Remote support lies at the heart of what all MSPs do, but exactly what tasks can, and - just as importantly - should, be carried out offsite is a question leading providers continue to grapple with.
Remote support tools have been around for decades, but the technologies available are improving all the time.
Leading MSPs are therefore constantly reviewing best practices in this area.
Are there limits to what tasks MSPs can and should carry out remotely? How will the nature of remote support change with the rise of AI and automation? And should MSPs look to offshore or outsource areas of their remote support delivery?
"But if you're reacting to an issue at a time of crisis, the fact they can see you onsite and you're visible is important," Colin Blumenthal, Complete IT
CRN sought to tackle these questions by speaking to some of the UK's leading MSPs for this two-part feature, which is in association with SolarWinds MSP.
Far from providing the kind of reactive onsite support that characterised the first-generation of IT support providers, MSPs by definition charge a fixed monthly fee for proactively managing their customers' IT needs, often from afar.
Improvements in remote working and remote support technology mean MSPs can theoretically carry out more and more tasks without ever having to grace the customer's premises, leading to faster ticket resolution times and lower overheads for the MSP.
Despite this, leading MSPs we spoke to were mindful of the need among some clients to look their IT partner's support staff in the eyes, particularly in a time of crisis - even if the benefits are purely emotional.
Todd McQuilkin, CEO of Air-IT, said that the Nottingham-based MSP's average cost-per-ticket is about £4.65 across all channels. This falls dramatically for tickets resolved off-site, he said, which is reflected in Air-IT's pricing, which sees it charge £45 for remote and up to £85 for onsite contracts, respectively.
Although the rise of cloud means Air-IT now resolves 90 per cent of tickets remotely, McQuilkin (pictured) said he is sensitive towards the dangers of becoming "faceless" in the eyes of customers, particularly considering that Air-IT is raising rather than reducing the price of its fixed-fee contracts.
"We don't want to commoditise our service delivery and if you become faceless you are in danger of doing that," he said.
Colin Blumenthal, managing director of Buckinghamshire-based MSP Complete IT, which now resolves over 95 per cent of issues remotely, agreed.
"We've always immersed ourselves in doing as much work as we can remotely, because clients want an instant fix to their issues," he said.
"It costs significantly less to resolve an issue from a helpdesk. It gives us responsiveness and agility - and plainly has a cost impact too.
"But if you're reacting to an issue at a time of crisis, the fact they can see you onsite and you're visible is important. There are times when you could do things remotely, but don't. You want to be there in the trenches with them to rectify any issue they're resolving. Emotionally they need to see that we're there doing something."
John Pepper, CEO of Managed 24/7, said the Milton Keynes-based MSP's larger clients are more likely to understand the value of remote, rather than onsite, reactive, support.
Managed 24/7's goal is to turn the traditional IT support relationship on its head, he explained.
"If we have a month when the tickets go down, we celebrate, whereas some MSPs would be pretty angry at the fact they haven't had more tickets," he said.
When it comes to remote support best practice, the new technology available is only as good as the staff that use it, warned Complete IT's Blumenthal.
A common trap MSPs fall into is putting all their best staff in customer-facing roles rather than on the service desk, he claimed.
"I'm not sure every MSP gets that," Blumenthal said. "They want their best team members to be client facing, and that can be at the detriment of the remote support they're delivering. We maintain a high level of helpdesk technical excellence at all times and don't drain it by transferring them out to be client facing.
"If you only resource your desk with first and second line, you won't be able to resolve as many tickets or issues as if you have senior technical resource working from your helpdesk. With the technologies that are available, within reason you can do as much remotely as you can do onsite, but you have to have the right people using those tools."
MSPs must also empower their remote support teams to make a call on the limits to what they can carry out offsite, Blumenthal added.
"There can be a risk associated with some activities if done remotely that you can mitigate against by being onsite," he explained.
"If you're going to change a configuration and reboot, and you know that if that configuration is not successful you will lose the ability to connect remotely, for instance."
"[Chatbots technology] is great technology, and it is something we are looking at for later this year, but it would be rolled out in a way our customers are comfortable with rather than it replacing humans," John Pepper, Managed 24/7
The rise of automation and AI are changing the face of IT, not least in the area of how MSPs interact with customers and provide remote support.
JP Norman, director of technology, security and governance at Amicus ITS, said the Southampton-based MSP is gearing up to deploy chatbots in three areas of its business.
"One area is inbound enquiries. If people have an issue or are generally interested in our IT services they can go into a chatbot that can - through the processes we are designing - signpost them in the right direction. Once they get to the point of making a decision, they can connect to an actual human," he said.
"The other space we're looking at is our service desk and service support offerings. We're cleansing our problem management functions and our internal knowledge base, so that for the top 10 enquiries across all our customers, we will make them generic enough so that the support can be provided by a chatbot facility, and the customer can then guide themselves to being able to fix.
Norman continued: "The last area is for some of our larger customers that are more technically minded. If they want to deploy a virtual server, through a chatbot AI service, we can give the customer the ability to build their own virtual servers, and once they've built them to their specification the process in the background will ensure they are billed appropriately. We can start to give some flexibility back to customers who have that knowledge."
Pepper confided that Managed 24/7 is also looking at rolling out chatbot technology later this year, but warned that such technology should be rolled out in a way that complements rather than replaces human interaction.
"Anything that automates is great," he said.
"Where we've got to be careful is, if you've ever dealt with a chatbot online it's quite easy to figure out you're talking to one. And what we don't want to do is deceive customers and use this technology - which can be very good for knowledge capture - and pretend it's a human when it's not. Certainly where I turn off is when I'm talking to ‘Maria' and within three seconds I can tell it's a chatbot and I get quite annoyed. It's great technology, and it is something we are looking at for later this year, but it would be rolled out in a way our customers are comfortable with rather than it replacing humans."
Whether to offshore remote support is another key question facing MSPs, a topic we will explore in part two of this feature.
This article was commissioned by SolarWinds MSP
Managing director says deal is the first of many
Pure Storage's Gary Matson, HP's Neil Sawyer and Dell's Rob Tomlin in three-way tussle for CRN Channel Awards' only people's choice category
Founder and CEO takes non-exec role after securing cash injection
In the wake of Arrow's decision to wind down part of its ITAD operations in the US, UK and elsewhere, CRN asks whether this is indicative of a weakening market