With progress comes change, and with change comes a brand new batch of blunders and snafus to contend with. What are the most common mistakes we’ve seen MSPs making so far this year? Let’s start with a valuable marketing tip wrapped in exposition:
MSPs often jump right into Promoting their business while completely overlooking an important marketing fundamental: Product.
Big mistake! What’s the point of promoting something unless your target audience is going to respond to it?
You can say “brand awareness”, but you’d be wrong. (We’ll get into this later.)
Consumers won’t respond unless you put some thought into your Products (your managed services offering, project work, etc.) so that they offer some specific, recognizable value to them.
Our company has grown immensely over the past two years, so much so that we’ve expanded into new offshoot ventures in cybersecurity and MSP-focused software development. What’s the reason for that success?
We spend a lot of time working on our Products.
In fact, we spend a lot more time developing and improving our offerings than we do promoting them. That approach has kept us growing steadily because it means that we’re constantly bringing more and more value to the MSP space. The more real value you can show, the less promotion you actually need to do.
Our ongoing process of “Product enhancement” involves a lot of discussions and meetings. We spend countless hours researching the things the market is demanding and comparing those findings against what MSPs are actually doing. We interview and evaluate new MSPs every week. We innovate new approaches, and then test and retest.
In doing so we see trends. We’ve seen at least 200 MSP websites that look exactly the same. We’ve seen dozens of providers blasting out the same messaging or fumbling through the same email templates.
And we’ve see way too many MSPs making the same mistakes over and over again when it comes to sales and marketing.
It pays to learn from other peoples’ mistakes. There’s no reason why so many businesses should be making the same errors, throwing away perfectly good money on the same bad ideas, or banging their heads against the wall because the “new” thing they’re trying just isn’t working.
In a way, our job as consultants is to put the brakes on this endless cycle. We like helping MSPs save money and make good marketing decisions. (That’s kind of our thing, really.)
So the first bonus lesson of this article is that you should spend a lot of time understanding your audience and building your offerings to suit them.
Now onto this article’s main course — the avoidable sales and marketing mistakes that MSPs are making most this year:
1. They’re stubbornly overconfident in their skills and knowledge.
Imagine the CEO of a manufacturing business calls you for IT support and as soon as you get them in a meeting they say things like…
…I know a lot about IT already, so you don’t have to explain anything.
…I know what I need so just get to the price.
…I’ve watched tons of YouTube videos on IT so I pretty much know what to do.
…I know exactly what I need and how I want it set up, I just don’t have time to do it.
…Networking, cybersecurity, cloud. See, I know what I’m talking about so don’t try to give me the hard sell.
You would know they’re full of it. And you would know that they would be a nightmare to work with because they’re trying so hard to prove they know better than you.
Guess what. A lot of MSPs have said things like that to us on discovery calls because they think marketing is a skill you can master by swiping through blog posts on the can.
Sorry, folks, but it’s not. I can’t read “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Information Technology” and make MSPs obsolete, either. There’s depth to what each of us do.
Be respectful of what we bring to the table as marketers. Be respectful of salespeople. These are real, honest-to-goodness skills that take a lifetime to master. Some of us spent a lot of time and money getting our education so that we could be exceptional at marketing. Then we spent years in the trenches getting better at it.
I can’t speak for everyone on marketing, but I care about what I do for a living. When someone argues with me because they believe that some YouTube video gave them more insight than my 15+ years of experience, it’s kind of insulting.
And I don’t feel bad about saying that because you would feel the same way if someone did that to you. Rightfully so!
Bring an open mind. Defer to the experts. Let us do our jobs. That’s how you avoid mistake number one.
2. Thinking they’ve differentiated their MSP when they haven’t done so.
One of the first questions we always ask an MSP is “How do you differentiate your MSP from competitors?”
We tend to get the same answers every time. I’m just going run through them one-by-one and explain why they don’t work:
- We have great customer service. Every business should have great customer service. This isn’t 1820.
- We don’t use “geek speak”. Try to find one MSP website that doesn’t say this somewhere on it. If everyone is saying it, it’s not a differentiator.
- Our prices are the lowest in the area. This isn’t differentiation, it’s competing on price. This is a very different strategy that eschews value perception in favor of being the cheapest option. There are obvious downsides to this play.
- We have a fast response time. Listen, anything related to the quality of your service is not a differentiator. Largely because promises of service are hollow. Everyone says their service is the best, fastest, and most secure. Saying it means nothing, but if you can prove it to a prospect, you might be onto something.
- We don’t do break/fix. Does anyone any more?
- We don’t have a differentiator. An honest answer, if nothing else.
I don’t blame MSPs for this industry-wide homogeneity and lack of uniqueness between providers. You’ve all been stuck reading the same boring toolkits and getting the same lousy branding advice for years. It’s the marketers in the IT channel that are to blame for taking so long to raise the bar above the level of “newb entrepreneur”.
Your market has evolved. It’s time to leave behind the “bootstrap entrepreneur” definition of marketing and start thinking seriously about it.
It’s time to develop products. Define the strategic value that you can offer to clients. Drop the template website and actually cultivate a brand image. Research your audience. Learn their needs. Fill some niches with innovative solutions.
3. They think marketing is where they need the most immediate help.
We’ve seen many MSPs stumble into this one. Business is slow or they’re looking to grow larger so the first thing they think is “let’s do more marketing.”
*Loud buzzer sound*
Marketing is not always the right answer to the growth question.
As YSE evolved, we began distancing ourselves from things that you probably think of when you think of marketing. We found ourselves doing fewer tasks like drip email campaigns and blog posts in favor of following the Sales Enablement methodology.
Why? Because we discovered over time that what most MSPs needed to grow was not marketing. The more we focused on building out sales processes and using marketing in a very narrow scope to support those processes, the more our clients succeeded.
It’s not that marketing in a broader sense isn’t necessary, it’s just that most MSPs aren’t ready to take advantage of it yet. They spend tons of time and money posting random cute things to social media and sending out email newsletters…for what? What does that actually do for them?
Not much, because building brand awareness is a waste of time if you have no brand.
Sales enablement is a much different approach that begins by reverse-engineering ideal clients. The process is far more focused, and therefore far more effective. (Especially in the short term because it involves a lot more active prospecting from the outset.)
Compare that to true marketing and you’ll see the difference. Real marketing — the kind that the IT channel has evolved to — is not fast. It involves a lot of development, research, testing, creativity, and iterations. It’s not templates and copy-pasta any more (not if you want to get anywhere).
Sales enablement has more tactical aspects that can be executed almost immediately. Instead of strategizing a war, you’re planning a surgical strike. The amount of time and resources needed to do this are infinitely lower, obviously.
With our clients we typically begin sales enablement actions immediately and work on long-term strategic planning as we go. A few years ago I would have said this was a really terrible idea, but we’ve figured out how to make it work in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the full potential of quality marketing in favor of rapid results.
4. They don’t know which ideas to take from outside the MSP space.
I mentioned before that the IT channel has a huge problem with homogeneity. So many MSPs look exactly alike. They say the same things in their marketing emails. They send out the same crappy newsletters. They fail to differentiate.
Part of the problem is that the IT channel seems to be stuck in adolescence. It’s still pulling almost all of its marketing and sales ideas directly from other industries, often without any modification or tweaking to make these ideas actually fit the MSP space.
It’s often a guru or influencer who pulls something in from outside and then popularizes it within the IT channel. Then a dozen MSPs do it. Then hundreds. It doesn’t take long for a “brilliant new idea” to be completely played out in a matter of weeks.
A perfect example is StoryBrand. As someone with a background in both screenwriting and copywriting, I totally understand how it’s supposed to work. The theory behind it is sound. But I’ve found it to be a total waste of time and money because it doesn’t fit the MSP space at all.
I know this because we’ve worked with at least a dozen MSPs and channel vendors who have gone through the StoryBrand process. We’ve even walked through it with them on a few occasions. The problem? Every MSP ends up with the same “story” because the raw information that you’re feeding into the StoryBrand formula (largely about what an MSP does and who they serve) is always the same.
And thus you end up with thousands of MSPs who are all supposed to embrace the same “hero archetype” narrative. It’s not unique. It’s not engaging. It really does nothing from an advanced marketing perspective.
But now we have countless MSPs using this “innovative new approach” and it’s copied and rehashed ad infinitum within the channel. People are spending money on it. MSPs are putting their faith in it.
Another example is SEO. The vast majority of our knowledge of SEO comes from the affiliate marketing and eCommerce sectors. (They’re the most invested in driving high-volume traffic to websites.)
But the business models of the MSP and the eCommerce/affiliate seller are as different as two businesses can possibly be.
That’s why you see so many mixed results with SEO companies. Many SEOs and even MSP-focused gurus take their ideas directly from that space and try to apply them to the IT channel.
That doesn’t work.
If you treat your MSP website like an eCommerce site that thrives on sheer volume of traffic, you won’t get much out of it. If you focus on Search Engine Marketing and actually driving the right traffic to the right places, your results will be infinitely better.
Now what kind of ideas should MSPs take from outside the IT channel?
Think of things on the creative side like branding, advertising, or imagery. The MSP space doesn’t have to be dull, dry, and covered with stock images of guys in suits. You can also learn effective sales techniques or prospecting methods from outside the MSP space.
When I taught fiction writing to aspiring novelists in Gainesville, I would tell them not to read inside their own genre for inspiration. If you’re writing a science fiction story, read a western or a mystery novel. Why?
Because if you’re trying to write a fantasy novel and you read The Lord of the Rings for inspiration, you’re going to end up writing a crappier version of The Lord of the Rings whether you want to or not. (I have seen this actually happen.)
Innovation is a synergy of existing concepts. New ideas come from combining things that no one thought to put together before. So look outside of the MSP space for your ideas. Be inspired by things that don’t already exist in the channel. Be creative and give your imagination some agency.
The same tip goes for hiring marketing help or outsourcing to a firm. Someone who knows the MSP space is great — but what’s even better is someone who also has experience outside of the channel.
Again, it’s that synergy of experience and know-how from different markets that helps to bring new, better ideas to the table. For example, some of my most creative (and successful) ideas for growing IT businesses have come from my experience in high-volume eCommerce marketing or print advertising, not B2B. They weren’t carried directly over, of course, but pieces fit together with B2B marketing in such a way that something new was born.
Just remember this: If you wait until other people in the MSP space to bring you new ideas, they’re already worn out by the time they’ve reached you.
5. They try to do it all themselves.
Small business owners have to spread themselves thin. While some of us take this as a point of pride (“Look how much I can carry!”), it’s not a good thing.
This is where I again believe the IT Channel needs to grow out of the “entrepreneur” mindset a little bit. Wearing every hat sucks, and it should be everyone’s goal to delegate their workload as soon as they possibly can.
But the entrepreneur culture puts this thought into our heads that we should wear every hat. That if we can’t, we don’t deserve to succeed.
You should be an IT expert and a marketing expert and a sales expert and a negotiator and an office manager, and if you can’t do all of these things then “go get a day job” because you can’t handle running your own business.
Screw that. Specialization is what brought us out of the caves, and I’d rather be smart and efficient than overworked and miserable.
The smart thing to do is to outsource tasks to people who specialize in them. Despite what you may have heard, sales is not a job for everyone. If you’re not very good at it or you hate doing it, please take off that hat.
6. They waste a lot of money.
There’s this awful myth floating around that goes something like this:
Some marketing is better than nothing.
WRONG. I’ve seen too many MSPs who couldn’t afford to hire us turn around and spend $600, $1000, $1500 a month on something absolutely pointless because that’s what they could afford.
And yes, we watch a lot of MSPs. It’s part of our product research. We see when someone who turned us down hires a firm to do random Facebook posts for $500 a month. And we watch the engagement. And we shake our heads as their $500 disappears into the aether. (This is just one example.)
That “marketing” did nothing for them. Just like spending money on syndicated blog content will do nothing for you, and spending money email newsletters will do nothing for 99 out of 100 people who do it.
If you only have $500, you’d be better off spending it on taking a few select prospects out to lunch. Or sending them some lumpy mail. When you’re on a shoestring budget, the last thing you want to do is blast that money randomly into the internet and hope it produces a result.
7. They look at investing in sales and marketing like it’s a panic button.
There are some poor souls who won’t invest in sales or marketing until their business is nearly underwater and they’re gasping for air.
I’m really glad we don’t get a lot of calls like that, but we have gotten them. And because we’re brutally honest with everyone we talk to, we usually don’t end up working with these cases.
Marketing is not a “fix”. It’s not a gimmick. Marketing is an integral part of a living business. It’s essential, and you must view it that way. If you don’t, someone who does will devour your market share.
It happens without fail. Every market. Every time.
The sales department is not something to be taken lightly, either. It amazes me how much we have to remind MSPs of this, but we do. Sales is what keeps your business alive. You cannot turn it off or your business will die.
Since sales and marketing are two incredibly important aspects of not only growing but sustaining your MSP, it’s vitally important that you approach them with due appreciation. Set realistic budgets for marketing. Improve your sales processes. Provide ongoing training. Build a sales department that will scale.
Again, these are all aspects of Sales Enablement and things that we specialize in. Next time you’re looking for ways to improve your business, Google “sales enablement” instead of “marketing” and start learning what it’s all about.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, and I hope this article helps you avoid these all-too-common pitfalls in 2020!