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Techaisle Blog

Insightful research, flexible data, and deep analysis by a global SMB IT Market Research and Industry Analyst organization dedicated to tracking the Future of SMBs and Channels.

Technology sprawl driving SMB and Midmarket IT Staff increases

Techaisle’s SMB and Midmarket Managed Services Adoption Trends research shows that contrary to popular belief IT Staffing within SMBs is growing and the percent of businesses with full-time IT staff has increased for 50-999 employee size businesses and even the average no. of IT staff has tripled for midmarket businesses in 2015 from 2010.

Today’s SMBs are heavily invested in an ever-widening portfolio of technology initiatives. For example, on average, US SMBs have current active initiatives in 5.1 technology areas, and midmarket businesses are working in an average of 10.3 different areas – each of which (like cloud or mobility) involve multiple discrete activities.

Techaisle’s SMB survey trend illustrates the IT staffing impact of this expanding IT solution activity. Figure below presents statistics on full-time IT staff from 2010 and 2015. It demonstrates that small and midmarket businesses have sharply different approaches to coping with IT solution sprawl. In businesses with 50 or more employees staffing levels are increasing dramatically. In this segment, not only percent of businesses with full-time internal IT staff has increased in the last five years but the average number IT staff has tripled.

techaisle-smb-midmarket-it-staffing-levels-resized

In microbusinesses with 1-19 employees, the trend is exactly the reverse: these firms are unable to keep pace with IT expansion through internal IT staff, and have moved to other approaches to cope with sprawl and complexity. Data indicates that only 4% of microbusinesses have full-time internal IT staff. In the next tier of small businesses (20-99 employees), 28% of firms have outsourced IT, vs. just 23% relying on full-time internal IT staff; the balance report that they depend on part-time internal IT staff (18%), internal non-IT staff (14%), or that “nobody manages IT” (17%). It is easy to say that this last group is courting disaster in an increasingly IT-centric world, and there is certainly truth to that assertion – but the findings are reflective of the cost and complexity associated with delivering a corporate service that is proving to be very cost- and labor-intensive.

The trend towards increased IT staffing levels also reflects the growing importance of technology within SMB operations. As Figure below illustrates, nearly 75% of businesses with 1-9 employees, and nearly 100% of those with 500-999 employees, consider technology to be “somewhat” or “very important” to their business success, and this importance is rising. 26%-47% of SMB respondents believe that their companies are more dependent on technology today than they were a year ago.

techaisle-smb-midmarket-technology-dependency-resized

IT is trying to move away from implementations to more strategic roles. But for that SMBs require expertise, skill-sets, time to research and identify appropriate technology. When IT vendors mention simplifying IT for SMBs they couch it as a means of helping SMBs because they lack IT staff (which data demonstrates is far from actual reality). The growing number and penetration of SMB IT staff themselves are asking for simplification of technology due to inherent sprawl and complexity of technology.

The phrase “sprawl and complexity” describes two linked problems for SMBs. Sprawl is apparent in the wide range of technologies included within current solution portfolios. The compounding issue, though, is that SMBs are not just dealing with more technology, but with more complex technology. This in turn is driving SMBs to hire more IT staff.

Consider the figure below, which reflects the attitudes of IT-responsible managers (ITDMs) within SMBs. Asked to describe their opinions regarding IT complexity, the most common response is “IT vendors should simplify technology.” Frighteningly (or embarrassingly) for suppliers, the second most common response is “we are ignoring” potentially-useful technologies, followed by observations that technology-related pain points are increasing, and current technology is more difficult to understand than previous-generation solutions.

techaisle-smb-perceptions-it-complexity-resized

There is a clear set of messages for suppliers in this data.

  • There is no status quo of "lack of IT staff"
  • IT staffing within SMBs has undergone a change. “We have simplified technology because SMBs do not have IT staff” is the wrong messaging
  • Simplification is required to ensure that SMBs actually embrace new products and their growing IT staff is freed-up to focus on strategic business issues
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SMB MSP Channel fragmentation and role of IT vendor

The SMB IT channel has hit a point of fragmentation. Today, channel can be all things to all people but not in 2018 unless channel finds a way to generate more than 150% of revenue. Faced with an expanded SMB buyer community and requirements for specialized skills to support different solutions, the SMB channel is beginning to segment by focus area. Although the different specialties are starting from a common point today, Techaisle expects to see each develop unique characteristics over the next several years.

Highlights of Techaisle’s report on State of SMB Managed Services Channel include:

The business of the SMB channel: migrating to specializations

  • Overall, currently, the SMB channel has a reasonable balance between product and services revenue and engagements.
  • There is no ‘silver bullet’ leading to financial health in the SMB channel. Execution, not time allocation, is the key to sales success.
  • Sales cycles vary with several factors, including solution expertise. SMB-focused MSPs have relatively long sales cycles overall, but channel partners that are “very comfortable” with managed services have superior time-to-revenue results.
  • Four key specializations are emerging in the SMB channel and this fragmentation will accelerate in the 2015-2018 timeframe.

Managed services in the channel: pervasive as a delivery vehicle, becoming more of a specialty

  • MSPs are hardly the only source of managed services: more than 60% of VARs, SPs and SIs sell managed services today, and there has been an increase in managed services activity in all of these channels.
  • The variety and depth of managed services will make it difficult for non-specialists to keep pace with MSP specialists.
  • SMB preference for a single source of managed services will have an impact on managed services market and channel development.
  • SMBs have a definitive view of pricing and per user/ per device is not the way forward 

The role of the vendor in the managed services channel

  • Vendors must navigate a mix of generic channel requirements and requirements that are specific to managed services partners.
  • Generic requirements for end-to-end solutions are less important in managed services (where best-of-breed is paramount) than in other areas.
  • Vendors must understand and address the challenges faced by partners migrating to managed services specializations; this course will be complex and expensive.
  • Vendors will benefit from aligning with managed services partners’ value propositions, which are in turn well aligned with business outcomes (and business buyers).

Working with the SMB managed services customer: managed services addresses key buy-side imperatives

  • SMBs are more dependent on technology than ever before.
  • Since 2010, IT staffing has dropped in microbusinesses, and increased in small and midmarket firms. Accordingly, managed services acts as a substitute for IT staff in firms with 1-19 employees, and as a means of augmenting IT management in larger SMBs.
  • SMBs are struggling with IT complexity, and turning to managed services providers for support.

The survey data shows that channel partners struggle to transition from delivering some managed services to building viable businesses on a managed services model. To be successful, vendors will need to set objectives spanning a three-year period over which managed services specialization will emerge.

Many IT vendors will struggle with simply understanding this fundamental change in the market, and more will fail to understand the focus and investment required to grow with partners through this transitional period.

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SMB managed services adoption increases amidst acquisition challenges

SMB Current and Planned adoption
Techaisle’s SMB Managed Services adoption study (US, UK, Germany, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, China) shows that a substantial and rapidly-growing segment of SMBs across different geographies are using some combination of managed services to support IT and business requirements. Drilling into the US data, 40% of SMBs are currently using one or more types of managed services, increase of 21% from a year ago. Take-up of managed services within micro businesses is relatively low but doubles within the 10-19 employee size businesses. Techaisle survey data also shows that confusion around what managed services is and how they work has a negative impact on take-up in this segment, reinforcing the importance of education to building acceptance within this market.

Managed services usage rates are far higher within larger SMBs. Firms with 20-499 employees, who are trying to scale IT faster than can be achieved through in-house staff, are very avid users of managed services. Larger midmarket firms, where managed services is often a means of augmenting current staff (to deliver on niche specialities and/or to cover standard tasks so that in-house resources can move on to new initiatives), are also heavy users of managed services.

As impressive as these figures are, the ranks of managed services SMB users are poised to swell further within the next 12-24 months. Survey responses from companies with 1-9 employees indicate that the proportion of very small businesses using one or more managed services will double during this period. Growth within other SMB e-size segments will be less dramatic, but aggressive nonetheless.

The combination of increased reliance on technology as a key element of business success (as shown in the study), burgeoning complexity and cost constraint has created a “perfect storm” for use of managed services. SMBs are not just dealing with more technology, but with more complex technology.

SMB Managed Services acquisition challenges
A question exploring the issue of “what are the toughest challenges faced by SMBs when purchasing managed services” in the Techaisle SMB Managed Services Adoption Trends survey found four broad challenges: 1/ identifying solutions that address operational support requirements, 2/ selection of qualified providers, 3/ presenting a valid business case to senior management, and 4/ available funding.

The primacy of these issues changes with employee size:

  • Microbusinesses (1-19 employees) struggle most with finding appropriate suppliers – MSPs who understand and can work with companies that lack internal IT resources.
  • Small businesses (20-99 employees) struggle most with providing a valid business case to management. These firms are on the line separating the “managed services as a replacement for in-house staff” approach of microbusinesses and the “managed services as a means of augmenting IT management” approach of larger SMBs. At least in some cases, management considers outsourced services to be an either/or proposition rather than an “and” and needs help in understanding why a mixed approach to IT service delivery makes both technical and economic sense.
  • Available funding is the key issue for smaller midmarket (100-499 employees) businesses. These firms are pulled between the need to keep pace with IT opportunities and requirements (as defined by larger competitors) and the need to watch cash flow very carefully (as is the case with small businesses).
  • Larger midmarket firms (500-999 employees) are challenged primarily by identifying solutions addressing operational support requirements. These companies have specific needs and require complex solutions. It’s telling that it is also a challenge for these firms to find qualified suppliers and to develop a business case that can be absorbed by senior management.

SMB's use careful evaluation of supplier and platform
Techaisle’s corresponding SMB Channel Partners trend study (survey across several countries) and The State of US SMB Managed Services Channel study shows that the percent of US SMB channel partners offering managed services has increased to 71% from just below 70% in 2013.

There is a tight connection between managed services supply and demand. The interaction between SMB buyers and the firms that supply managed services is important to the vibrancy of the managed services market. The SMB Managed Services Adoption Trends explored some of the key issues in supplier evaluation and managed services sourcing. Once a relationship has been struck, SMBs and managed service providers need to connect effectively through the managed service delivery platform. Survey results indicate that there are five key elements that are integral to a compelling platform and SMBs use an average of 3.2 factors for MSP evaluation criteria.

SMB MSP fragmentation and coming channel transformation
Techaisle believes that the channel is at the beginning of a migration from generalist to specialist firms that will play out over the next few years. The variety and depth of managed services will make it difficult for non-specialists to keep pace with MSP specialists. Techaisle survey trend data clearly reveals that SMB channel partners have hit a point of fragmentation: they can be all things to all people today, but not in 2018. On this topic and more in Techaisle’s channel subscription services consisting of:

Related research areas

  • SMB Channel Trends
  • The State of SMB Cloud Channel
  • The State of SMB Managed Services Channel
  • The State of SMB Virtualization Channel
  • The State of SMB Mobility Channel

and corresponding SMB coverage:

  • SMB Cloud Adoption Trends
  • SMB Mobility Adoption Trends
  • SMB Managed Services Adoption Trends
  • SMB Virtualization and Converged Infrastructure Adoption Trends
  • SMB Collaboration Adoption Trends
  • SMB IT Decision Makers: TDM vs. LoB
  • SMB Big Data Adoption Trends
  • SMB Security Adoption Trends
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Perspective: Cisco’s SMB Channel Partner Success Management

Cisco and the SMB market

Cisco has established an undisputed leadership position in the enterprise market. The company combines a widely-adopted and well-integrated portfolio of networking products with a highly-skilled (and paid) direct sales force to manage/expand its presence within major accounts.

The SMB market is a separate challenge. Here, buyers are less likely to require integration across multiple network components and more likely to emphasize price. They are also more likely to receive advice/management from channel partners, further reducing Cisco’s control over the acquisition process.

Against this backdrop, Techaisle’s SMB Channel Trends research illustrates the strengths and challenges Cisco must manage, as it looks to expand its share in the SMB segment.

Cisco Commands High Trust and Reputation within its Channel Partners

Within the channel community, Cisco enjoys a sound reputation and a high degree of trust. Techaisle’s SMB channel partner survey shows that 78 percent of Cisco’s SMB channel partners trust Cisco, a higher percentage than is registered by competitors such as HP and IBM. Nearly 70 percent of the partners believe that Cisco has quality products – again, the highest ranking recorded within the ‘hardware leader’ group including Cisco, HP, IBM and others. However, only 52 percent mention that Cisco has cutting edge technology, a percentage lower than that for both IBM and Microsoft. Moreover, 60 percent of Cisco’s SMB channel partners say that they Like Cisco, lower than corresponding rates for HP and Microsoft, only slightly higher than is found for IBM.

In its 2013 Annual report Cisco has written, “A substantial portion of our products and services is sold through our channel partners, and the remainder is sold through direct sales.” With specific reference to SMBs, Cisco wrote, “Generally, we define commercial businesses as companies with fewer than 1,000 employees. The larger, or midmarket, customers within the commercial market are served by a combination of our direct salesforce and our channel partners. Small businesses or companies with fewer than 100 employees, within the commercial market are primarily served by our channel partners.” Techaisle’s data shows that Cisco has attracted positive attention within this channel partner community, but that its technology and relationships may not leave it especially differentiated from competitors.

Data shows Cisco's SMB Channel Partner Challenges

Cisco is seeking to capitalize on market transitions and is steadily driving its channel partners to offer products and services that deploy cloud, mobility, virtualization, managed services, data center solutions and now Internet of Things. This is by no means an easy task as most SMB channel partners are being actively courted by competitive vendors that also want to grow their emerging technologies’ business. SMB channel partners selling emerging technologies have an average of 3.46 vendor partnerships; this average jumps to 4.21 for Cisco SMB partners, a difference of 21 percent. With this increased contention for mind/market/wallet share, it can be difficult for Cisco to manage brand identity and its related messaging.

This difficulty is illustrated by study findings showing that of the Cisco SMB channel partners, 44 percent consider Cisco to be their top partner. The other 56 percent mention Microsoft, Oracle, HP, IBM and several other firms. Within the VAR/SI community, Cisco’s share of preference is 48 percent; this drops to 39 percent amongst the MSPs/SPs that are viewed as critical to the success of future cloud initiatives.

It is not enough to only measure customer satisfaction or brand awareness to identify overall channel and market presence. Techaisle believes that it is important for IT vendors like Cisco to measure their Brand Equity within SMB channel partners as well as SMBs. Techaisle’s Brand Equity Score, BES-360, helps to identify areas where IT vendors can improve to increase share of wallet.

Cisco’s SMB Channel Partner Brand Equity

Our research finds that Cisco has done extremely well in building trust and reputation within its own SMB channel partner base. Cisco’s Brand Equity Score within its SMB channel partners is higher than most – but lower than scores for both IBM and Microsoft. The implication of these findings is that even through Cisco has high brand equity amongst its channel partners; it is not necessarily true that its entire SMB-focused channel base is firmly wedded to Cisco’s game plan.

Breaking down the data for Cisco, Techaisle’s study finds that almost 25 percent of Cisco’s channel partners have a Brand Equity rating of 80+ (on a scale of 1 to 100). This group forms Cisco’s core partners. The data also shows that almost 35 percent of Cisco’s SMB channel partners have equity of less than 40. These are the partners that Cisco needs to work on.

Interestingly, small business focused channel partners give a higher Brand Equity Score to Cisco than mid-market focused channel partners. This is a segment that Cisco should address as the mid-market is a battleground for most IT vendors and there is yet no clear dominant player.

Among all SMB channel partners of Cisco, VARs are actually driving up the Brand Equity Score. In fact 41 percent of VARs constitute the HBE (High Brand Equity) group. On the other hand, MSPs constitute only 20 percent. In order for Cisco to continue to grow its CMSP program and build on its initial successes, Cisco has to turn its attention to the MSPs that serve the SMBs to understand the key reasons for lower brand equity.

Drilling down further into the data, Techaisle finds that Cisco is not doing better within the overall managed services community than it is within MSPs focused on cloud. A higher percentage of Cisco’s HBE partners are offering managed services to SMBs whereas a higher percentage of ABE (Average Brand Equity) partners are offering Cloud to SMBs. Cisco’s SMB cloud ambitions would benefit from moving some of these ABE cloud partners to HBE segment. The HBE segment offering cloud services need extensive training on cloud solutions to become more successful in offering cloud to their SMB customers. More than 40 percent of these channel partners are working with SMB customers that have private cloud. This may be good for Cisco in the short-term but it does not represent best practice in this segment, and it is misaligned with the ongoing acceptance of public cloud as a preferred IT delivery platform.

Product resale revenue is 43 percent for HBE partners as compared to 38 percent for ABE. Similarly, recurring revenue is 57 percent for HBE as compared to 61 percent for ABE. Naturally, this bodes well for Cisco’s current revenue as the High Brand Equity partners are driving higher revenues from products. However, if Cisco plans to increasingly promote services then a lot more work is required to identify partners with higher services revenues and move them into the High Brand Equity segment.

Final Perspective

Brand Equity Score findings help indicate areas of expansion or exposure as vendors, like Cisco, assess their potential for expanding the footprint of their brands within the SMB channel partner community. The composition of Cisco’s BES across its channel indicates the core strength of its brand. Techaisle’s analysis indicates that Cisco has both strengths to build on and areas requiring focus as it moves to position its next-generation solutions (especially, cloud solutions) through its channel to the SMB market.

Techaisle’s brand management work is anchored in the belief that if a vendor’s brand equity is good, then it can compete successfully with vendors with lower brand equity for sales of comparable products or services. Vendors with sound products/services but low brand equity will struggle to maintain parity with competitors that have higher brand equity, even if that vendor’s products/services are (somewhat) inferior.

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