Noel Bruton’s 40 years in IT support management, 27 as a UK-based, independent consultant, trainer, bestselling author and thought leader, have established him as the originator of much of what we now know as IT Support. His highly practical works are required or recommended reading in numerous educational and professional institutions around the world. He started his career in external support – and that’s where his heart still resides.
You’ve probably heard of ITSM (IT Service Management). It’s everywhere. There are whole famous management frameworks dedicated to it. There are qualifications in its various levels of practice. In responding to Requests for Proposal (RfP) from your prospective clients, you’ve probably had to indicate that at least some of your staff have those qualifications. When it comes to delivering service to an IT userbase, it seems ITSM is the only game in town.
Which is a pity. Because the fit of ITSM to the operations of a Managed Service Provider (MSP) ranges somewhere between a cruel shoehorn and a total irrelevance. ITSM is not designed for the MSP, but for internal support. MSPs, and in fact the Channel in general, need something else. So here’s my argument – MSPs need External Customer Support Management (ECSM). And there are lots of reasons why.
The main reason is… well, Channel customer support is just, you know, different. Indeed the differences are so many and so acute, that they need somewhere to group them, recognising the specific drivers of external support. Then by establishing that framework, we can develop it over time to at least a similar level of maturity to that claimed by ITSM. ECSM is that framework. Yes, this writer invented it. But then somebody had to.
It’s not just the differences themselves that matter. It’s the implications of those differences. These are so far reaching, that unlike ITSM, their consequences can be existential to the business.
Take for example, the simple truth that ITSM provides for internal users – those in the same organisation as the IT department providing those services – whereas ECSM is about end users who work for a client’s organisation. The ITSM arrangement is a structural one, whereas the ECSM arrangement is essentially commercial and written into a meaningful and binding Service Level Agreement or contract (SLA).
The motives have to differ starkly. Internal support does its job because it was hired to; while external support provides, on the face of it, because it promised to contractually. If internal support fails the userbase, the extent of the repercussion is probably that someone may shrug resignedly, or in worse cases, frown disapprovingly. But if external support fails, there are risks of losing the client to eager competition, of a negative reputation jeopardizing future sales, of penalty clauses reducing company income, of redundancies and bankruptcies.
In ITSM, you do your service job because your job description says so. In ECSM you do it because if you don’t do it, and with quality, you may not have a job to do at all. Unlike ITSM, if you work in ECSM, your performance really, really matters.
Take a look at the main ITSM frameworks. It is perhaps telling that none of them lay store by real numbers. They often have no statistical way of benchmarking their services, nor measuring staff productivity. Their SLAs often express arbitrary targets such as a ‘four-hour fix’ with no science as to why that period was chosen and not one of say, twenty-six-and-a-half minutes.
Over in ECSM however, the amount of service a technician can give and the speed of fix form very real constituents of the difference between profit and loss. Paying for the technician’s time relates directly to the revenue received from that client. This is why ECSM support desks often out-perform ITSM equivalents not just by percentages, but often by factors.
For MSP’s this is particularly important, because every other MSP in town wants that client, and they know that a reputation for better service just might make that wish come true. Better service means more profit from the provision to existing clients, and more prospect of increasing profit by taking it from the competition.
So ECSM has to contain very real measures of success, pragmatic and usable statistics of performance and productivity. Customer retention and attraction demand nothing less. The arbitrary or even absent measurements of ITSM just won’t do.
Here is a dimension that is part of the day-to-day in ECSM, but is entirely alien to ITSM. Vendors and MSPs hire technicians who can provide both pre- and post-sales support. ECSM support staff know they are part of the sales proposition and so have according skills and behaviours. When comedy writer Graham Linehan gave us his Channel4 sitcom ‘The IT Crowd’, a primetime reflection of the common view of IT Support, although he probably didn’t realize it, that was an internal rather than external desk he instinctively portrayed. Internal IT has attracted ridicule at the most public level. That can’t happen in ECSM. Channel support provision is simply way too professional to be funny.
External Support has been around for as long as there have been IT vendors, and the MSP market is reportedly growing at around 12.5% per annum (US figures, https://www.channele2e.com/faq/msp-market-size-forecast/). This increasingly important industry is not well served by the existing IT management frameworks, but this writer strongly believes it is ready for its own leap into procedural maturity. But it has to make that leap in a way that suits its idiom.
There’s a lot more to say about ECSM, why it’s needed and how it departs from ITSM; more than I’ve space for here. There’s more in the Channel/MSP Zone at this website. I’m open to your ideas for ECSM too. Feel free get in touch.