MSP mania is upon the channel, but can Asian partners prevail?

Channel Asia and Cisco outline how partners can evolve from resellers into MSPs

The number of managed service providers (MSPs) in Asia is exploding, as the channel chases new revenue streams through subscription dollars.

So much so that IT services ranks as the leading priority for local partners in 2019, in a channel crammed with competition.

Going forward, partners must adhere to the three core rules of customer engagement to succeed: deep expertise; solutions delivered as-a-service and ease of doing business with.

“Demand for managed services in Asia is high,” observed Clarence Barboza, director of channel sales and partner enablement at Cisco. “Customers are seeking better returns and one way is by not having ownership of technology and leveraging a utility-based model.”

In assessing the regional market, Barboza likened technology consumption to that of utilities such as water, gas and electricity, which operate on a pay-per-use model.

“A few years ago, customers started to recognise that shift with IT consumption,” he explained. “They realised that they don’t have to spend a lot of capital expenditure up-front which has led to customers exploring managed services. We’re seeing demand increase rapidly across the market.”

In echoing Barboza’s observations, Chong-Win Lee - CEO of Asia at Logicalis - acknowledged that enterprise customers are beginning to subscribe to the notion of managed services, albeit under a different guise.

“Perhaps they just don’t know it yet,” said Lee, who was appointed to head regional operations at the technology provider in November 2017. “One good example is in the printing space, managed print services have been in the market for a long time.

“Customers are charged through a consumption model which is usually based on a number of cents per paper, and an engineer comes in to fix any issues. That type of business offering is already in play across Asia which means the concept of managed services has been well accepted.”

Clarence Barboza (Cisco)Credit: Channel Asia
Clarence Barboza (Cisco)

Drawing on the evolution of printing as an example, Lee said other areas of technology are also developing into as-a-service offerings, in response to increased adoption from end-users.

“Other technologies are becoming exposed to the same concept,” Lee added. “Customers are starting to look at managed security services, managed network services and desktop-as-a-service.

“We’re seeing a degree of acceptance from customers, backed by an openness to subscription models and managed services. But this is largely a top down decision so it can still depend on whether the leader is well-versed in as-a-service type consumption models.”

According to findings from Gartner, global IT spending is expected to total US$3.76 trillion in 2019, representing an increase of 3.2 per cent from 2018.

Of note to the channel however, IT and communications services will collectively account for US$2.44 trillion of the dollars spent during the next 12 months, signifying a significant shift to on-demand technology purchases.

Customer demands

Specific to managed services, the global market is forecast to reach US$282 billion by 2023, increasing by more than 9.3 per cent from US$180.5 billion in 2018.

Major growth drivers include the need for cloud-based managed services, alongside the “increasing dependence” of organisations on IT assets to enhance business productivity.

Delving deeper, this is backed up by the availability of specialised MSPs who can offer “cost-effective managed services”, while “proactively monitoring IT resources”.

“I see two separate customers,” said Roger Siow, CEO of Syner-G Technologies. “The experienced customers operating at an enterprise level, and then the small to medium business [SMB] customers.

“My main focus is in the SMB space, and most of my customers don’t have the resources to house internal IT staff or departments. They do not even have IT managers in charge of managing the technology systems, which means that we are that go to person.”

Chong-Win Lee (Logicalis)Credit: Channel Asia
Chong-Win Lee (Logicalis)

Within this market, Siow said the rise of next-generation leaders - brought up on a subscription-based lifestyle - are helping force the issue of change among SMBs, overhauling consumption models in the process.

“Younger people are taking over businesses and they have grown up using a subscription model, therefore they will purchase technology through the same method,” Siow added. “This model makes sense because they will not pay for something to own it, they are comfortable renting that service or technology.

“Of course, the older generation still view this method as more expensive which requires a mindset shift for some areas of the market.

“But overall the trend is clear, customers are definitely looking towards MSPs to build a subscription base, they no longer want to pay for technology up-front.”

According to Phua Chai Chung - deputy director of corporate sales and solutions at M1 - customers are familiar with managed services, but seek increased differentiation from an expanding ecosystem of technology providers available in the market.

“Customers can buy technology direct in some cases, and they can also buy from the competition,” Phua said. “They will compare prices but the conversation is about vale, what value can you provide to your customer today?

“Cisco is leading the charge from a technology perspective, which is great for the overall market, but resellers and system integrators must assess the value they can provide as an MSP.”

Taking the conversation further, Paul Lee - head of sales at Cavu - said a clear distinction must be made between whether customers are buying products or services.

“The key is how you position yourself to the customer,” Lee added. “Customers need to see what you stand for in the market and the offerings you can provide.

Chai Chung Phua (M1)Credit: Channel Asia
Chai Chung Phua (M1)

“In Singapore especially, CIOs and IT managers have different priorities so it’s crucial to ensure you are aligned to the needs of the customer.”

MSP model

As traditional box-shifting models erode over time, resellers are finding motivation in building an MSP business.

But for those operating with a blank canvas, in the form of born-in-the-cloud start-ups, an easier transition path awaits.

“When we set up the company, the business was built around recurring revenue,” recalled Andy Waroma, founder of Cloud Comrade, recently acquired by ST Telemedia. “From day one, we decided that we were going to offer managed services.”

Founded in 2014, Cloud Comrade specialises in the delivery of cloud IT services, spanning strategy and design, to deployment, migration and management of IT infrastructure.

Within this environment, the start-up also offers 24/7 monitoring, maintenance, back-up and recovery solutions.

“Now, we didn’t necessarily know what type of managed services we would offer at that point in time, but we knew where the market was heading,” Waroma added. “Our model was around the rule of 78s, in which you receive one dollar in January, two dollars in February and so on, that’s how you build it.”

Having previously worked for multi-national technology vendors and providers, in the form of SAP, Logicalis and Capgemini, Waroma acknowledged the “quarter to quarter” pressure associated with large-scale technology deployments.

“When we set up our own company, we wanted to remove the quarterly pressure so that when the year starts over in January, you already have some money in the bank,” he explained.

Roger Siow (Syner-G Technologies)Credit: Channel Asia
Roger Siow (Syner-G Technologies)

“We’ve also differentiated ourselves in the market by building managed services around SAP technology, which has enabled us to chase new types of customers.”

For Sreedhar Kakade - sales director of Asia Pacific at Nimbus Services - key challenges exist from an internal perspective, specifically in the balancing act of automation tools vs. manual processes.

“For example, if you run a secure code review, this can be done manually as well as by using automation tools,” Kakade said. “But again, it depends on the size of the tools.

“Sometimes, we run a combination of manual and automation projects, but this is down to the scope of the project. Automation provides faster results, but manual processes can provide deeper coverage so it’s a balancing act.”

Such a balancing act remains a key source of concern for MSPs, as the channel continues to juggle spiralling internal costs, with flat-lining customer purchases.

As revealed during EDGE 2018 research - delivered by Channel Asia sister publications ARN and Reseller News - to maximise end-user appetite for innovation - and crucially, differentiation - the channel must look from within to instigate change.

In short, partners must specialise at the front-end and automate at the back-end.

“Automation at the back-end has to also be in play for this entire model to work,” said Mark Iles, executive analyst at Tech Research Asia, during EDGE 2018. “Automating processes is key because every customer a partner acquires, should now be seen as a customer for life.

Read more on the next page...

Page Break

“This is the only way for partners to think about their business operations moving forward. It’s imperative to automate at the back-end because partners can’t be having excess costs.

“If you’re adding a customer at the front-end, you must be able to do this without adding any human resources at the back-end.”

Iles said that on balance, partners acknowledge this but overall, the channel continues to be driven by “very manual” processes.

“There’s an acknowledgement but little change,” Iles said. “Partners add a customer and then add a support engineer or perhaps even 20 per cent of a support engineer.

“But that equation doesn’t work and it unravels pretty quickly as a strategy. The goal for partners must be using technology smartly at the back-end to automate everything and turn staff into billable resources.

“Partners have to start looking at ways to better automate processes but as history shows, the channel isn’t very good at this.”

In response, Barboza outlined the concept of the ‘fish curve’, a theory which reflects the current transition path for most MSPs in Asia.

“This isn’t an overnight flick of a switch type shift,” he cautioned. “We talk to our partners about profitability from a business standpoint, and some of the company goals that are achievable in the near future.

“This is the ‘fish curve’ concept, in that for a period of time, expenses are actually going to stay at the line or go above, while revenues will dip.

"Over time, the curve normalises but during that period, how are you going to manage the change? This sets the tone within the business.”

Barboza said such questions help shape Cisco’s partner engagement and enablement models both regionally and globally, as the vendor also transitions alongside the channel ecosystem.

Sreedhar Kakade (Nimbus Services)Credit: Channel Asia
Sreedhar Kakade (Nimbus Services)

“The channel orchestrates our programs and impacts how we design our initiatives for partners,” Barboza explained. “For example, we’re currently supporting our partners through helping drive demand generation.

“Why? Because a lot of MSPs do not consider marketing as a strength. Customers are becoming more sophisticated in how they search for technology providers, which means that partners must be front of mind.”

Delving deeper in the heart of the vendor’s ecosystem - which houses thousands of MSPs, system integrators and value-added resellers - Barboza said Cisco is also revamping support incentives in a bid to drive best practice through the channel.

“This isn’t about giving partners a cheque for X amount of dollars sold, this is a much deeper relationship,” he said. “Partners are looking for more from vendors which means we must also evolve, which is evident through the consulting we provide to the channel around the implications of offering managed services.”

But as Barboza stressed, the ‘fish curve’ concept from a financial standpoint represents phase one of the journey, with company staff also central to the shift.

“What type of sellers are required in this new world?” Barboza asked. “How are compensation plans going to change for MSPs, compared to value-added reseller models?

“Once partners realise that managed services is the opportunity, we are here to help them through the transition journey.”

Roadblocks ahead

Triggered by the rise of new technologies and changing customer demands, partners are turning toward providing services to stay profitable. Yet in Asia, a clear definition of what an MSP is still alludes the channel.

But despite an increased need for partners to transition, as alluded to by Barboza, migrating from point A to point B is fraught with complexities and challenges.

“This is exactly the problem we have today,” said Markus Stalder, former engineering director at eVantage Technology. “Our business is primarily built on a traditional model, not an MSP-driven subscription basis.

“Making that shift is about business and cultural change, it’s a mindset shift. But at the same time, you need to look at the finances, you can’t just pull the plug, you still rely on the revenue.”

Sreedhar Kakade (Nimbus Services) and Bijjala Radhakrishna (Total eBiz Solutions)Credit: Channel Asia
Sreedhar Kakade (Nimbus Services) and Bijjala Radhakrishna (Total eBiz Solutions)

As a result, Stalder said value can be found in partners building out separate services businesses in parallel, creating new financial models, internal processes and sales quotas along the way.

“That’s the easiest way, on paper but that’s not always possible as cash flow can be difficult,” Stalder acknowledged. “It’s great that Cisco is working with the channel to provide this support, as we rely on this to evolve our business.”

From a challenges perspective, Bijjala Radhakrishna - CEO of Total eBiz Solutions - said ongoing roadblocks remain around the delicate issue of customers ‘wanting more for less’.

“Once we increase our cost, do we then pass this onto the customer?” Radhakrishna asked. “We obviously can’t lose the customer but moving to an MSP model requires a balancing act.

“It’s about building confidence as a business owner, going from zero to say, 50 per cent of revenue attached to managed services. This is a huge shift but having a recurring revenue model can give you the confidence to invest in other areas and new markets, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

In essence, the transition to an MSP model represents a 'marathon, not a sprint' for the channel, with resourcing the change a constant challenge for partners.

“How do you sell the breadth and depth of solutions available in the market today, when you have limited resources?” reminded Phua of M1. “Every technology provider is restricted in terms of the manpower at their disposal, which means we have to leverage our partners to stitch complete solutions together.

“Today, 10,000 technologies solve one problem, tomorrow it will be 20,000 technologies. This means we must keep evolving and expanding our partnerships.”

Aligning to opportunities

Across the industry, the growth of the IT services market is proliferating, creating a desire for traditional resellers to make the transition towards a more lucrative future.

In short, companies that provide managed technology services to customers have expectations of high revenue growth over the years ahead, triggering further growth within the industry.

Kelvin Looi (Cisco)Credit: Channel Asia
Kelvin Looi (Cisco)

“We’re now selling to different technology buyers,” added Lee of Logicalis. “Our sales teams are engaging with other key stakeholders within organisations, which is also a crucial factor to consider.

“But muscle memory is very hard to overcome, which means that a large percentage of experience salespeople need to sell differently today. They have been very successful and sold lots of solutions, but now they must evolve with the new technology buyers.”

Lee believes such a message should come from the “top down”, creating “consistency from the leadership” to help instigate internal and external change.

“Cisco is a great example of this change, through CEO Chuck Robbins,” he said. “Our message must come down to our salespeople, our partners and our customers, this is important.”

From a vendor perspective, Kelvin Looi - director of partners and alliances at Cisco - said that as the managed services market evolves, the channel continues to mature in parallel.

“Our ecosystem is made up of different types and tiers of partners, and they can’t all be viewed as the same,” Looi said. “But within managed services, this is top of mind for our partners and our customers. We must be able to make selling managed services easier for our channel as the market moves towards an OPEX model.”

Rounding off the discussion, Barboza advised partners to take a collaborative approach to making the transition towards managed services, emphasising the value of the channel ecosystem.

“This is not a destination, it is a journey,” he outlined. “This is not a case of, we’re now an MSP so my job is done.

“As this journey continues, the channel will naturally face challenges ahead but the opportunities are aplenty, and Cisco is well positioned to help partners progress. We want to keep raising the bar even more, and to do this, we must help our channel evolve.”

This exclusive Channel Asia Roundtable was in association with Cisco