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Understanding and Managing Projects for MSPs

Understanding and Managing Projects for MSPs

MSPs offer two basic types of services: Projects and support.

Whereas support services involve ongoing efforts, projects are specific tasks of limited scope -- such as the setup of new servers or the replacement of a phone system. Projects require careful planning and scheduling to get right and complete within the agreed-upon timeframe.

Although projects may seem simple on the surface, understanding what counts as a project, how contracts impact projects and how to manage projects can get tricky, especially for MSPs without a great deal of experience in project management.

To help MSPs with this challenge, this article offers tips on how best to approach and manage MSP projects in a way that helps your business develop and keeps your clients happy.

Differences between MSP Support Services and MSP Projects

First, let’s break down the differences between support services and projects for an MSP business.

With traditional support services, you usually have an agreement with your clients to provide a range of support services whenever required. This contract allows employees at your client’s company to call you, file a ticket, email you or otherwise engage with you to request technical support whenever a covered issue arises.

Projects, on the other hand, are work that you perform outside the scope of any support contracts you have with your clients. You could also perform a project without having a support contract with a client at all. Projects are typically limited to a specific set of tasks that you agree to perform for the client before the project is initiated.

Common examples of projects that MSPs might perform include:

  • Installations - Large-scale installations, such as installing several servers in a new office building or adding a phone system. These installations usually require planning. They may also require SLAs or MSAs that outline what the installation will include and what it does not include (or what is optional).
  • Moves - An MSP might provide moving services by moving the physical infrastructure of a client from one office or data center to another.
  • Changes - Changes can be anything from small changes to a client PC or a server OS change. Although small, fast changes (like updating an application on a workstation) sometimes fall within the scope of support services, more substantial changes should be performed as projects, since they require some planning.

Separating Support from Projects

There is always something of a gray area separating support services from projects. Ultimately, it’s up to you, the MSP, to decide which types of tasks fall within the scope of your support agreements with customers, and which should be treated as projects.

Making the right decision is important because you typically don’t get paid extra for services that you perform as part of a support agreement. Therefore, if you categorize a given task as support when it should really be a project, you lose out on revenue and end providing your clients with free work.

On the other hand, you need to make sure that you treat clients fairly when deciding what counts as a project, and respect any contractual agreements you have with your clients.

In general, ask yourselves these questions to determine whether a given task constitutes a project:

  • Does it require a non-negligible amount of planning? Updating an application on a single workstation might require just a few minutes of forethought, and is not really a project. But updating a whole office’s worth of workstations requires much more planning, and is a project.
  • Does it need to be coordinated in a certain way to minimize disruption? If you can perform a task at any time without seriously impacting your client’s business operations, it is probably a minor support task and not a project. But tasks such as the moving of infrastructure from one building to another, or the replacement of a business-critical file system, require you to plan around the client’s needs in order to minimize disruption. They should, therefore, be treated as projects.
  • Are you creating something fundamentally new, or just maintaining what already exists? If you’re creating (or adding) something new, it’s probably a project. Support services focus on maintaining what already exists.
  • Do your contracts define how the task should be categorized? You’ll want to check your contracts with your clients to determine whether the contracts specifically categorize a given task as a standalone project or a service that falls within the scope of predefined support agreements. For more on that, keep reading...

MSP Projects in SLAs and MSAs

Again, when you are trying to decide whether to treat a task as a project or not, check your contracts to see whether the task is specifically mentioned in the contract, or could reasonably be included within the scope of other services defined in the contract. There are two main types of contracts to consult:

  • SLAs (Service-Level Agreements) are vital to most projects. Depending on the nature of the project, the project manager should review an SLA to help minimize any risks or problems that may occur in the future both when the task has been completed and after completion. SLAs often include performance standards, resolution times and response times should anything go wrong. For project management, SLAs can be used to measure performance. Your performance, when dealing with a project, should be set at an achievable level of attainable, predetermined metrics. This could also relate to response and resolution time in the event of service disruption.
  • MSAs (Master Service Agreements) are similar to SLAs. They are a type of contract that is used to govern all future transactions and agreements between your MSP business and your client. An MSA can establish requirements and conditions from both parties. Sometimes, an MSA could include language about risk and indemnification that could relate to whether a task is a project or service.

Project Agreements

If you are performing work not governed by an SLA or MSA, it’s a good idea to write up a project agreement that defines exactly what a project entails and what the anticipated timeline for completion is.  The project agreement serves as a contract separate from your SLA that puts in writing the project-based task that you have agreed to perform for your client.

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Use RMM Project Modules

If you have a complex MSP project to complete, you will need to plan it carefully. Software tools can help you with this task.

Many remote maintenance and monitoring (RMM) software tools can integrate with project features or applications and help you initiate projects. Some project modules include agile planning applications that allow you to create plans across the whole team, enabling people to work with full context and complete visibility into the project.

Along with this, most RMMs that have project modules attached usually include project estimating features. With this, you can add the financial estimations, resource estimation and time consumption estimation for each section of your project. This can be vital to ensure you're entirely in control of your resources.

Some large scale applications don't quite offer ‘project level' management; however, they do offer automation of tasks that can reduce time and save on human interaction with a few clicks -- which could be essential in helping you stick to the schedule.

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Project Management Classes

Although it may seem like overkill, project management classes are readily available to help you gain knowledge and experience in project management. Since most MSPs have backgrounds in technical fields, not project management, a project management course can be a good way to jumpstart your ability to manage complex projects.

You can also consider gaining project management certification. There is a well-known certification for project management called ‘Prince2'. This certification will provide you with the skills to make you confident when successfully managing projects. When dealing with larger-scale issues that require planning (projects), you can make an informed decision to help others with the project/task at hand.

Conclusion

For an MSP business, defining and managing projects is more complicated than it may first appear. But with the right understanding of the differences between support services and projects, as well as the proper skills and tools, you can manage your MSP projects successfully.

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