The Digital Signage Insider

The Strange Tension Between Automation and Managed Services

Published on: 2012-09-05

Over the last few weeks I've answered a number of questions about so-called "managed services," which in the digital signage ecosystem might mean anything from scheduling truck rolls for on-site repairs to converting beta tape to digital (yes, that does still happen). However, while there are still plenty of services where a flesh-and-blood person can add value, many software makers have done everything possible to let the computer schedule, automate and manage tasks that used to be a lot more hands-on. Unfortunately, while these features can be great for the end user, they may also create a more difficult sales proposition for software providers and their partners.

Can a software or service's strengths make it harder to sell?

The thing that really prompted me to write this blog article was the second product demo/conversation that went something like this:

Image credit: Micah Craig on Flickr
Client: So tell me about your managed services. Do you offer a network monitoring service?

Me: We do offer different network management services. But I think much of what you'd want to do can be found in our automated features. Tell me about what you'd like to do.

Client: Mainly we'd like to know when something goes wrong with a player -- if it reboots or if it stops playing, for example.

Me: Ok, well if that's what your looking for, our automated features will do exactly what you need -- no additional services needed. How would you like to be notified?

Client: Email or text. We have a call list for each of our locations, so there would be different people responsible for the players at each location.

Me: Perfect. So I think our automated reporting system will do exactly what you want. You can configure it to send emails or SMS messages to different members of your team if a player stops checking in, has rebooted, reports playback errors, or reports any other events that you might find important. It's built-in, ready-to-go, and requires no intervention or active management.

Client: Ok, but we're really looking for more of a managed service.

Me: To detect when players report problems?

Client: Right.

Me: And send messages out to specific staff members when something happens?

Client: Right.

Me: And you want it to work behind-the-scenes, so your staff doesn't have to do anything unless they get some kind of notification?

Client: Right.

Me: Almost as if it was... automatic?

Client: ...
Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut, charged a few extra bucks a month and been done with it, but this is a no-brainer case for automation. And yes, I understand that there are other services that benefit from real human intervention -- we do offer those too. But in both of my recent conversations, the client didn't articulate anything that couldn't be done faster, cheaper and better (yes, all three) by a built-in function that would cost them zero extra dollars. I think I ultimately got my point across in these cases, but only with considerable effort.

Can one man's feature be another man's detractor?

Over the years, we've developed a lot of features to automate the boring but important tasks that need to be handled in virtually every digital signage network. This has generally been great news for our customers, who benefit from increased efficiency and can productively apply themselves with all of their newfound time. But it has also had the effect of taking away a few of the low-hanging fruit services that some VARs and integrators might have been charging for. And while I just don't see the value of having a person manually move content into folders or send out emails that could just as easily have been sent automatically, I know there are plenty who might disagree.

In a perfect world, as technology advances to take over easy jobs, a VAR or integrator would shift to offer new services where they could add real value. In our imperfect world, though, it can be tough to ditch old revenue streams, especially when moving up the value chain means adding new skills or preparing new and untested service offerings.

While there's no easy way to deal with having a part of your job automated away, the good news is that automation makes us more efficient, and the time we previously had to spend delivering these services can be reapplied in other ways. Maybe that means preparing a new and even more valuable offering, perhaps including some of the logistics services that tend to be more difficult to automate. Or maybe it means doubling down on sales efforts to bring in more new deals, since there's less work to be done on each. Either way, the advent of a new feature that does more of your work for you doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing.

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