Keep up or catch up!

Karl Palachuk

It really struck me the other day how some people always “keep up” while others are always playing catch up. This is particularly true of tech support. Consider three examples.

Email. Yikes. Let’s say a client receives 100 legitimate emails per day. If they open 50, delete 10, and ignore the rest, their inbox just grew by 90 and their unread email by 50. Do that 200 work days per year and you’ve got an extra 10,000 unread emails. That’s a project to clean up.

Backup Testing. I am a firm believer that you should review the success of every client backup every day. And you should perform a test restore of each backup every month. But if you ignore this and, you quickly lose confidence that your clients have working backups. Plus, drives are added, database move, and other changes take place that should require you to verify that you’re backing everything you should. Re-documenting, adjusting, and testing every client backup is a project!

Patch Management. Some people to “set it and forget it” when it comes to computer updates. Let the system take care of it. Well, you know better than that. Which system are you talking about? Windows updates? GFI Max? Where do patches come from? Are all machines totally patched? If you skipped some patches, is it okay to add them now? You guessed it: playing catch-up is a project.

Keep-upI’m not sure where I first heard this, but I love the saying, “He’s too busy mopping the floor to fix the hole in the roof.” That, in a nutshell, is the different between break/fix and managed services. I wrote some time ago that I believe most managed service providers are not delivering managed services. They call themselves MSPs, but they deliver reactive, break/fix support.

We like to make the argument to prospects that keeping up with maintenance takes about the same amount of time as catching up. That is not 100% true in all cases, but it’s true much of the time. More importantly, the time spent now is always less expensive than the time spent later. Why? Well, first, the time spent later normally involves emergency work, after-hours work, and downtime for the client. Second, planned work is always easier and less expensive.

Avoid Projects that Should Be Maintenance

ProjectsWe all know a project when we see one. A task, a chore, or a service ticket can be take care of right away. But a project takes a little more planning.

For example, when I get an email with a quick question, I can reply right away. Quick question: Quick answer. But if someone sends me three paragraphs on the history of their company, then asks a series of questions with bullet points, I can’t jot off a quick answer. So, of course, I close up the email for another day when I have the time. That’s a project.

Without getting into formal definitions of project management, let’s just agree that projects take some planning and some preparation. You can't just “do” a project.

Now consider, for you and for each of your clients, how many projects have you got because of a lack of maintenance? This is particularly important for things like backups. But it could be almost anything. Internal projects might include:

  • Closing out a backlog of “completed” tickets in your service board
  • Document all client machines
  • Verify the emergency contacts of all clients
  • Verify all domain and email configurations for all clients
  • Document warranty expirations for all client servers – and put this into your sales process

As for clients, there’s no end to the projects they might have created for themselves due to lack of maintenance. One of the reasons many MSPs charge a big setup fee is to bring client computers up to spec before they start a managed service engagement. Many simply require a separate (official) project for this.

Try a “Monthly Single” Approach

maintenanceMany years ago, we realized that there are certain tasks that need to be done, are not part of monthly maintenance, and will never spontaneously come up by themselves. For example, verifying that we have a good backup of the firewall configuration on the server hard drive, and on an offsite backup. Since firewall configurations don’t change much, we do these backups at the time of the change, but not on a monthly basis.

We developed a series of tasks like this that we call Monthly Singles. Each month, we add a task to the monthly maintenance and consists of a single task to be performed at each client’s office. Examples include

  • Verify that time services are enabled on all servers and configured correctly throughout the organization
  • Verify internal and external DNS settings
  • Photocopy all client's physical documentation to PDF
  • Verify that a recent critical fix has been applied to all servers/workstations as needed
  • Verify that only correct devices are plugged into UPSs
  • Photograph server room and equipment racks - put in PSA
  • Verify network map in Network Documentation Binder. Fix as needed.
  • Verify that our preferred group policies have been implement

Notice that each of these tasks is small. We’re not adding an hour’s labor to the monthly maintenance, although some of these require that the technician go onsite. Most of these add just a little bit of time while improving the level of maintenance you provide.

You can see that this is a perfect example of how you can avoid a major project by doing a little maintenance. We have a list of about twenty items that we cycle through. Each of them adds a few minutes to the monthly maintenance and raises our overall level of support. If we were to create a list of twenty items and try to tackle them all at once, it would average three or four hours per client. Now that’s a project!

The Monthly Single has another advantage as well: It’s a great way to teach your technicians what it means to truly take responsibility for someone’s technology. Strictly speaking, it’s not our job to monitor what clients plug into their battery backups. And if they fry a UPS by plugging in a space heater, then proceed to burn out a server, that’s all billable labor for us.

But just a tiny bit of effort and education can help them avoid all that. THAT’s service. That’s taking care of clients. That’s the culture you want to encourage.

Having Monthly Singles also helps you to train your newer technicians. For example, they may know nothing about time servers, network time protocols, or how these are related to Kerberos logins. So you give them a little education and then show them the simple things that need to be in place to make sure time is properly synched within a network. After implementing this across five or ten clients, they will have imprinted enough of it onto their brains that they can do some basic troubleshooting on time services.

Of course technology is always changing, so you need to always keep up on new things that need to be maintained. Perhaps you’re going to implement mobile device management. One Monthly Single might be to simply gather up information about the devices that each client has and which of them will be covered.

As you can imagine, there is some work to create new checklists or procedures. But this is pretty quick since the Monthly Singles are intended to be small tasks. Once each is completed, you might update your checklist, and then you’ll have that on file to assign as a Monthly Single again some day.

Rather than viewing deferred maintenance as a big project that seems overwhelming, think about how you can divide the pieces into small tasks – and then implement them one at a time as part of your maintenance.

How do you tackle maintenance tasks? Tell us about it in a comment below!