Thursday, March 07, 2024

Do You Own Client Configurations?

Recently, I've come across a new way of looking at the services we deliver: MSPs claim to "own" the configuration of their clients' equipment.

Example One: The firewall configuration is our unique intellectual property. The argument here is that the MSP takes an off-the-shelf firewall and adds their secret sauce to create a unique device. And, by extension, another MSP might be able to learn all the configuration details and thereby improve their own firewall configurations.

Example Two: An MSP has been leasing equipment to a client, including the Domain Controller. The out-going MSP refuses to share directory access so the in-coming MSP can build a backup DC and then update the FSMO roles and promote it to primary. Again, the argue boils down to secret sauce. Somehow, the configuration of the Active Directory is proprietary technology.

I strongly object to this line of thinking for several reasons. Here are the top three.

First: This is simply unprofessional behavior. While thinly veiled, the real motivation here is that the outgoing MSP (the one losing the client) believes that holding onto this information will somehow do something positive for their business. They are sore losers. And this kind of behavior will only piss off the client (and other professionals involved). 

I always think it's a good policy to lose gracefully, if you have to lose. If you handle it well, that client might see the error in their ways and invite you back some day. On more than one occasion, I've lost a client who wanted us back a year later. If we held their equipment or configurations hostage, they would never have wanted to come back.

We'll come back to this.

Second: The client has paid for the configuration work. Unless you have a contract to the contrary, the client pays you to configure all their hardware, software, and services. It's absurd to think that the selection of inputs and menu options is somehow unique and beyond the common practices of every single IT consultant in your market. 

Clearly, the operating system of a firewall is the intellectual property of the firewall designer. But the configuration of a specific firewall is not really some kind of secret sauce, right? That’s just a collection of settings enabled by the OS.

I have seen this kind of behavior (trying to keep owners out of their firewalls, routers, switches, servers, services, etc.) for thirty years. It never works. Ever. Once a client has decided to change IT consultants, the out-going MSP has lost the job. It's too late to try to hang on by denying the client access to the configurations and settings they've already paid for as "work for hire."

A few years ago, I went looking for consultants that would help me fine-tune my Google ads. Some of them were upfront about the configuration changes they would make to my Google Ads account: They considered their genius to be so great that, if I were to ever leave them, I had to agree that they would set my entire account back to what it was on the day they took over. This was written into their contract. 

Of course, I did not hire any of these folks. I think it's a horrible practice, BUT they were not being unprofessional or dishonest. They made it clear up front, so I could choose whether to do business with them. 

Third: There is no secret sauce. Aside from being unprofessional, all of this behavior assumes that an MSP has some amazing Secret Sauce that no on else possesses. I've only been in this business professionally for thirty years, but I have never actually met anyone who has secret sauce. 

Firewalls can be configured well or poorly. Active Directory can be set up sloppily or precisely. Documentation of these might be thorough or sparse - or even non-existent. So, the only "secret" is to do your job well and to act as professionally as you can. Work a bit harder than your competition. Work a bit smarter. Be more consistent. Have better daily practices.

I have long argued that Secret Sauce comes in a clear glass jar with the ingredients labeled on the back. In other words: Everyone knows what it is! If you are dedicated to great service, and providing excellent technical support, then you will always have customers who love you. Your unique selling proposition is the totality of your company, your employees, your processes, and your documentation.

Who needs secret sauce when you have YOU, your processes, your employees, and your excellent habits? 

I hope this trend of claiming "intellectual property" for doing your job is short lived. It is just the latest manifestation of unprofessional people pretending to be professional IT consultants and making our industry look bad in the process. Every time one of these losers gets away with thing kind of behavior, one more client has a story about how horrible IT consultants behave. That reduces trust in all future relationships with IT professionals.

Once again, the warning goes out: Don't let our industry slide into the kind of reputation enjoyed by car salesmen!


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