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What’s really stopping MSPs from adopting automation?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Vasin Lee)

MSPs do some incredibly complex and technically demanding complex work. They can make sure a complex IT estate is monitored and patched, protect their customers from attack, and figure out difficult help desk requests. They also, however, do a lot of rote, repetitive tasks for businesses that are simply not set up to complete these jobs efficiently.

This need to perform repetitive tasks, if done manually, can create human error—and it can indicate that talent is being wasted on menial activities. Automation can help solve this issue, so it should be an easy sell. But many MSPs are not investing in the skills and technology to automate more of what they do. Part of this is an overriding fear from staff that it will take away jobs. But the aim of automation, done right, is not to replace staff—instead, it opens up opportunities to focus on more meaningful work that fuels growth for the business and technicians. 

Automation is not just about increasing overall efficiency—it can also be a differentiator. MSPs that fail to automate lose the opportunity to show how tech-savvy and efficient they can be, especially to customers that expect it. A customer questioning why things are being done the “old fashioned” way may not stick around for long.

This isn’t old news either: MSPs know about the benefits of automation and want to change but there are barriers. Automation is often a discussion point alongside complex topics like machine learning and artificial intelligence, and that can make it feel overwhelming, leading many to admit defeat before even starting. But automation for MSPs doesn’t need to be overly complex. It’s not an overnight revolution but a journey—and it can start small. 

Automating into a job, not out of one 

One of the biggest problems of automation, from front line IT staff at least, is the fear that automation might make them redundant, figuratively and literally. This can lead them to avoid automation altogether—one report from KPMG found an estimated 67 percent of tech workers feared they would be automated out of a job. But this is far from the truth, most MSPs that want to automate their work do not to reduce their staff head count and instead do more with the staff they have.

By adopting automation in the right areas, MSPs can better allocate their staff to more demanding jobs that require more thought from their employees. The IT staff that does learn automation ends up automating themselves into jobs. A recent McKinsey report shows that the focus to increase automation has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and that increasing automation will significantly shift the need for skill profiles to accommodate the ‘next normal.’ IT departments need people with the right skills to develop, manage, and maintain automated environments, so IT professionals will need to start building these skills to remain employable.

MSPs don’t know where to start

One of automation’s biggest challenges is simply deciding where to start. The prospect of automation can seem overwhelming, but it should be broken down into automating simple, smaller tasks. Even in small areas, automation can create huge benefits. Only after these tasks are automated should MSPs build up to bigger more complex projects. 

The best place to start is ticketing. Here technicians can seek out and find the issues that occur the most often and determine what can be done to reduce time to resolution. Each element that can be automated may save a technician anywhere from a few minutes to hours, or even days of work in the aggregate. Outside of ticketing, investing one hour to self-heal a disk cleanup on laptops and workstations can remove several calls per week—saving MSPs more than one hour per week in technician time. 

It might seem counterintuitive, but it’s important not to make automation its own dedicated project. MSPs are too busy to be investing a sizeable portion of their resources in one particular area. Automation, when just beginning, should be a discussion point and a side project. Some MSPs do this by scheduling weekly or monthly meetings to identify common issues that occur and then look to resolve them. Automating is easier than you think, and the resources to help are easily available.

Opportunities to automate 

To get MSPs started, here is a list of a few key areas MSPs can look to automate.

Ticketing: Ask any technician, and they will likely tell you they receive at least ten near-identical tickets each week. By identifying these, MSPs can try to find a process for automating these tickets. IT technicians can spend significant amounts of time going through hundreds of tickets per week, so even saving a few minutes per ticket can provide some valuable time back. 

Client billing: Areas outside of the help desk can also present opportunities to automate. Accurate and timely billing is essential to maintain a healthy customer relationship. If this is a completely manual activity, it runs the risk of introducing errors and slowing down the overall process of the billing department. MSPs should see every part of the business as an opportunity to automate; soon they’ll find there are aspects of HR, accounting, and management that present themselves. 

Updates: Managing and deploying updates for security is an important part of any IT department’s responsibilities. If an antivirus solution isn’t deployed, configured, and updated correctly—and in a timely manner—it can result in MSPs and client environments becoming vulnerable to bad actors. Automation can help you steer clear of these pitfalls, and if full automation isn’t possible, reminders can help.

The biggest benefit of automation 

It’s believed by many that the biggest benefit of automation is time savings and accuracy, but the biggest benefit can actually be a shift in company culture. For MSPs that typically operate small teams, workloads can often be overwhelming at times. By automating tasks, not only are MSPs creating a business that is efficient at addressing client needs, they’re also creating a more positive work environment with increased productivity levels and stronger customer retention. MSPs need to stop worrying about the barriers to automation, and instead see the opportunities… and take those vital first steps. 

Marc-Andre Tanguay, Head Automation Nerd, N-able

Marc-Andre Tanguay is Head Automation Nerd at N-able. Having worked one-on-one with hundreds of MSPs—helping them create, optimize, and employ some of the strongest automation processes in our industry—he’s a vital resource for N-able partners worldwide.