Order Out of Chaos

Solution provider Red Square Systems had to eat a huge loss when a client wasn’t billed correctly. Now, it’s getting its ducks in a row thanks to a new PSA system.

When Ian James, president of Red Square Systems, received word from his accounting department that a client hadn’t been billed for several thousands of dollars worth of work, and months had passed since the mistake was made, he couldn’t believe there was an even worse side to the news: It had happened before, with the same customer.

“Going back and asking the customer, ‘Please, can you pay us?’ would have been awful,” said James. “Errors can be forgiven. But what is less forgivable is if that error is repeated.”

The 20-person solution provider in Pittsburgh ate the loss in order to keep the customer, said James. But he quickly took steps to make sure the same mistake wouldn’t happen again. Soon afterward, Red Square deployed a Professional Services Automation (PSA) product from Autotask, Rensselaer, N.Y.

Autotask is one of a growing breed of PSA vendors rushing to serve the needs of midmarket solution providers that enter the exploding managed services business. The fixed fees MSPs charge for their services offer little leeway for wasteful practices, and PSA products from Autotask—as well as those from rivals such as Connectwise, Tigerpaw Software and others—help plug leaks in MSP profitability by helping to better utilize employee resources, manage remote monitoring applications, sharpen billing, and share information between departments.

Solution providers and MSPs agree that PSA products are invaluable. But at the same time, they’re finding that choosing a PSA vendor is not an easy task. Many have switched PSA vendors less than a year after beginning to use a rival’s product.

“It’s complicated stuff,” said Andy Segal, president of Vandis, a solution provider based in Albertson, N.Y. Segal is currently deciding between Autotask and Connectwise. “We have been taking our time and trying to get this right,” he said.

The speed in which PSA products are evolving may not be making the choice any easier.

Just last week, Tigerpaw, a Bellevue, Neb., vendor that has traditionally focused its tools more on inventory tracking, launched Tigerpaw CRM+ version 10.5, said James Foxall, vice president. The upgraded software now heeds alerts from popular MSP monitoring platforms sold by vendors such as LPI Level Platforms, N-able Technologies, SilverBack and others, said Foxall. Vastly improved time sheet reporting and bill-back are also features of the new software, he said.

This week, Connectwise is set to launch an online service designed to better incorporate mobile devices into its PSA framework. The vendor is also putting the final touches on an ambitious subcontractor network that will extend the often-limited field IT services reach of MSPs, said Arnie Bellini, president of Connectwise, Tampa, Fla. Autotask has its own mobile offering set to arrive in the next few weeks, enabling MSPs to extend the use of Autotask’s hosted PSA platform—and features of its newly released AutotaskExtend offering—to practically any PDA, said Bob Godgart, CEO of Autotask.

Even QuickArrow, a more traditional, enterprise-oriented PSA vendor in Austin, Texas, which has mostly marketed to end-user services groups, is elevating its game to seize more midmarket MSP dollars. Enhancements to QuickArrow’s hosted service in the areas of resource management, subcontractor and vendor management, are fast on the way, said Elizabeth Davis, CEO.

Vendors in possession of monitoring, scheduling, and help-desk toolsets—such as Microsoft, FrontRange Solutions and SingleStep—are also eyeing the opportunity to sell PSA products to midmarket MSPs, said Anne Stanton, president of The Norwich Group, an IT consulting firm in Norwich, Vt. Even a field of traditional accounting software program vendors see dollar signs as the MSP market drives interest in new PSA solutions, she said.

This cornucopia of choices presents solution providers and MSPs with a bet-the-business kind of decision, said Red Square’s James, because, all at once, a PSA system replaces many key individual applications. When Red Square added the PSA service from Autotask, the solution provider swiftly decommissioned a fistful of products that addressed progress tracking, customer support, help desk and project management. The Autotask service—a software suite hosted by the vendor and delivered as a Web service—sent into retirement not just the hosted services of Salesforce.com, but several software products running locally on Red Square’s servers, such as products from AmberCat, FrontRange and Microsoft, said James.

“If we chose the wrong one, we weren’t just making a mistake with one part of our business,” he said, “we were making a mistake with quite a lot of our business.”

It turned out to be a good bet, said James. Thirty-five percent of Red Square’s $5 million in annual revenue arrives from managed services. The increased efficiencies produced by the Autotask PSA application, coupled with savings from reducing the number of products needed to run the business, added a half-million dollars in profit in just 12 months, he said. Employee stress levels were also reduced, adding an extra dividend.

“A PSA system raises everyone’s game. Everyone feels much better about being able to bill a client properly. Salesmen don’t worry about things getting dropped. Engineers don’t feel that salesmen are going to be misinformed, and so on,” explained James.

The Ties That Bind

 

Midmarket MSPs have given the PSA industry a second life. PSA applications once asked merely to help coordinate field services and manage inventory are increasingly looked to as ways to tightly bind the seams between help desk, dispatch, billing, inventory, time sheet and database systems. The demands MSPs can place on PSA products is changing the industry and accelerating the recreation of PSA applications into full-blown midmarket ERP systems.

In the coming weeks, a new feature called AutotaskMobile will put more power to control the Autotask service in the hands of solution providers working from PDAs, said Godgart. Handheld browsers can already control parts of the Autotask service, but AutotaskMobile will take the experience up a notch, he said. AutotaskMobile will push out realtime database updates, with no synchronization or batch updating to a PC required. Many of the advanced Web services features that arrived in June with the launch of AutotaskExtend will also now be controllable using AutotaskMobile, he said. “Virtually anything a technician would do on the console you can do on the PDA using AutotaskMobile,” said Godgart. “You can look up contact info, put account notes in, dial phone numbers, get lists of all tasks and tickets, update status, reject orders.”

Pricing for Autotask-Mobile is still being worked out. But solution providers will at least need Autotask’s base service running beneath it, which carries a list price of $50 per user, per month, said Bob Vogel, chief marketing officer at Autotask. New customers pay a onetime setup fee of $500 plus a onetime charge of $100 per user for training. Microsoft Outlook integration costs $100 per month, per account for unlimited users, as does a client access portal. Integration with the QuickBooks accounting platform carries a onetime cost of $995, he said.

Autotask also plans to introduce this month a feature to its base platform that more tightly integrates the asset-discovery and monitoring tools belonging to popular MSP monitoring platforms such as those from LPI Level Platforms, N-able, Kaseya and SilverBack, said Vogel. “You will be able to click into an account screen and open up the LPI dashboard for that account they are monitoring, or open up all the device information from an N-able console,” he said.

Connectwise’s answer to improved mobility—Connectwise Mobile— launched this week, giving solution providers and MSPs the ability to interface with the PSA product in realtime, said Bellini.

Having been a Connectwise user for about three years, LMS Technologies, a Farmingdale, N.Y., solution provider with 120 MSP customers, was a beta adopter of the Connectwise Mobile solution. The 28-year-old business already has 13 Connectwise Mobile units deployed to field technicians, resulting in better communication and coordination across the ranks, said Larry Shulman, president. “I was losing time with guys getting drilled with issues and problems,” said Shulman. “That’s where I was losing most of my labor, with the field guys who weren’t being managed directly and left to their own accord as to when to call or what to pursue.”

This link between PSA solutions and field IT services management is becoming increasingly critical and pervasive. Autotask’s PSA service already has an integrated method to dispatch field IT services from the national subcontractor roster of OnForce, New York. Autotask’s core platform technology is also the underpinning of an IMOnsite service announced in August by distributor Ingram Micro, Santa Ana, Calif. IMOnsite gives solution providers a portal to help them locate and hire field IT services subcontractors from the 750-member-strong Ingram Micro Service Network.

Not to be outdone, Connectwise is putting the finishing touches on its own field IT services community, The Connectwise Network, said Bellini. A free service, the Connectwise Network will give the vendor’s partners an organized way to search for, contact and hire as subcontractors other Connectwise partners. Unlike Autotask and QuickArrow, which offer only hosted PSA solutions, Connectwise can be brought in-house for a onetime fee of $795 per user, plus ongoing maintenance. The hosted solution costs $50 per user, per month, with a three-user minimum.

The new CRM+ version 10.5 PSA software from Tigerpaw arrives in direct response to the desires voiced by solution provider partners that have recently added managed services, said Foxall. The 22-year-old vendor sells its modular software outright instead of offering a hosted service.

To version 10.5, Tigerpaw has added Service Order Escalation tools and a Managed Services Integrator, said Foxall. Similar to features found in Autotask’s and Conectwise’s products, Tigerpaw’s Service Order Escalation can alert managers and technicians based on predetermined response times, then have the severity of those orders automatically escalated once a certain time threshold has been reached, he said. “It’s about making sure you are meeting your SLA commitments,” he said.

To strengthen the connection between Tigerpaw and the popular MSP monitoring platforms, the Managed Services Integrator is designed to catch alert e-mails that are triggered when an MSP platform sounds an alarm. The Integrator opens and parses the information from those e-mails, then triggers the proper responses inside Tigerpaw based on words the system identifies in the e-mails, such as server failure or backup interruption.

For about $2,000, CRM+ version 10.5 delivers a complete platform for contact management, sales, marketing and quoting, service management, and inventory control.

With so many features being delivered with this latest round of PSA products, and so many other vendors itching to get a piece of the action, the decision for solution providers as to which vendors can serve them best will likely grow more complicated. But while the choices may be difficult, the rewards can be lucrative, said Red Square’s James. “One of the hidden benefits of solving a long-term, well-recognized problem in a company is that everyone breathes a sigh of relief,” he said.

Dan Neel Senior Editor

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