IT to the Rescue: Dealers Pivot to Technology Needs of End-Users

It can be said that when one is doing business in the cloud, a facemask is not required.

Office technology dealers were confronted with the new reality of COVID-19 around the middle of March. Many of their clients would begin operating from home, with the exception of businesses deemed as essential. Fortunately, dealers also earned the essential tag, but the nationwide mobilization sent a large percentage of them home as well, leaving a skeleton crew on-site.

A few things became immediately apparent. Not only did dealers need to have a work-from-home infrastructure, their clients had the same requirements for accessing files and data. That meant laptops/desktops, desktop printers, software and, in some cases, telephony. The initial three to four weeks of the quarantine edict produced a flurry of activity as dealers mobilized to bring comfort and resolution to client employees, many of whom had previously done scant remote work outside of answering a few emails/texts from home.

Jeff Loeb, Prosource

One irrefutable truth also came to the foreground: it was a darn fine time to be an IT services provider.

Help-desk tickets cranked out like restaurant dinner orders at 6 p.m. Clients needed assistance in accessing and sharing their data, gaining access to servers, establishing VPNs and ensuring that work-from-home operations were being conducted in a way that provided security for the end-users and their clients. Unified communications as a service caught fire, and suddenly, the question of “to cloud or not to cloud” switched from a question of “if” to a question of “when.” In many cases, “when” became “now.”

We expect to see another spike in support calls as people start to return to the office.

– Jeff Loeb, Prosource

While COVID-19 certainly placed an onerous drag on the MFP world, leaving many dealers without IT offerings hamstrung, those dealers positioned to provide managed IT/network services found themselves in a strong position to mitigate the negative impact of an at-home spring. Our refocused State of the Industry report examines how dealers have pivoted to serve the managed IT needs brought about by this, at least temporary, new normal.

Wired for IT

Cincinnati-based Prosource dealt with the revamped circumstances by prioritizing the health and safety of its own people, followed by a plan that would enable it to continue to provide the same level of service to customers. Fortunately, the dealer’s technologies division (like many) was already hard-wired, so to speak, for its own remote operation. All of its managed IT services clients have the ability to connect to their work computers from home, and Prosource sent a reminder with instructions to clients for connecting remotely.

Jeff Loeb, senior vice president, technologies, noted some clients had specific needs, such as VPNs and phone system challenges, which the dealer navigated through individually. “Support call volumes during the first week of the stay-at-home order were 50% higher than average as we helped our customers go remote,” he said. “That number dropped over the following weeks, leveling out to our normal support load after five weeks. We expect to see another spike in support calls as people start to return to the office.”

Brad Cates, Prosource

President and CEO Brad Cates stressed that customers are universally seeking ways to reduce costs, leverage technology to communicate and operate more efficiently. The bottom line is discovering ways to do more with less. That entails a mixture of IT- and print-based solutions in support of both essential businesses and remote clients. The dealer also made its remote-in tool available to non-managed services customers at a deep discount to assist their transition to at-home operations.

“The security measures we have in place for our managed services clients also became extremely important now that we had users on their home networks connecting to the corporate network,” Loeb added.

Focusing on the remote workforce in support of business continuity was the overarching theme for Prosource. Cybersecurity, protecting the clients’ work network with the at-home influx, and phone/hosted voice were the central points of conversation, according to Loeb. On the last point, clients with an old, on-premise PBX system had no way of accessing their corporate phone networks from home, whereas hosted voice customers enjoyed plug-and-go operability, making a modern VoIP system virtually essential.

In terms of workflow and document-automation solutions, Loeb points out that the shift to remote work has emphasized the vitality of an automated office. While these are larger projects that require substantial time to ramp up, COVID-19 has certainly opened the door to such conversations.

“People get it now,” Loeb added. “Previously, we would talk about how important it is to have a business continuity plan in case of fire, cybersecurity threat or another what-if scenario. Those scenarios are now much more real, and we’re talking about what organizations need to do so that next time, they’re ready.”

Foundation Built

It has been a productive time for Advanced Imaging Solutions (AIS). Two years ago, the Minnetonka, Minnesota-based dealer had transitioned from desktop devices to laptops, enabling employees to become productive anywhere they set up shop. AIS used a terminal service that hosted its CRM so employees could connect remotely via VPN. The dealer also migrated to a hosted voice solution, ensuring unfettered communications.

Stephanie Keating Phillips, AIS

“The foundation was already in place for our people to work from home,” noted Stephanie Keating Phillips, director of solutions. “It was just a matter of setting up new expectations, learning how to sell differently and changing the way communication was done from face-to-face to video.”

AIS reached out to ensure that its client base had all the tools necessary for remote work. “Almost all our managed IT clients had scheduled a project, ordered computers or purchased a hosted voice solution to allow their companies to also have a seamless work environment at home,” she added. “It has been a very successful couple of months.”

Heading the most-wanted technologies list for AIS clients are Microsoft and its Office 365 platform, VPN connectivity and hosted voice solutions. The dealer has been kept busy moving other various applications to the cloud or onto a terminal server at an office and setting up VPN connectivity.

The solutions haven’t been limited to connectivity. AIS has fielded numerous requests for PaperCut offerings, while others have inquired about job ticketing. EFI solutions have been a fit for various client workflows, as well. With free time on their hands, customers have had the opportunity to investigate their processes, thus workflow and document management have been popular topics of conversation.

People who don’t have these solutions currently in place have seen what hasn’t worked well for their business efficiencies while working remotely, and are more open to talking about how to digitize and streamline their workflow processes.

– Stephanie Keating Phillips, AIS

“People who don’t have these solutions currently in place have seen what hasn’t worked well for their business efficiencies while working remotely, and are more open to talking about how to digitize and streamline their workflow processes,” she said. “These conversations really work well from a video conference standpoint, because you can collaborate with people in business who may not typically take the time to be part of these conversations until the end of the process. Instead, they are open to taking the time as a group to talk best business practices, watch webinars on proposed solutions and see their own information live in a workflow that they helped create.”

John Lowery, Applied Imaging

Once it became apparent that COVID-19 would visit the United States, the brain trust at Applied Imaging commenced devising ways to help mitigate the impact on local businesses. The thrust was on ensuring clients would get maximum attention at a rapid base, notes President John Lowery. Backed by its NetSmart Plus offering and its reputation as one of the largest managed network services providers in the Midwest, Applied Imaging correctly anticipated a spike in call volume and augmented its help-desk staff. The dealer also intensified its communication frequency with clients and prospects to let them know how it could assist with customer infrastructure.

Providing Reassurance

“We identified relevant content that would be best to share with the community to ease anxiety over what could potentially come,” Lowery said. “The increase of staff ensured our answer rate was less than one minute.”

Being an end-to-end service provider—offering document lifecycle solutions that guide from creation through destruction—Applied Imaging was able to generate tremendous interest throughout its product and service dossier:

  • Managed network services—the company’s NetSmart Plus IT division, which furnishes IT help desk, cybersecurity, VPN access and video conferencing.
  • Electronic content management—workflow and storage/retrieval solutions that allow employees to remotely access critical documents.
  • Shredding—the ShredHub division provides secure and compliant shred bags to ensure a client’s printed documents are destructed properly with their home-based employees.
  • Work-from-home—the package includes desktop MFPs for employee home use and a connectivity solutions package for self-installation and troubleshooting.

Lowery notes that Applied Imaging also fielded requests for training resources that could enable client employees to become educated and garner new skills to help increase productivity. Through NetSmart Plus, the dealer offers a training program designed for onboarding new employees and continued education for incumbent workers, touching on topics ranging from cybersecurity training and time management to specific modules for Microsoft products (PowerPoint, OneDrive, SharePoint, etc.).
In terms of ancillary offerings, Applied Imaging has had success promoting its workflow and content storage/retrieval software from DocuWare and Hyland. As the pandemic caught many end-users flat-footed, the lack of remote access to files truly underscored the need for document management tools.

We identified relevant content that would be best to share with the community to ease anxiety over what could potentially come.

– John Lowery, Applied Imaging

“Our ECM team hosts several webinars per month to dive into the challenges for each industry or department, and how electronic document management can help with their workflow, whether they are at their home or in the office, one mile away or across the country,” Lowery explained. “We’ve also been very successful with discussing remote collaboration tools such as our file, sync and share offering by (Hyland’s) ShareBase.”

Seizing on Opportunities

Verticomm, the managed IT services arm of Denver-based All Copy Products, has been the beneficiary of owner Brad Knepper’s cross-selling initiative. A little more than six months ago, the collective business identified its greatest opportunities in IT and telephony solutions, and sought to add more managed contracts to its base of 12,000 copier pacts. Delving into the print clientele would have the effect of adding net-new business on the Verticomm side. As COVID-19 took hold, the company had a front-row seat to see its agenda play out.

Calvin Wanner, Verticomm

“We definitely were capitalizing on what we believed to be the future of our business, which is IT,” noted Calvin Wanner, director of IT sales for Verticomm. “While clients were previously reluctant to move to the cloud, they quickly realized how not having redundancy in place impacted their businesses.”

According to Wanner, the company focused on going deeper and wider in current accounts and ensured clients had the necessary remote work tools—laptops, remote phone and cloud capabilities, with server/database access. While much of the work was billable as time and materials, it also entailed reallocating client resources from the office to home.

“Security was huge,” Wanner related. “When they were inside a network, they had the infrastructure and the security processes in place. Now they were depending on their infrastructure and how it was set up, working over a VPN or an insecure network.”

While clients were previously reluctant to move to the cloud, they quickly realized how not having redundancy in place impacted their businesses.

– Calvin Wanner, Verticomm

Verticomm was pleasantly surprised to see phone systems become the biggest growth opportunity. Initially, Wanner said the company banked on many competitors not being able to have the scale, or the nimbleness, to serve the SMB segment for managed IT services. And with ample opportunities in the pipeline, Verticomm was able to capitalize where the mom-and-pop providers didn’t have the reach or the major solutions firms were too big to help facilitate the process.

Ultimately, however, the major providers of phone platforms were the competitors that failed to deliver on their promises, at least from the SMB perspective. That opened the door for Verticomm to pounce.

“Phone systems are no longer smile and dial, but true unified communications platform-as-a-service offerings, with features such as audio bridges, conference bridges, video conferencing capabilities, screen sharing and annotating,” Wanner noted. “Those tools really helped us immediately close deals, in addition to being able to provide mobile and desktop applications for their phone systems locally to their home. We were able to capitalize over larger corporations like Comcast and CenturyLink, with their basic phone systems, or Zoom, which just offers the video-conferencing platform. We were able to incorporate the best of both worlds and sell it as a product.”

Bullet-Proof IT

Managed IT firms have the added advantage of already being well-equipped (and versed) for remote working environments. Another firm that fits this description is Novatech of Nashville, Tennessee, which in March of 2019 acquired DynaSis, an Atlanta-based IT specialist with 27 years under its belt. The firm had weathered a severe ice storm and other turbulent events that left other area businesses out of commission. Once it joined the Novatech family, the former DynaSis mobilized to ensure that its new parent (with 18 offices) was equipped to work from home.

Chas Arnold, Novatech

Chas Arnold, the vice president of IT services for Novatech and the IT company’s co-founder, noted the company saw its help-desk ticket count double since the quarantine order went into effect. Much of the work has centered on teaching clients the ropes with Office 365—moving data into SharePoint and helping clients connect with one another through Teams. Providing cybersecurity protection and securing networks also represented a major share of their efforts.

Novatech sells the managed office platform—managed print, copiers, printers, software solutions, managed IT, cybersecurity and cloud solutions. Everything short of the coffee machine falls under the dealer’s aegis.

Our go-to-market strategy is to proactively monitor, manage and maintain everything in the building, except what’s in the break room.

– Chas Arnold, Novatech

“Our go-to-market strategy is to proactively monitor, manage and maintain everything in the building, except what’s in the break room,” Arnold noted. “We do have all kinds of integrated systems. We offer a lot of software around the printers and copiers. PaperCut is a great solution, along with M-Files for document management, and we do XMedius for the back end. Those three solutions have really taken off during the last 60 days.”

Erik Cagle
About the Author
Erik Cagle is the editorial director of ENX Magazine. He is an author, writer and editor who spent 18 years covering the commercial printing industry.