Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Free Streaming of the SMB Nation Spring Conference

Got a memo from HarryB over at SMB Nation.

The big SMB Nation Spring conference starts in a couple days in Redmond.

For those who can't make the live event, SMB Nation is working with Varvid again to broadcast a portion of the SMB Nation Spring show is to a worldwide audience.

This streaming event will be FREE since it’s not the “live experience.”

See http://spring.smbnation.com/index.php/register/registration

Note from Harry:

"Attend SMB Nation Spring virtually with our ONLINE edition! We’ve teamed with Varvid again to provide selected content sessions online. You may attend this “limited edition” of the Spring conference complimentary. It all starts with the Registration link and select Streaming Broadcast."

- - - - -

BTW, I'll be there in person. Hope to see you there. If not, I'll see you on the Internet.


Monday, April 29, 2013

Managed Services in a Month Spanish Edition Now Available

Just released: Servicios Gestionados en Un Mes - Cree una Exitosa Empresa IT en 30 Dias

Available now from SMB Books. Available soon on Amazon and everywhere else in the world! Official publication date is May 1, 2013.

And you can get it FREE between now and May 15th.

Just add the ebook version to your cart and enter code SINCARGO to receive the ebook for free. Note: If your total order is $00.00 then there will be a slight delay between placing your order and when it is processed in our system.

If you speak Spanish as a primary or secondary language, I would love to have you download, read, and review this edition. This edition will be for sale on Amazon in a few days. If you download it for free, I would really appreciate a review.

I am very excited to be offering books in Spanish. If this sells well, I plan to do more!

As always, your feedback is welcome. There was quite a bit of expense and hassle to produce the book in another language, so I would really like your opinion on whether to produce more.

Add the ebook to your cart. (don't forget to enter code SINCARGO).

Managed Services in the Spanish-Speaking World - Help Me Market

I would very much appreciate your help if you have ideas about ways to market and sell books into the Spanish-speaking market, primarily Central and South America. As you can see, we have very little penetration there.

If you have ideas, please email me karlp at SmallBizThoughts.com.


My Visitors Over the Last Two Months


Friday, April 26, 2013

SOP Friday: Assign Techs or Rotate Them?

There are two main schools of thought about the relationship between your technicians and your clients. One says that clients like to have a main tech they can count on, get to know, and feel comfortable with. The other says that rotating all techs between all clients provides overall better service in the long run.

There are plenty of side issues and consequences to the approach you adopt. Let's look at some of them.

Let me start off by saying that you need to talk to your clients and understand what they want before you assume that you know what they want. Don't have both sides of the conversation. Even if clients have an opinion, probe to determine how strongly held it is.

We sometimes assume that clients want something they have never asked for.

Example One: Sometimes we try to save the client money and we sell "cheaper" products even if they haven't asked for them.

Example Two: We frequently assume that every client request is high priority - especially if they call after hours.

Example Three: We sometimes assume that clients want super-personalized support so they're comfortable with a technician.

Those things might be true sometimes for some clients. But they are usually not true for most clients.

Assigning Technicians to Clients

I think the concept of assigning specific technicians to specific clients overflows from the world of Account Management. Account managers are used by larger firms to handle the entire client relationship, especially for larger clients. Account managers ride herd over the service department to make sure the client is happy. They meet regularly with the client to make sure all their needs are met. And they keep an eye out for all sales opportunities to make sure the client gets quotes in a timely manner.

In smaller firms, most or all of these duties are performed by the owner or service manager of the I.T. company. As you grow, it's tempting to hand some of these duties off to the salesman or the tech.

I have heard clients complain about companies that treat them like strangers. We just acquired a new client whose primary complaint about the old service provider was that they'd been with them for five years and no one knows who they are when they call. Neither company is very large, so there's just no excuse for that.

Experiences like this lead I.T. companies to assign techs. That way the tech gets to know the machines, the people, the configurations, and the quirky stuff within the network. And, to be honest, the quirky stuff within the personal relationships at that office.

Small business clients want to feel like they've got a relationship with their service providers. If you've got technicians with good people skills, assigning technicians to clients can really help keep that relationship strong.

The Downside to assigning techs should also be taken seriously. Almost every time I've heard about a technician leaving a company and trying to take clients with them, it was made possible because the technician was assigned to the client and had a strong relationship with them. Even if the technician was incompetent and not taking good care of their network, they know, like, and trust him.

One of the great dangers of having an assigned tech is that there's far less oversight of the quality of service your company is providing. See the discussion below on helping each other implement policies and processes.

Rotating Technicians Among Clients

Let me just say that my very strong preference is to rotate all technicians through all clients.

The most important reason for this is to increase the overall quality of service provided to the client.

One of the most important reasons to adopt Standard Operating Procedures is to provide consist high quality support to your clients. One of the biggest challenges to adopting Standard Operating Procedures is that team members in isolation tend to ignore or forget SOPs. That's why lots of SOPs include the appeal to "support each other" in this policy.

As a team, you can check each other's work, verify that processes are being followed, and help each other with best practices. In isolation from the team, individual techs will virtually always stray from the chosen path. That means they will provide a lower level of service than they would if they knew other team members would see their work.

Here are some common examples:

1) An assigned tech doesn't have to complete the entire monthly maintenance if he runs out of time. He'll "get it next month" and no one will know.

2) Changes are made on the fly and not documented because the tech knows the network so well.

3) Lots of work is done without a service ticket, or inside another service ticket. No one's looking and no one will know.

4) Paperwork for hardware, software, and warranties is stuffed in a file drawer disorganized. No one's looking.

It's not like we all sit around spying on each other. But when we all know all the procedures, it's easy to help each other follow the procedures. And when a technician knows that anyone on the team could be the next person to visit a client, they take the extra two minutes to do the job right.

Don't forget another advantage to having a team: When it's time to troubleshoot or strategize about network issues, a "different pair of eyes" can be extremely helpful. The more another technician knows about the client network, the more helpful they can be.

Managing the Overall Relationship with The Client

There are just a few key elements to maintaining a good client relationship. You need to provide good service. You need to understand their needs and where their company is headed. The Roadmap meetings will help with this. And your client has to have faith that you are taking care of them.

Part of that faith comes from personal relationships. And part of it comes from the way your company presents itself. In my opinion, having more than one technician show up at a client's office shows them that you are all cross-trained and anyone can take care of any thing. It shows that you are a "shop" and not a one-person show.

On rare ocassions you might have a technician who is not a good fit with a client. You may even get a note that says "We don't want him here any more." If you get several of these, it's time to evaluate that tech's performance overall.

For the most part, having everyone on your team know everyone on the client's team makes it much easier and more comfortable to do business. No matter who is on vacation (in either company), you can work well together. And when there's turnover (in either company), the relationship continues strong.

You need to decide how your company will handle client relationships. You certainly don't have to do what we do. But you should make a conscious decision about the policy you adopt. Don't continue doing what you did yesterday just because you did it yesterday.

Comments welcome.

- - - - -

About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at SmallBizThoughts.com.

- - - - -

Next week's topic: Travel Policies

Two Great Managed Services Resources: 

by Karl W. Palachuk - Still the best Quick-Start Guide to Managed Services! 
Now only $39.95 at SMB Books! 


by Karl W. Palachuk - Check Out the #1 ranked Managed Services book at Amazon! 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Azure Announces New Prices for Virtual Machines, Virtual Network, and Cloud Services

Since I'm developing a product on Azure, I get their marketing missives. Got this a few days ago.

Windows Azure Virtual Machines and Virtual Network now are generally available. We have new prices for Virtual Machines, Virtual Network, and Cloud Services.

Today is a major milestone for Windows Azure and all of our customers and partners. We are excited to announce that Windows Azure Virtual Machines and Windows Azure Virtual Network now are generally available. We also want to update you on new prices for Virtual Machines, Virtual Network, and Cloud Services.

Virtual Machines and Virtual Network help you meet changing business needs by providing on-demand, scalable infrastructure. These infrastructure services enable you to extend your data centers and workloads into the cloud while using your existing skills and investments. With these services, you can:
Provision Microsoft SharePoint farms in minutes without up-front hardware investments. Integrate full-trust code to run rich apps and provide Internet-facing collaboration sites.
Prototype your newest app or extend data marts into the cloud using Virtual Machines as a robust infrastructure for Microsoft SQL Server software. Scale on demand and connect to your on-premises infrastructure using Virtual Network.
Embrace rapid innovation using the cloud for development and test scenarios. You can spin up any test lab or sandbox quickly, and be agile in your learning, development, and prototyping.

Let’s take a closer look at the news that we are announcing today with general availability.

New high-memory instances for Virtual Machines
When your apps need more memory, new 28-gigabyte (GB) and 56-GB instances deliver.

Updated SLA
When you deploy multiple instances of Virtual Machines, Microsoft provides a financially backed 99.95 percent monthly service level agreement (SLA).

Customer support
Our customer support team is ready and available to help you troubleshoot 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have several support plans tailored to meet your needs—from basic developer support to Premier Support. When you work with Microsoft, you have a single vendor to call for cloud and on-premises needs.

Validated workloads
The best of Microsoft server products are validated to run on Virtual Machines, including Microsoft Dynamics NAV 2013, SharePoint Server 2013, BizTalk Server 2013, and more. We also offer prebuilt virtual machine images—such as BizTalk Server and SQL Server—through the Windows Azure Virtual Machines Image Gallery with hourly pricing. Prebuilt Linux images—such as CentOS, Ubuntu, and Suse Linux Enterprise Server (SLES)—are available in the Image Gallery from commercial distributors. In addition, a wide variety of the most popular open source applications are available as prebuilt images in VM Depot, a self-service community portal.

Price reductions for Virtual Machines and Cloud Services
Tremendous business growth globally gives us the ability to pass along benefits of scale to you, and provide competitive pricing across all geographies. We’re offering the following new prices and added value:
Windows Virtual Machines general availability prices reduced by 21% for standard instances. New general availability prices will be effective June 1, 2013. For a small instance, the new price will be $0.09 per hour. Windows Virtual Machines will remain at discounted preview prices until May 31 for standard instances.
Linux Virtual Machines prices reduced by 25 percent for standard instances. Effective April 16, 2013, prices reduced by 25 percent for small, medium, large, and extra-large instances. For example, the price for a Linux small instance will drop from $0.08 per hour to $0.06 per hour in all geographies.
Virtual Network pricing of $0.05 per hour effective June 1, 2013. Until June 1, customers can use Virtual Network free of charge.
Cloud Services web and worker role prices reduced by 33 percent for standard instances. Effective April 16, 2013, price drops by 33 percent for small, medium, large, and extra-large instances. For example, the price for a small worker role will drop from $0.12 per hour to $0.08 per hour in all geographies.
Increased value of 90-day free trial, MSDN and Microsoft Partner Network offers. These offers now include additional 50 hours of usage per month of our new high-memory instances. This special offer ends June 1, 2013.

Visit our Pricing Details page for a comprehensive look at all the pricing changes.

We have great guidance on scenarios in which you can take advantage of Windows Azure infrastructure services. Learn more at our Infrastructure Services page and get going by visiting the Windows Azure Management Portal today.

Thank you,

Windows Azure Team
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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Level Platforms Community Survey

My buddy Dave Sobel over at Level Platforms sent me a note.

LPI is asking everyone to fill out this quick survey.

Everyone who completes it will get a copy of the Executive Summary of the data.

The online survey looks at the evolution to managed services, current services offerings, pricing models and growth expectations for 2013. They survey should take less than 10 minutes to complete.

All responses will be kept strictly confidential.

Survey goes through May. Do it now!

Complete the survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/Z858Q3C


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Most "Managed Service Providers" Do Not Provide Managed Services

This may sound strange, but most companies that call themselves Managed Service Providers really aren't.

As I talk to technicians and prospects, I realize that most I.T. businesses use some of the tools of Managed Services but do not deliver Managed Services. The piece that's missing is the "Managed" component.

If you Google "Define Managed Service" you'll be amazed at how wrong the definitions are. Almost all of them simply define a service that is better described as "Outsourced IT." They say things like "A managed IT service is an information technology (IT) task provided by a third-party contractor."

I define Managed Services as technical support delivered under a service agreement that provides specified rates and guarantees the consultant a specific minimum income. Under Managed Services, the I.T. provider takes responsibility for the client's network and provides regular preventive maintenance of the client's systems.

If you don't do that maintenance part, if you don't manage the network, then you're an Outsourced I.T. Provider. That's cool. But that's not Managed Services.

The Tools of Managed Service

However they're packaged, there are certain tools you need to provide Managed Services. These are the modern tools of service delivery, which is why modern tech support is confused with true Managed Services. The core tools of Managed Services are:

1. Patch Management

2. Remote Access

3. Monitoring

4. Some level of Automated Response

In addition, most MSPs also use a PSA (professional services automation) tool such as Autotask or ConnectWise. A PSA provides a Ticketing System, which is absolutely essential to running your business efficiently. Ideally, it also provides a way to manage Service Agreements and keep track of technicians' labor.

But a PSA is not necessarily a Managed Service tool. It is a tool that pretty much any service business should have. You can use a PSA to manage a break/fix business just as well as a Managed Service business.

Managing and Maintenance

Beyond the tools is the most important part of delivering Managed Services. All of those tools could be used to provide basic monitoring and break/fix work. The thing that I see "Managed Service Providers" failing at is the true Maintenance of their clients' systems.

When I ask people whether they do a regular monthly maintenance, most (90%) say no. My Sample Monthly Maintenance Checklist is a very popular post. But even those who download it do not implement most of it. And when I drill down and ask about the single most important thing you should be doing for your clients - backups - I find that most companies are NOT testing client backups on a monthly basis.

In the big picture, one of the core components of Managed Service is that you take responsibility for the client's computer systems. That means that they literally turn it over to you and stop worrying about it. That means YOU are responsible when something goes wrong. That means you better be doing everything they assume you're doing.

If a system crashes and the Outsourced I.T. company that does break/fix is called in, they have no responsibility for the state of the backup or the health of the server. They are not, after all, managing the clients' systems.

If a system crashes and the Managed Service Provider is monitoring the network, that MSP has total responsibility for the state of the backup and the health of the server. They're supposed to be monitoring everything, patching everything, and making sure the backup is working. If you have a Managed Service Agreement and can't restore the system because you didn't do the maintenance and management you've been paid for, the client can hold you totally responsible - up to and including suing your for failing to provide the service you are contracted to provide.

No tools can make you a Managed Service Provider. Tools can make you far more efficient at providing monitoring, patching, remote support, and service delivery. But to be a real Managed Service Provider, you need to provide regular scheduled maintenance of every client system.

That's a policy and a regular schedule activity. No tool is going to make you do that. That's something you need to provide as part of your service.


Friday, April 19, 2013

SOP Friday: Moving a Client Office

Helping a Client Move Their Office?

What's the worst way to make a major move? Without planning!

As a rule, we don't do a lot of client moves (helping a client move from one office to another). So we may not have a good checklist for moves. To be honest, we don't have a "real" checklist. But we have a long list of general guidelines for our project manager.

The keys to success in helping your client move are:
- Have as much knowledge as possible at every stage.
- Make sure everything you do is in a service request (you'll create more than one).
- Plan everything as much as you can.

You obviously want to make money on this job. Well, unless you bid a flat fee and let the project get completely out of control, you should make good money. So that shouldn't be an issues. Adds, moves, and changes are not included in our managed service agreements. And a move is a move.

Given that you're going to make money, you can turn your attention to helping your client have a very positive experience during a very stressful time. The more you can do your job professionally and flawlessly, the more you'll shine when it's all over.

As you can see from the checklist below, there are LOTS of details that need your attention. That means you might have a fair bit of stress as well. You reduce that stress by planning as much as you can as far in advance as you can. And as with all things technical, the more pieces of the puzzle you control, the smoother you can make everything work.

Sometimes events are out of your control. But it is extremely rare that an office move has no planning and no advance notice. In fact, it is much more likely that an office move will involve a "build-out" of the new location. That means changes to electrical and network wiring. It means adding an internet connection.

All of that adds up to time so you can do some planning.

Here's a checklist of things to consider the next time you help a client move:

1. As soon as possible

- Meet with the client to define what they need from you, schedules, and budget.

- Determine how involved you will be.
 - - You probably want to price yourself out of the business of helping with non-technical stuff. As a rule, moving assistance is a lot cheaper than tech support, so you won't get away with $150/hr.
 - - If you cover vendor management in your managed service contract, which vendors will you take charge of?
 - - If you take on additional vendor management, who will you be working with (e.g., copier company, security company)?
 - - Make a list of all the services you are willing to perform or manage. This includes I.T. and other services such as managing subcontractors for waste management, janitorial, security systems, etc.

- Create a Service Ticket to verify that all client documentation is up to date. It should be, but we're all human.

- If you have servers that are visible from the outside world (email, web server, ftp server, media server, etc.), create a service request for each server. Determine how you will minimize downtime. Get new IP addresses as soon as you can. Consider if this is a good time to move some services to the Cloud.
 - - If possible, separate these moves from the big office move. It is not always possible, but it's a great idea if you can do it.

- Create a master contact list for the move. This includes names, cell phone numbers, and email addresses for everyone involved in the move:
 - - Your key team members.
 - - Your client's key team members.
 - - Phone company contact.
 - - Internet Service Provider(s).
 - - Line of Business software support.
 - - All other vendors (copy machines, voicemail, cabling, electrical, moving service, waste management, etc.).
 - - All key software and hardware companies who might assist with anything on the server, desktops, or network equipment.

 - Agree on the move date.

2. One to four weeks before the move

- When will the new Internet connection go in?
 - - (Who is the new ISP? If not the same as old, which services need to be moved as well? Will we be coordinating the installation and managing the vendor on this?)

- This is a great opportunity to upgrade the client firewall. A firewall that's just a few years old will not handle the new higher speeds available today.

- This is a great opportunity to upgrade the client switch(es) as well. Ideally, you will install all-Gigabit or even 10 GB switches. Many offices have Gigabit NICs on all of their computers, but have mostly 100 Mb switches.

- Test all battery backups. Because they tend to be purchased in batches, they also tend to fail in batches. Plan to buy new equipment for the new office and do not move bad equipment.

- Once you know how much equipment will be in the new server room (including phone systems, security systems, etc.), verify that you have sufficient battery backups for all equipment.

- Ask your primary client contact to review warranties and service contracts for all equipment (Network equipment, servers, desktops, laptops, copiers, printers, etc.). Have them verify that warranties are not voided if someone other than the vendors moves the equipment.

- If you can be involved in selecting the wiring room/server room, that would be ideal. More likely, there's already a room selected. You should make sure it has adequate electricity. That means at least one or two isolated 30-amp circuits with four outlets each. There should be adequate ventilation for the amount of equipment in use.

- If you can be involved in the network wiring, that's good as well. Even if you don't do the wiring, encourage the client to get at least two drops per workstation. I like to encourage them to put the outlets about 36-42 inches off the floor so they're accessible. That's just me. Cat6 is now standard.

- To the extent possible, work with the cabling folks to make sure that network connections are labeled on each end (server room and at the wall plate).

- When wiring is completed, post a wiring map with network drop numbers. This is very handy for many pieces of the move/set up.

- If you handle phones, audit the lines in use and eliminate any that are no longer needed. If the move is due to growth or expansion, make sure the new site has enough lines and equipment to handle the load (and expected growth).

- As you acquire new equipment (router, firewall, new PCs, etc.), be certain that everything is set up properly and documented. There's no point starting "behind" in the documentation process.

- If you need to build equipment racks or shelves, do this in the week before the move. If possible, do it at the new location. If not, do what you can to assemble them at the old office so they can be moved and assembled quickly at the new location.

- Design the new network the way you want it to be. That means you review your company's IP Address Allocation policy and set up the new network accordingly. For example you might put router, firewall, and managed switches in the 1-10 range, servers in the 11-30 range, printers in the 31-50 range, and DHCP at 101-200.

- Verify that you are getting good backups every night (or whatever your schedule is). Keep verifying this every day. Really. You cannot take a chance that you'll have a glitch at this critical time. That is what managed service is about.

- Determine the locations for network printers, scanners, time card machines, video cameras, and any other equipment that touches the new network at the new place.

- Create Service Requests. That's multiple. Create a few service requests - one for each area of responsibility you take on. Do not create just one SR and call it "Help with move." For example, you might have one for managing the I.T. move, one for configuring the new network, one for take down/set up of equipment, and one for fine-tuning after the move.

- Prepare memos for your primary contact and all users. Explain what you'll be doing, when you expect to do it, and let them know what you expect from THEM. Do not rely on your contact to spread the word. She's overwhelmed with all the other details. You own this process; you own the communication.

- If there are more desktops than you can set up and test in a day, hire temps or recruit folks from your local I.T. Pro user group. Make sure you have enough help!

- Create a checklist for every single thing that must be done at each desktop when you set it up at the new location. See "Fine Tune Checklist" in next section.

- Create a master checklist of every single piece of equipment you expect to touch. This includes network equipment, servers, desktops, laptops, cameras, copy machines, printers, etc. Everything. This list will be printed out and used to keep track of the successful configuration and testing of every single device on the day of the move.

3. On the Day Before and Day of The Move

(Very often, the actual move begins the day before. Sometimes it begins when work ends at 5 PM. Other times, it begins at 8 AM the day before so there's plenty of time for everyone to pack up their office.

- Arrange to have each user shut down and uplug everything from their desktop computer. Work with your contact to get everyone a moving box or paper file box for their desk. All of their computer-related stuff goes in that box. In this way, each person keeps their keyboard, mouse, speakers, wires, etc.

- At the new office you and your team re-assemble all computers. Do not encourage or let end-users do this. Make sure you have a plan for how you will handle the situation if a machine fails to start up at the new office.

- If you have the personnel to do so, assign one person to have primary responsibility for the network (firewall, switches, server, etc.), one person primary responsibility for the desktops and laptops, and one person in charge of tackling all the little weird stuff that comes up. The most technically competent person should be on the network, the next most competent should be on fighting fires, and the rest of the team should be on desktops.

- At the new location on day of setup, your project lead should show up at 8:00 AM and verify what's going on, where the equipment is, and generally get ready for the day. You'll be amazed at what can happen at this moment: No Internet; no electricity; all the desktop machines dumped in the conference room; network wiring is 50% complete; your primary contact will be an hour late; none of the monitors have arrived yet from the old location; and so forth. Therefore . . .

- Schedule your team to arrive at 9:00 AM or even 10:00 AM. That gives you time to make sure everything's ready, and what additional chores need to be added to the list in order to be successful today.

- Before the desktop team arrives, Fine Tune the Checklist. That means you set up one machine and go through every single step in order. If you left something blank, it needs to be filled in here. For example, if you did not settle on an IP configuration at the time the checklist was created, you need to fill that in now. Make any necessary changes to the checklist and then print a copy for each workstation.

- You are not responsible for testing all electrical outlets in the new office. But you should take responsibility of the outlets you plug equipment into. Test all power outlets using a tester like the one pictured here. You can buy this for $5 at Home Depot. Even with a UPS, you want to plug equipment into a good outlet.

- When you think you're finished, test the server and network equipment at the new site.
 - - Verify firewalls are properly configured.
 - - Verify that you can access the Internet.
 - - Verify that all servers are working properly, have no errors in the event logs, can reach the internet, can print, and all services are started.
 - - Verify that all network printers are working.
 - - Verify that all other network-connected devices are working properly.

- When you think you're finished, test the desktops/laptops at the new site.
 - - Verify that all computers can access the internet.
 - - Verify that all computers can connect to file shares, print, and both send and receive email to an outside address.
 - - If you're involved with the phones, verify that the desktop telephone is working.

Note on Physically Moving Equipment.

Check with your insurance agent, but my advice is that you and your team should actually move nothing. You can take machines apart and put them together. But all moving should be done by the client or their moving company. Do not take on that responsibility.

4. After the move

- Plan on having someone onsite the first full workday after the move. Ideally, this person will have a few unrelated service tickets to work. They should just "be around" enough to fix little issues that arise, but they should be doing productive work rather than just waiting around.

- Verify that all documentation is up to spec. That means new equipment is documented on site in the Network Documentation Binder and in your PSA. If configurations changed on old equipment, their documentation needs to be updated. New network IP schemes need to be documented, etc. Everything. Everything. Everything.

- Agree with client on how old, unused, broken, and obsolete equipment will be handled. You might help them donate it to charity, take it to the recycling center, or sell it on Ebay. Make a plan. If the job is big, this might be a separate service request.

Concluding Comments

No matter how small the office, a move is a major project. It will have lots of stress from various stakeholders. Your team needs to be the calmest, best prepared, and most professional people on the job throughout this process. In times of stress, people naturally gravitate to those who appear the most calm and collected.

Remember: Something will go wrong. You don't know what it is or how big of a problem it is. But you'll find, fix it, and move on. It could be really big. With luck, it will be really small.

Comments welcome.

- - - - -

About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at SmallBizThoughts.com.

- - - - -

Next week's topic: Assign Techs or Rotate Them?


Still the best Quick-Start Guide to Managed Services: 

by Karl W. Palachuk 

Now only $39.95 at SMB Books!

Ebook or Paperback

Learn More!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Thoughts on Windows Vista 8 - You Have to Have a Place to Start

Way back when, I wrote a book called The Network Documentation Workbook. It has sold very well. It's not perfect, but there has only been one criticism of the book that really hit home with me: Where do you start?

My brother Manuel Palachuk is a business coach and a bit of a genius when it comes to process analysis. When he first saw the book, his reaction was "Where's the Start Here button?" In other words, where do you start documenting a network? From the desktop? The server? The Internet connection?

When I released The Super-Good Project Planner for Technical Consultants, I decided to have a "Start Here" campaign. I printed up a thousand round stickers in bright orange and handed them out at the conference where I launched the book. Inside the book, I worked hard to make it clear how a project is started (and managed, of course).

I think Microsoft had a similar experience. Windows 3.1 had no place to start. You even had to run Windows itself from DOS. Then you had to run a Program Manager to get it to do anything. Then you had a screen full of icons to choose from. Microsoft solved this problem with Windows 95 by adding a Start button. The Start button made life easy in Windows 98, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7.

That's eight years of helping people figure out where to get started. Then in Windows 8, the Start button went away. The standard Microsoft response is, "The whole screen is a start menu. You don't need a start menu." Okay, fine. But that really puts us back to Windows 3.1, when all we had was a collection of icons to choose from.

Windows 3.1 and Windows 8 have one thing in common: User don't feel like there's one place to go to get everything. There's no comfortable place to start where you're sure you're seeing everything. There are lots of programs that simply are not on the Start screen.

People like to have a place to start.

I haven't liked the interface since I started using it in the developer's beta. But I chalked that up to the fact that I'm a geek and a power user and not the average person working for the average business. Well, now that interface is being given the blame for killing PC sales.

See this article on Fox News and this one on ZDNet.

Let's see here . . . 160 million PCs sold worldwide . . . times a 14% decrease is . . . Billions of Dollars lost by manufacturers!

I am confident that HP, Dell, and other desktop manufacturers will convince Microsoft to fix this problem. The fix might be adding a Start button and eliminating the Interface Formerly Known as Metro. But my guess is that the fix will be to sell machines that let you choose between Windows 8 and Windows 7.

Ever since Windows NT 4.0 was released, Microsoft has had one core challenge in selling their newest operating system: Their strongest competition is their existing install base. People freakin' love NT 4.0 - It's still all over the place. They love XP. We're still replacing XP machines seven years after Microsoft released its replacement.

Windows 7 is a great replacement for XP and will have a long, healthy lifespan. Windows 8 will soon come to be known as Windows Vista 8.


Friday, April 12, 2013

SOP Friday: Employee Expense Reports

Employee Expenses in a Nutshell

From time to time, employees incur expenses on behalf of your company. Even if the employee is just you, it is best to submit those expenses and get them in the system as a business expense.

As a general rule, employees will have four kinds of expenses:

1) Mileage

2) Out-of-pocket expenses related to service delivery (parking, or the occasional meal)

3) Minor equipment or materials (e.g., cables, network cards)

4) Out of town travel

We'll cover out of town travel in a few weeks. Today let's look at the first three. Mileage is different in nature from the other two, so we'll address that first. You'll need policies to define what is a legitimate expense and how the employee is reimbursed.

Note: I'm not an accountant, tax attorney, enrolled agent, etc. So I'm giving my advice here. Check the latest facts and policies with the IRS or whatever agencies you need to report to. Most of the tax side of this has been surprisingly common sense. But the government can change anything at any time. :-)

Mileage Policy

Assuming you and your crew drive around down from time to time visiting clients, your mileage is a legitimate business expense. With the current price of gas, this becomes a very visible expense. That's good for you because it allows you to be very clear with employees that that driving across town significantly increases the cost of delivering service.

If an employee is not reimbursed for mileage, and they are eligible to take deductions, then the mileage rate they can claim on their taxes is determined each year by the Internal Revenue Service ("service" is their word, not mine). For 2013 this rate is 56.5 cents per mile.

You can find the latest rates at http://www.irs.gov/uac/2013-Standard-Mileage-Rates-Up-1-Cent-per-Mile-for-Business,-Medical-and-Moving. Or just Google "Standard Mileage Rates" plus the year.

Paying Mileage

Personally, I think it's good to pay mileage. Most folks can't take the itemized deductions any more because the threshold is so high. So they really will be out of pocket for this expense. Second, the cost can be significant, which really reduced the employee's effective pay rate. Third, it's a legitimate business expense. You ask them to drive as part of their job, so you should foot the bill for that.

The Commute

Please look at the diagrams below (1 and 2). We're going with the IRS's general guidelines here. The first trip of the day and the last trip of the day are your "commute." So no mileage is paid for that. It's legitimate that everyone has to get to work. Neither you nor the employee made decisions about work and home locations based on the mileage paid.

Notice, in diagram 2, that the first leg of travel is a commute even if the employee is going straight to a client's office. It's a very simple rule: The first and the last trip of the day are your commute.

When an employee takes time to head to lunch, pick up their kids from school, run a personal errand to the bank, etc. that is also not covered. A wise employee will eat somewhere along the route between Client A and Client B so that there is no additional mileage.

Logging Miles

There are several ways you can log miles. The most important thing is to be consistent. You can't guess. You can't make stuff up. Just like tracking time in your PSA, you need to track mileage accurately in real time.

The old school method is still perfectly acceptable: Keep a log in your car. You can buy little travel log books at any office supply store. Enter the date, beginning odometer reading, ending odometer reading, client name, and business reason if necessary. Logs such as this need to be turned in with mileage reimbursement requests.

Alternatively, you can set up a standard set of miles from each client office to all the others. This can be quite complicated to set up (so I don't recommend it). But if you have a chart like this, employees can just look up each leg they drove and enter those miles.

My favorite modern method is to rely on Google Maps or Microsoft MapPoint. Enter addresses and get "directions" for each leg. The total mileage will pop up. Microsoft MapPoint is actually significantly better at this, but only available on machines where it is installed. It interacts nicely with a spreadsheet of addresses.

Once you and your employees track mileage, it will help make you more profitable in certain areas. For example, when the employee sees that an eight mile trip to the store (16 miles round trip) costs you half an hour of labor plus $9 in mileage, I hope they'll stop to think about whether it's necessary.

I had a conversation with a partner just a few days ago about an employee who drove 50 miles back to the office (and then 50 miles back to the client) to pick up a monitor he'd forgotten. That's $56.50 plus labor. It would be much wiser to stop at a store and buy a monitor.

Approved and Pre-Approved Expenses

Some expenses should automatically be pre-approved. For example, parking on the street or in paid parking lots should be reimbursed. Employees should park in Visitor Guest parking as designated. It is better to have your staff park in a for-pay parking lot rather than on-street metered parking. This is because you cannot always get back to the car in time and you might get a ticket.

The company should pay for all regular parking fees while the employee is on the clock. The company does NOT pay for in and out fees if the employee chooses to go somewhere for lunch other than what is available. The company does not pay for parking tickets.

Ideally, small parts and materials will be in the Technician's Supply Box. So there will be no out-of-pocket expenses for these.

But from time to time, things come up. It is a good idea to have a reasonable, low limit on purchases for a job. For example, if an employee is on site and needs something real quick from the local office supply store or electronics warehouse, what is he authorized to spend without asking permission? I think $100 is too high, but $25 or $50 seems reasonable. You can even have different levels for different technicians, based on their experience with your company.

The goal here is to spend zero time worrying about tiny purchases. If the tech needs a $9 adapter and doesn't have it, no amount of time should be spent worrying about whether he'll be reimbursed.

Above the limit, whatever the limit is, you need a process for approving expenses. For example, the employee gets on site, a monitor is smoking, and you have none in stock. You need to have a process, write it up, and train your employees. But it's probably something like this:

- The technician contacts the service manager and asks what should be done
- The technician may have a proposal, based on client feedback and proximity to a store
- A decision is made by the service manager
- You need to decide whether the employee will be reimbursed ASAP or via the regular schedule for reimbursement

There may be a limit over which you require a formal client approval or pre-payment. For example, $100 requires the service manager to send an email to client and receive an affirmative approval before work can proceed.

Cell Phone, etc.

You may have other regular payments to employees such as cell phone or parking for your office. These may be available to all employees or just to certain employees (e.g., managers). We used to have all cell phones on our account but it became easier to just pay a stipend. For those who are eligible, we pay a flat $50 per month. That's enough to cover a basic unlimited local calling plan, so employees can use it to help pay for whatever plan they've got.

Reimbursement Process

Ideally, reimbursements will be very small. Nowadays, most peripherals are built into the motherboard, so we don't end up delivering modems, NICs, and video cards. In addition, the scary box holds little things we expect to deliver such as network cables.

Mileage should be entered into the PSA and paid through the Employee Expense module. This is one more encouragement to use the system. If possible, all other out-of-pocket expenses are also entered into the PSA and paid through the Employee Expense module.

In all cases, employees should submit a reimbursement request along with any receipts they have. Because you've already got paper receipts, this can be a paper request form. At the bottom it should say something like "I affirm that these expenses are an accurate representation of costs incurred" followed by the employee's signature. For purely electronic submissions, you should have a similar statement by the employee.

We pay reimbursements on the same schedule as our payroll. So for the first pay period of the month, expenses are paid on the 25th. For the second pay period of the month, expenses are paid on the 10th of the following month.

When we pay for regular monthly payments such as cell phone, those employee expenses are paid with the first payment of the month (on the 10th).

As you grow, policies like this can represent a significant expense. Therefore, it makes sense to take it seriously and have policies in place.

As mentioned earlier, out of town travel has some other guidelines, so we'll deal with that separately.

[Update: The second article is here: http://blog.smallbizthoughts.com/2013/05/sop-friday-travel-policies.html.

You can always see the index to the SOP Friday series at http://www.sopfriday.com.]

Comments welcome.

- - - - -

About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at SmallBizThoughts.com.

- - - - -

Next week's topic: Moving a Client Office

Check Out the #1 Best-Selling book on Managed Services ever!

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Monday, April 08, 2013

Windows Azure Active Directory has reached general availability

Since we're developing a product on the Azure cloud, we get their memos about what's new. Most are pretty mundane.

This one promises to be a little more interesting. Integrating AD with the cloud is promised by everyone but has been troublesome so far. I assume Microsoft themselves will be able to do it right.

Here's the announcement that showed up in my mailbox:

- - - - - 

As of today, Windows Azure Active Directory has reached general availability and is now ready for use in production environments. 

Windows Azure Active Directory (Windows Azure AD), enables customers to maintain a single identity that can be used to access applications that are run on Windows Azure or within their own data centers by federating with their on premise directory. 

Some key benefits include: 

      One identity, many applications. With single sign-on enabled, your existing corporate accounts can access resources within your company, plus access cloud applications seamlessly.

      Easy integration with Microsoft Office 365. Are you moving productivity to the cloud? No worries. Windows Azure AD interoperates with Office 365, so setup is quick, and it can federate users with existing directories if needed.

      New apps, a single identity. The cloud offers new ways to develop and deploy applications quickly. Now it's easy to secure those applications, too. You can employ simple, standards-based developer interfaces that provide secure access and deliver single sign-on for your users.

If you're new to Windows Azure Active Directory, there are a few resources to get you started, including Identity Overview, Whiteboard Video, and Documentation

Windows Azure AD is the authentication resource for Office 365, Windows Intune, and other Microsoft services. If you're using these services, you're already using Windows Azure AD. 

During its preview period, Windows Azure Active Directory was available at no charge. We're pleased to let you know that Windows Azure AD-including the base directory in addition to Tenant, User & Group Management, Single Sign-On, Graph API, cloud application provisioning, Directory Synchronization, and Directory Federation benefits-will continue to be available at no charge. For more information about pricing, please visit the Pricing Details webpage. 

Visit the Windows Azure Management Portal to get started today. 

Thank you, 

Windows Azure Team 

- - - - - -


Saturday, April 06, 2013

"Unbiased" Advice for Your Clients

Hey, I.T. Pros.

Wouldn't it be great if you had an unbiased, third party who could help you convince your clients to make wise technology decisions? Well, I've got one for you.

(that's Consultant or Amateur)

You can point your clients to this site and say "See. Read this. This guy is not trying to sell you anything. And he's giving you the same advice I give you."

Check out the first few posts:

- What is a Trunk Slammer?

Does I.T. Certification Matter?

Don't Panic - and Don't Click!

Why Do You Need A Site You Can Point Your Clients To?

Well . . .

Let's be honest. Sometimes clients can make some pretty big mistakes. Most of the mistakes fall into the category of "Saving the Wrong Pennies." That is, they want to keep using that old switch with two broken ports - because it still works. But 70% of their service requests are about how slow the network is.

Wouldn't it be great to point to a site that's geared entirely on giving them good advice that supports what you've been telling them? Of course it would!

Sometimes clients make bad decisions because they want to spend too much money. Maybe they heard a radio ad. Maybe a telco salesman got a hold of them. Maybe they think they're technicians because they read a bunch of books.

Basically, you give your clients good advice. Once in awhile it's nice to point to a third party who supports your point. In this case, I'm a third party who happens to be and SMB consultant and who will not take your client even if they ask me.

A Focus On Higher Standards

I have long held that higher standards in our industry are good for everyone - except the trunk-slamming amateur. Clients will be better served when they buy professional tech support. And when they replace their equipment every three years. And when all their licensing is legal. And when they understand managed services. And when they have some idea what cloud computing is.


We live in an era of very sophisticated computers. Operating systems, hardware, and software are all very robust. If properly designed, configured, and maintained, modern systems should just stay UP. Clients should be able to assume that their computers will work every day and never give them problems.

The two biggest variables are: 1) Good advice on the system design, and 2) Good decisions by the client. Luckily for you, that means the most important variables are you and your client.

The bottom line is that your clients can be much happier with their technology if they take your advice (assuming you give good advice). The Consultant or Amateur blog is intended to support you in your quest to give clients good advice and a good experience with their technology.

I would appreciate it if you would review the site, subscribe to it, and keep it in mind when you can use a little help showing your clients some 3rd party support for your recommendations.


Friday, April 05, 2013

SOP Friday: Using a White Board

(Note: This is the 100th blog post in the SOP Friday series. I had no idea when I started this that it would last so long. Right now I have topics planned through the end of August. Thank you for your support.)

Everybody Needs a White Board

I always had a white board in my home office. I use it for all kinds of things. So when I moved into a "real" office, the first thing I bought was a very nice, big white board. It's six feet wide with a nice wide tray for pens.

That board was on the wall of our old office for eight years and is now in our new office. It has been the tool we've used for solving problems, working out processes, brainstorming, diagramming networks, developing new products, and a hundred other uses.

I also have a smaller white board for me and Mike has one for his office. At home I have three smallish white boards (3 ft wide). They are always in use.

Here are a few tips on choosing and using a white board.

Size Matters

I believe any office can benefit from the largest white board you have space for. Ideally, it will be big enough for two people to work at. With a large board you have the option to keep notes for several topics at once and go into a lot more detail with diagrams or lists.

Individuals normally need small boards for mini-brainstorming sessions, daily task lists, etc.

Location Matters

Your big board should be in the most accessible place possible. A conference room is good if it's easy for everyone to use it instantly. One of the advantages of a white board is that everyone can use it as a tool. So the more accessible the better.

We keep ours in the middle of the tech area because it's mostly used for solving problems and developing new product offerings. That's a place where everyone is a step or two away from using the board.

Pens Matter

There are only two things you need to know about white board pens. 1) Low-odor pens don't erase very well. Even with a spray cleaner, your board will be harder to erase cleanly with low odor pens. 2) If someone accidentally writes on the white board with a permanent marker, you can clean it off by writing over it with a (high odor) erasable marker. It takes a little work, but gets the job done.

Brainstorming - And a Lot More

It's obviously nice to be able to have a big brainstorming session, but why not just use a legal pad? White boards are great because anyone can grab a pen and participate. Plus, as strange as it sounds, they can be team building tools. Whenever you can get some or all of your company together and focused on the activity, you build the team.

Remember: Even when people are arguing, as long as they're arguing constructively, they are actively engaged in making your business better.

White boards allow for flexible learning styles. Some people learn with words and others with pictures/diagrams. White boards allow you to flesh out ideas in a variety of formats.

White boards are a great addition to any office. If you're not using them, give it a try. I welcome other ideas about how people are using white boards.

Comments welcome.

- - - - -

About this Series

SOP Friday - or Standard Operating System Friday - is a series dedicated to helping small computer consulting firms develop the right processes and procedures to create a successful and profitable consulting business.

Find out more about the series, and view the complete "table of contents" for SOP Friday at SmallBizThoughts.com.

- - - - -

Next week's topic: Employee Expense Reports

Still the best Quick-Start Guide to Managed Services: 

by Karl W. Palachuk 

Now only $39.95 at SMB Books!

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The Most Popular Blog Posts of March 2013

It's always interesting to see what brings people in. Here are the most read blog posts from last month:

#1 = Microsoft Announced the End of of SBS from June 5, 2012

This is the biggest post of the last year. That's appropriate since it was probably the biggest announcement of the year for the small business space.

#2 = SOP Friday: Prudent Password Policies

This one is basically an appeal for IT pros to back off from the viewpoint that every password has to be super-strong. Some passwords just aren't that important.

#3 = SOP Friday: How to Work 8AM to 5PM in I.T. Consulting

One of my long-standing philosophies is that you need to relax and take some time off so you can be more productive when you work.

#4 = SOP Friday: Service Manager Roles and Responsibilities

This is another one from last summer. I'm not sure what the sudden interest is.

#5 = SOP Friday: Vendor Management and Coordination

A recent blog post in the SOP series.

#6 = Managed Services in a Month Audio Book - Free for One Week Only

A recent blog post in the SOP series.

#7 = Reboot Your Business or Let it Die

A recent blog post regarding a press release we published.

#8 = Uhh . . . Nine New Podcasts Posted at Cloud Services Roundtable

This is a description of some blog posts I put up a year ago. That title just turned out to be keyword rich, so the traffic keeps on coming.

#9 = SOP Friday: Removing Old Information - From Everything

A recent blog post in the SOP series.

#10 = SOP Friday: Organizing Your Company Files and Folders

This article has become a consistent favorite. I think we're all trying to practice consistent improvement, so looking at someone else's system is helpful.

Overall, the SOP (standard operating procedure) Friday series has been extremely popular. Six of the top ten blog posts for the last month have been from that series.

Keep reading!

And let me know if you have suggestions or comments.


Monday, April 01, 2013

Introducing Non-Con 2013 - The Ultimate Non Conference

SMB Non Conference Agenda

Non-Con 2013!

What's the best part of a conference? The Hallway Conversations!

Therefore, we are proud to announce that we're holding an entire conference around the concept of hallway conversations. That means lots of opportunities to talk about the topics you care most about - and exchange ideas with other consults who have the same challenges and opportunities.

This will be a two-day extravaganza where you and your colleagues can gather, enjoy social time together, and meet new people in your industry. We will literally have a Hallway Conversation Conference!

June 7-8, 2013
(That's Friday-Saturday with a "preday" reception on Thursday night.)

Crowne Plaza
French Quarter
New Orleans, LA

The Location:

First, I love New Orleans and don't get there enough.

Second, the Crowne Plaza has the absolute best 2nd Story Hallways and Balconies of any hotel I've been to. In fact, their "grand" hallways are called galleries and they are both large and well laid out for conversations and receptions. We can be separate from the other guests and still have plenty of different "places" to congregate and have hallway conversations.

Third, Did I mention I love New Orleans?

Join me!

-- Karl W. Palachuk - Small Biz Thoughts

Astor Foyer - Look at THAT Hallway:

Agenda -
SMB IT Non-Con 2013

SMB Non Conference Agenda
June 7-8, 2013
This is an emerging schedule - subject to change.
Note that there are no formal presentations. The recommended topics for each time slot are just a place to get started. We are accepting volunteers to kick off conversations. But this is really just a suggestion. Make it your conference by starting your own hallway conversations!

Thursday, June 6th

7:00 PM -
11:00 PM
Reception and Registration
Astor Executive Club (see picture below)
Sponsored by Intel
(Note: Registration continues in 2nd floor vendor hall all day Friday.)

 Friday, June 7th

7:30 AM -
9:00 AM
Sponsored by HP
9:00 AM -
10:00 AM

Sessions will not be held on:
- New Product Developments with Microsoft Cloud
- Digging into Server 2012 Core
- Tools and Techniques workshop on CRM products

10:00 AM -
11:00 AM
Vendor Hall Open
- Live music sponsored by SBS Migration/SMB IT Experts

11:00 AM -
12:00 Noon
Sessions will not be held on:
- HP vs. Dell "Cage Match" on rack mounted storage arrays
- Small Business Development (Programming/Coding) Opportunities
- "Killin It" with Great Video-Based Marketing

12:00 Noon -
2:00 PM
- Pool-side Cajun BBQ with the Microsoft MVPs
- Bring your swim suit and your appetite. Let the Microsoft MVPs serve up authentic Cajun Food while listening to live Zydeco music.
- At the roof-top pool
- Sponsored by Microsoft

Roof-Top Pool
2:00 PM -
3:00 PM
Vendor Hall Open
- "Brain Explosion Trivia" provided by Third Tier

3:00 PM -
4:00 PM
Sessions will not be held on:
- Building the 100% Virtual Consulting Business by Outsourcing Everything
- Could You Move to Mid-Market? A Strategy Session.
- If the Yellow Pages are Dead and Google Advertising Sucks, What's Next?

4:00 PM -
5:00 PM
Free Time
5:00 PM -
6:30 PM
Vendor Hall Open
- Display of Local Art and Artists sponsored by Rackspace

Evening / Dinner
- Connect up with your favorite vendor for dinner out on the town. Vendors have been informed that steak is available in every city in North America and that actual Cajun Food is preferred since we're in the French Quarter.

9:00 PM -
11:00 PM
Late Evening Social Event
- Live Talent Contest in the Grand Gallery
- Already promised to perform: Harry Brelsford, Jeff Middleton, Jan Spring, and Nancy Williams
- Sign up and Join the Fun!
- Sponsored by PacketTrap

 Saturday, June 8th

8:00 AM -
9:30 AM
Sponsored by ConnectWise

9:30 AM -
11:00 AM
Special Hands-on-Labs will not be held on:
- Fix the PC
- Fix the Server
- Pick which platform you want to troubleshoot. Each machine is from the same image and has the same specific problem. Race your time to find the correct solution - and document it properly!
- Machines provided by HP. Cloud storage provided by DreamHost.

11:00 AM -
12:00 Noon
Vendor Hall Open
- Kinnect Game Series sponsored by Backup Assist

12:00 Noon -
2:00 PM
- Great Cajun Food just across the street at the Red Fish Grill!
- Sponsored by Autotask

2:30 PM - 4:00 PM
- Final Vendor Gathering
- Town Hall Meeting
- Prize Drawings

Final Note:

We leave you in the French Quarter on Saturday night. Informal groups will be gathering for dinner, shows, and evening entertainment.

To get the most out of your visit, we encourage you to stay through Sunday and enjoy museums, the Mississippi River, and many sites not directly next to the hotel!
The Astor Executive Club:
Executive Club