Carl: Welcome to the Connected Enterprise podcast, where our guests share how they stay connected. I'm your host, Carl Lewis from Vision 33, and my guest is Mark Loveys from Datagate. Mark, please tell us about yourself, Datagate, and your role there.
Mark: Thank you, Carl. My background is in financial software solutions. I've worked with SAP business One and was CEO of Enprise, which developed a job cost solution and was how you and I met. My new company is called Datagate and focuses on billing for managed service providers who sell telecom services. It's a very niche product in the financial software world.
Mark: It's the new world of the cloud, and an SaaS product, so it's great to be working with you again, Carl, and Vision 33.
Carl: Always happy to do it, Mark. You mentioned you’re in a niche industry. What do you see people doing with automation and other things?
Mark: Exciting changes are happening in the MSP world. Several years ago, we referred to these businesses as IT companies or system integrators – but with the cloud and SaaS, they've had to reinvent their businesses. Now they're focused on recurring revenue and services, longer-term customer relationships, and becoming brokers of online services and the front face for the cloud.
Mark: We see big convergences happening in the market – how phones and computers have effectively become the same thing. The MSP industry can now sell voice solutions. Voice Over IP, unified comms, Microsoft Teams, many products that bring voice into the IT world. That brings new challenges, but it also means there's a greater need for automation because when you're working on a service that's billed every month, you're typically talking smaller but more regular invoices, and you want more automation. That's where we come in with Datagate.
Carl: The invoices I've seen for some providers like the folks you're talking about are long, with a lot of detail. You don't want to be doing data entry with that stuff.
Mark: You're right, Carl. It's not only the detail and complexity; the information you give on an invoice can be a big differentiator. But these managed service providers moving in to become telco providers suddenly have to comply with rules and regulations in the telecom industry and collect taxes and be compliant in the jurisdictions their customers live.
Mark: That brings on new complexity we've focused on – solving that complexity with a solution that’s easy to manage all the taxes. We have partners to help with the tax compliance, like the company CCH SureTax, which calculates all the taxes. This is something we've been able to solve for them as they move into the telecom space.
Carl: One thing I can imagine is that the data storage space required by these companies must be massive – do you end up with a lot of players providing various pieces that go into this overall solution?
Mark: That's something we see in the world of the cloud – getting solutions that stand up in the cloud and communicate with each other. An example for is how we communicate with SAT financial products, like CCH SureTax, and we reside on huge cloud platforms with vast resources, and they can process huge amounts of data. It's exciting because it's now available to small businesses, whereas in the past this computing power would be solely in the domain of the large corporates.
Carl: What ideas do you have about ways to make these technologies consistently work well?
Mark: Look for adjacent opportunities. Especially in the world of the cloud, where you're providing a service regularly to a customer on a subscription. Look for other services or products that add value to what you're already providing your customer because existing customers are the easiest ones to upsell to. And this is what the managed service provider industry is finding – that they’re in an excellent position to sell telco services because they have close relationships with their customers, much closer than the very large telcos. The managed service providers understand the daily operations more clearly of their customers and are in a better position to sell telecoms services.
Mark: But this applies to many businesses; where else can you be selling and how can you differentiate yourself from your competitors? Because the more offerings you sell to/offer your customers, the more difficult it is for your competitors to push you out … because you have so many connections with your customer, the competitors would need to provide the same services. We see it as a good way to drive customer loyalty – being of more value to your customer with more offerings.
Carl: The only danger I see is, have you ever been to a restaurant where the menu's so big you can't figure out what to order? I need my menu broken down into pieces a little better for me sometimes.
Carl: Make those choices easier to come by. Companies are generating massive amounts of information and sending it in invoices that can be hundreds of pages long, how is that type of business communication done today, and is it changing?
Mark: Automation is the key here, again. One primary piece of media you have going to your customers is your invoice. An invoice can be a good communicator of information, particularly if it gives the customer data they can use. For example, breaking down the charges into cost centers, areas that make the life of the accounting department of your customers easier, will make customers very loyal to you. We also believe in regular newsletters, so our monthly newsletter goes to all our customers, suppliers, investors, everyone with interest in Datagate. And the trick is to always have universally interesting stories.
Mark: We also regularly publish articles on LinkedIn, update our website, and attend conferences to socialize in the industry we target. I'm a great believer in conferences, and I know you are, too. It's another area you and I have collaborated on in the past. Also, looking at partners who target the same customers we do. Adding content to their websites is a great way to get in front of customers. Thought leadership, also one of your strengths, Carl, and writing articles, giving them to magazines or publications, finding interesting angles and ideas about business to get yourself more known to your customers. I believe in these things, and a lot of it comes down to the written word and getting out and meeting people at conferences.
Carl: That's one challenge. Information is plentiful in our world. You used to have to do a lot more research, but now you get targeted with a lot of stuff from a lot of people. The challenge is, how do you communicate effectively inside and outside your organization and collaborate with critical people? You mentioned these things you and I have been part of, but because everybody does so much of it, it's hard to set yourself apart. How do you think people do that, Mark?
Mark: There’s a need for personal connection. I find a great way to start relationships is meeting someone face to face; that’s why I'm a believer in conferences. In the United States, there's a huge conference industry and meeting someone in person sets up a strong connection. But it's also relevance – understanding your customer and their requirements. You must understand their pain, their aspirations, what they're trying to do with their business, and which problems they want to solve. So, to me, nothing is more important than getting out and communicating with customers to understand what's important to them. Their pain points, their aspirations … then you can build that into the communications you're working with.
Mark: Managed service providers are looking at eventually exiting their business. They're growing a business, but they want to retire one day and sell the business for a good price, so they want to make their business more valuable. They're also looking at the unique challenges of running a recurring revenue business and how to grow revenue quickly. They hate too much complexity, so I'm always thinking, “How do I simplify their lives, help them make more revenue, and grow the value of their business?” Those are the underlying themes I like to build on.
Carl: That touches on my next question: Do you see automation being used to simplify problems like too much information, too many channels, too much complexity, etc.?
Mark: There's so much information out there, as you say, and it's, “How do I find what's relevant?” Luckily, there are incredible resources online – so make sure your articles are reaching the people searching for certain topics! I also believe in keeping things short and concise; things that are too long lose your audience.
Mark: One of the best exercises I’ve done was working on five-minute pitches about my business. That’s when you talk about your business in five minutes, and it's more difficult than it sounds because you want to explain everything. So you revise and revise and revise; every sentence, ask, “Is that necessary?” or “Is that worded efficiently?” Because if you can be concise, you can get your message across. And a refined five-minute pitch is a powerful thing.
Mark: So, there are several approaches, but being concise and targeting your messages are key.
Carl: I agree – being brief is a lost art. I once went to an old-style religious meeting, and the preacher went on and on; I heard one lady say, under her breath, "He really waxed eloquent today," and the person next to her said, "What she means is, he bored her to death." It's easy to go on too long. That's a good tip.
Carl: We hear about artificial intelligence and machine learning and things like that. Have you seen that applied to more of the personal side, like we were talking about? Getting the information I need and the information I want to communicate to the people who need to hear it? Do you see people doing that, or do you think a lot of it is still just conversation and we're hoping to get there?
Mark: There's a lot of work being done in that space right now – a lot of research and development about AI around the emotional side of people and recognizing when somebody's interested and how people are reacting. I see a lot of that work with colleagues, and it’s something I'm interested in. We see bots on the internet, artificial people, effectively, that you can communicate with, and the future of apps will be interacting with a person. The real beauty is when the app can tune in to you a little bit and understand hey, this person's frustrated, or happy, or anxious, and altering the interaction based on that.
Mark: I focus on billing for phone bills for MSPs, but all that technology can be applied to understanding who you're targeting and what they want to see. Our target is, “How do we make our invoices work better for the recipient and the sender, and what technology can we use? Maybe we’ll have a survey at the end: “How do you find our invoices?” “Are they helpful?” “Do they clarify information, help you do your job faster, or do they slow you down?” “Do you have to re-key things?”
Mark: I'm excited about the way technology is heading, where we're getting that human component into it. How does this work for you, as a person? Is it making your life easier or harder? It's all coinciding, and the future is that we’ll interact with applications just like people, like with Siri and similar models. It's going to be more of a human connection.
Carl: One challenge businesses are talking about more is the customer experience. We all want to know, is it good or bad? We try hard – ask for surveys at the end of every engagement, for example – but it’s hard to get responses. And like you said, where you get the communication is face to face, one on one. The challenge of bots, artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc. is that to bring a human experience, or other indicators that are the same as a human experience, we need data to act on and measure. Are you guys trying to do that with your customers and their experience with your invoices?
Mark: Yes. We love the Net Promoter Score system. It’s where you ask, “How likely are you to recommend this service to your friends or colleagues?” And respondents answer on a scale of one to ten. It's such a simple response they can give you, and I'm a great believer in just one answer. Yes, it's a ten out of ten, or a one out of ten, and that's it. And that tells the business if they’re on the right track or if there’s something wrong.
Mark: I’ve used that extensively, and it's helped me correct situations where I had no idea a customer was unhappy ... it gives you a chance to remedy problems. That's something we're just now implementing at Datagate because Datagate's a reasonably new business. We're at the level of customers where we're starting to do this, and there are some excellent solutions for doing it. We're looking at a solution called Ask Nicely. They work on the same principle – “keep it simple” communication – how happy are you with the service?
Carl: It's going to be interesting to start using these new technologies and see how they’ll help us because I like the simplicity of some of what we're doing now, like the Net Promoter Score. Once I have that basic ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ I'm interested in the nuances, right?
Carl: And today, if I want the nuances, I have to pick up the phone and dig into it – if they're willing to dig into it, which is sometimes a challenge.
Mark: The important thing at a human level is that the customer knows you care, that you want to do the right thing by them, and if there's a problem you'll sort it out. Those are the businesses people like dealing with, the ones that try to get it right in the first place, but if anything goes wrong, they’ll jump in and fix it. It comes down to the culture of the business you're dealing with, and the Net Promoter Score is an excellent tool for driving that.
Carl: Absolutely. Mark, I appreciate you joining us on the Connected Enterprise podcast. I'm positive there's someone out there who's going to find what you had to say today helpful and identify with your experience. As we talked about, I try to keep these things brief to the point, so thanks for being with us, and until next time, I hope you and all of our guests will stay connected.
Mark: Thanks, Carl, it's my pleasure.