer repair work to a local shop. “”I reached out to the owners, nothing formal, but just so that we don’t have to say no to anyone that gives us a call.””
Finding the Right Partners
There are several good ways to find peer partners, such as attending industry events. Tisinai also leans on her Facebook group ITOCompass, which has more than 2,000 MSP members, and works with fellow clients of the Taylor Business Group, an executive coaching firm for MSPs. “”I know I have a team of people that I can reach out to, and if I need a resource, I know that I can always call one of the team leaders at TBG and get some guidance from them as well,”” she says.
Louissaint’s first go-to is his fellow ASCII Group members, and he also finds partners through Business Network International, a referral network with over 280,000 members worldwide. The MSP podcast community is another good source, says Lebron, who co-hosts the MSP Unplugged podcast, along with virtual MSPs communities like Tech Tribe.
When vetting potential partners, treat them like a hiring prospect, Louissaint recommends. For instance, if you need help programming Cisco devices, look for someone with certifications and experience. For website designers, ask to see examples of their work. Check their reviews on Google, Clutch, and UpCity, and verify references.
Then give that partner a dry run, Lebron advises. “”Are they responsive on the first ring? Is it always going to voicemail? How’s their website laid out? Are they taking care to make sure someone can find their number?”” Those are indicators of how easily you’ll be able to get in touch with them if there is an urgent issue.
The Fine Print
Details to discuss before entering into a partnership can include an NDA, a noncompete agreement, and start and end dates, according to Tisinai. “”Don’t take anything for granted or leave anything unsaid,”” she says. “”Make sure that you have a written agreement [and] that everyone understands the workflow, how you’re going to be communicating with the client, the processes, and billing.””
NDAs are especially important with subcontractors because of the level of collaboration required, which includes sharing customer information, adds Lebron, who uses them for referral partnerships as well when finder fees are involved. You don’t want competitors to know what you’re paying and possibly outbid you, he explains, and if you’re paying a specific partner over market rates, you don’t want other contractors to know it. An NDA can also protect you if the relationship sours, he adds.
Louissaint is content with a “”handshake agreement.”” He’s never had an issue, he says, as partners recognize that the arrangement is a good source of business. Plus, he adds, word travels if someone does not do business honorably.
To avoid potential conflicts of interest, respect each other’s target market, Lebron advises. For example, both his firm and one of his larger MSP partners target manufacturing, so Lebron sticks to smaller customers. “”We have such a great partnership that we’re not going to try and go over 20 users in the manufacturing space, because we know that that’s what they’re looking for,”” he says.
For the most part, though, Louissaint believes that partnering is common to channel pros, and they get the importance of respecting boundaries. “”I don’t think, in my experiences, that we have an industry problem of people not understanding that they’re a subcontractor or that they’re looking … to poach my client. I don’t see that as a big issue.””