Selling the first server

A server can make life easier for a small business customer and for you – but how do you convince them of that?

Server installations go wrong for any number of reasons, especially when it’s the first time the business has had a server, and for the strangest reasons. The server was built to specification. The engineer was on time and eager to start. The problem? The customer didn’t like the colour.

“It’s true. We have had engineers turned away from customer premises because the PCs were black and not white when unboxed,” says Andy Trish, the director of Cornwall-based Microsoft Gold Partner NCI Technologies, who takes it quietly in his stride when small business customers yell that their new system won’t let them print off their voicemail.

The Art of Selling ServersClick here to see the PDF "The art of selling servers"

After the requirements-gathering stage comes the production of a requirements document you can then use as the basis for a customer proposal. Summarise the requirements in a short Word document detailing hardware specifications, consulting fees (including itemised tasks that must be carried out such data migration), and training costs. It can be worth submitting a high-and low-end proposal – and making it clear that the higher-end one provides more flexibility and room for growth.

In many contracts, it is here that the words ‘operating system’ and ‘server’ will first be seen, and the specifications of one will directly affect the other. In most cases, the obvious choice here remains Windows Small Business Server, but the next release of this changes your options.

The problem with selling to SMBs is that the revenue involved is typically small, while overheads can be relatively high. Small business owners are a risk averse, cash-constrained bunch, and they can often be technologically embarrassed. That can lead to extra costs and inconvenience when you’re trying to help them through the sales process and still turn a profit. Small businesses that already have a server may have the experience to work effectively with a reseller, but selling a server to a company that has never used one before may bring unforeseen problems.

Finding a pattern
40% of small businesses don’t have a server but most small businesses with five seats or more and an administration problem, need one, even if they don’t know what it is. You need to know how to sell them one, quickly and effectively, for your own convenience and theirs. Without a server as a central point of control and aggregation for data, your sanity (and margin) on SMB customer contracts will be stretched to breaking point. The more easily you can sell it, and the more problems you can avoid from the outset, the happier everyone will be.

Identifying and documenting patterns that crop up repeatedly in contracts should be a crucial part of any solution provider’s strategy. And yet, only one of the respected channel partners that IT Expert spoke to was anywhere near to a written blueprint for selling a business its first server.

Having a fixed procedure may seem a waste of time when you know exactly what you’re doing and what to say to customers. Trish, who started NCI in 2004 with two other people, used to wing it, too. Now, with 18 people in the firm and a projected turnover of £1.4 million this year, keeping everything in his head is no longer an option. So NCI is codifying this tacit knowledge into something that incoming sales staff will be able to use as a kind of playbook for small business server sales.

What should your cheat sheet look like? The more detailed it is, the more useful it is likely to be, and there’s no harm in starting with the basics: deciding whether a server is appropriate. Any company with administrative problems that has over five seats is an automatic shoe-in for a server sale, given the logistical nightmares inherent in trying to scale a peer-to-peer desktop-based network. But you’ll need to convince them of that on business grounds, not technical reasons.

Tell me all about it
Small businesses are unlikely to come to you asking for a server. As non-technical people, they will explain their problems. After you find out what hurts, you can go about putting a sticking plaster on it.

These problems will be couched in business terms. It’s your job to build up trust with the customer by seamlessly translating their problems into technical solutions. “Customers look for a level of trust. You can liken the relationship to the one you might have with a family doctor,” says Jonathan Wagstaffe, managing director of IT consultancy Connectology.

What kinds of problems will an adept confidante have to field? Requests from small businesses often revolve around cost cutting measures such as sharing equipment. If a server purchase prevents a business from having to buy in one more printer, or another fax machine or bigger hard drives for all the desktop PCs, then the benefits are black and white.

Similarly, avoid selling technological features such as Volumes Shadow Copy, and instead tout the benefits of not losing critical business data without having to worry about PC by PC backups. That will resonate with any small business owner who’s worked late re-entering critical data that has been lost.

Security is the other top line benefit harried and distracted small business owners will understand. Map the compliance and security concerns facing small business owners to key technological features including ISA Server, and creating permissions within Active Directory. The key point is that the small business owner shouldn’t have to sweat the details, but you can show them how a server will meet their needs.

Executives will also appreciate the flexibility of being able to work independently of location. Key selling points here include work life balance (managing directors will like being able to work on their business on the beach or from home without coming in at the weekend). Relate business-focused requirements like these to technical features such as Outlook Web Access, and remote access to SharePoint pages. And don’t forget access to email from their mobile phone, whether it’s Windows Mobile or not.


So, you’re enjoying a wee dram with the head of the local legal firm after a chamber of commerce meeting. He tells you that files are disappearing from the office. The other day, an employee took some them home on his laptop and then wasted half a day’s fees recovering them when a virus nixed his hard drive.

Your job here is the ‘consultative sell’, argues Phil McLean, industry standard server business development manager for HP UK & Ireland. Reading between the lines and finding features in the operating system and third-party applications that can help to solve them is crucial.

“If I could stop that happening,” you answer, “and save you several hundred pounds each year on fax paper and lost client communications into the bargain, would you be interested? How about if I could let you see those files on a mobile phone, when your most important client bugs you at the golf club?”

The fact that he might need a combination of Exchange, My Documents replication in SBS, along with perhaps SharePoint Services or even SharePoint Server, and probably disk encryption too, shouldn’t worry the customer. Moreover, the word ‘server’ shouldn’t even surface until a couple of meetings in, when you submit your quote.


Pay special attention to existing desktops and software, which can chew through project margins unless properly prepared for and built into consultancy fees. “We can install a brand new server with pre-deployed antivirus software on it, add an existing PC to the network, and have it send viruses all over the place,” Trish warns. Obsolete kit is also a danger –you don’t want to end up with support calls because desktops are simply too old. He declined one job when the business owner, who had been using 13-year-old PCs with 8MB of RAM each, refused to upgrade them as part of the contract.

There’s a careful balance to be struck here between cost-efficient requirements gathering (which the customer is likely to consider a sales cost), and due diligence Take an application inventory early on during the requirements-gathering phase. Companies won’t know about all the software applications they have running on their peer-to-peer office networks, and almost certainly will not have sufficient licences to cover them all. You must take this into account when selling a resource designed to unite a customer’s technology infrastructure. Taking a firm line now will save you considerable grief further down the line.

In some cases, companies will have made do with a desktop application that has expanded far beyond its original purpose, and will be using it as the engine for their business. The MD may consider a bloated Access database grinding away on obsolete hardware to be a perfectly good customer relationship management system. You will often have to deal with such systems in the absence of the original author, who will probably be long gone (along with any of the already inadequate documentation). Such problems must be politely but firmly factored into the consulting and development portion of the proposal. “Server-based applications can make that go away,” says Kelvin Brain, sales and marketing director of Microsoft SMB specialist Adepteq. “You’re eliminating a silo of power in one area.” Senior executives in the customer should be made to grasp the strategic significance of being in control of their own business applications, along with support, service level agreements and a strategy for future development.

Breaking down SBS options Microsoft sells
SBS in Standard and Premium editions, the main difference being the inclusion of ISA Server and SQL Server in the latter. Both of the editions support up to 75 seats, although you won’t want to sell either to companies with over 50 seats. “Companies with 50 users will quickly grow to 75 seats,” points out Sonal Gathani, Microsoft’s Small Business Server 2008 product manager, which would make SBS a costly proposition in the mid-term, as customers would be forced to upgrade. Until the end of this year (see sidebar), the next available step up is to the standalone version of Windows Server, which features less integration, and is much more costly. However, there is a transition pack available which can ease the SBS owner into the full Windows Server world.

SBS Standard Edition is designed to run on one box. Because of its additional database functionality, Premium could require multiple servers, if companies have a reasonable workload. How can you size them properly? And to what extent should hardware brands play a part? There is no easy methodology to size a server. Much of it comes down to experience. Measuring it by seats alone is a non-starter, because workloads vary depending on the application. A ten-seat business might deal with 200 50MB documents each day, which would put the SQL Server database under heavy strain, for example.

Where third-party applications are required, you shouldn’t be afraid of asking the ISV for advice. Responsible vendors will have tested their applications under multiple conditions, simulating different types of workload. They may have a rough set of configuration guidelines that can help you to configure the system accurately for the customer and avoid irritating return trips to install more RAM and storage.

Making a hardware sell easy
NCI sells only two brands – Dell, and HP. You need to be able to give customers an option, but sticking to a limited list reduces the number of different systems you need to manage and support, and gives you a stronger position with the hardware vendor. Trish always errs on the side of generosity when specifying servers, reasoning that hardware costs are relatively low, and that the client will grow in size. NCI now considers a 1GB network card as a standard specification. All Dell servers come with one anyway, Trish says, adding that because servers are designed to share their bandwidth between PCs, the capacity will be a good investment to help sustain service speeds.

“From a small company up to a large one, we would recommend five hard drives in the server,” he adds. The first two would be mirrored versions of the operating system, while the other three would be configured to a RAID 5 specification. “That halves the risk of data loss.”

A flexible storage options is a network attached storage device that can provide relatively cheap storage, at a terabyte or two. With storage so cheap, it makes sense to plan the extra capacity ahead of time.

Trish suggests a minimum of 2GB RAM with a maximum of 8GB in a server, depending on whether the operating system is a 32-bit or 64-bit edition. For most customers, this will boil down to whether Exchange Server 2007 is necessary. It’s available only in a 64-bit version, and will appeal to customers with more stringent requirements in areas such as business continuity (thanks to better replication), and anti-spam (thanks to the inclusion of features such as Sender ID support, and the edge transport server role, for network perimeter-based filtering of email traffic). If the users want to read HTML email on a Windows Mobile phone or search old email from the phone, you need Exchange 2007. And the ability to phone up the server and have it send a message that they’re running late might appeal to small businesses who want to look like larger operations.

Until the end of the year, Exchange 2007 means full-blown Windows Server as well, but even with SBS you need to think about giving it enough processor power. “We prefer to use at least two processors for Exchange,” Trish says, but a single one is generally suitable for file and print boxes. If a customer wants to use SQL Server in the SBS Premium edition, NCI will normally allocate between two and four processors, as the database engine can be computationally intensive.

That said, smaller businesses may find a hosted Exchange system more advantageous anyway. Five to ten seat customers can be better off with someone else managing their email, especially if BlackBerry integration is a requirement.

Spending less on servers
In spite of the need to accommodate growth, NCI tends not to recommend the fastest processors available, simply because of the speed with which such systems lose their value. “We put one in that will be capable of running the business for the next two to three years,” Trish says. “And if someone puts a custom application on them in two years time, you won’t need to upgrade the processors.”

There’s no need to choose servers with the latest specifications. Instead, a careful balance between budget and functionality can leave you some spare budget to play with. That can be piled into redundancy and reliability measures that will make a small business feel more assured about the operation of its systems. Opt for lower-cost hardware and you could squeeze primary and backup servers into the budget or add an extra desktop that can be used for temporary staff or if another PC develops problems.

Buying backup servers on a small budget will be easier if you’re installing tower servers. Budget and space govern the choice between a tower and a rackmount server. Rackmounts can fit into a smaller space (as long as the temperature is controlled), but the downside is the higher cost. There are even some SMB customers adopting a blade server approach, in which very small multi-core cards with on-board storage are plugged into a very low-footprint chassis. The upside to blades is an even smaller footprint, and capacity for growth. The downside here is significant, however; the customer will not only pay more, for the server and the power needed to run and cool it, but will also lose flexibility. Blade vendors have traditionally stuck to proprietary chassis designs, making it difficult to mix different vendors’ blades in the same box.

Server-based backup is also a moveable feast. While Trish ideally likes to combine both onsite tape backup with an offsite solution for added data protection, some companies simply won’t have the option. No matter how effective an online system’s delta-based, incremental backup, a highdefinition film-editing suite would find it impossible to use without a huge and unrealistic investment in WAN bandwidth.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

There are enough choices (and enough different types of SME) that no two customer proposals will be exactly the same. Nevertheless, there are certain elements of the sales cycle that should be simple and recurrent enough to be included in a technical sales library and reused in some form, thereby reducing your overheads.

The sales process itself is one such asset. A blueprint or flowchart similar to itexpert’s sales roadmap (see page 45 and the annotated version on the itexpert Web site) should be included as a tool to help guide junior staff through the sales process and quickly increase your capacity, while maintaining your quality of service.

The correlation between an SMB customer’s needs and the technical specifications required to meet them should be obvious enough for you to build a collection of digital assets around them. If running accounts on old desktop PCs is causing a customer grief, with multiple staff members trying to synchronise files across the network, that’s a file sharing and application problem. Based on the number of users, you might recommend an SQL Server-based package, which will require SBS Premium running on two boxes. (If Microsoft’s own Small Business Financials or Dynamics options don’t fit the bill, you might consider a thirdparty SQL Server-based solution such as Access Accounts Dimensions Lite from Caletech (

To minimise the number of applications you support, build up a database of features that you can map directly to the needs of the business. An SMB with offices in England, France and the US might need multicurrency support. That whittles down the suitable options, and based on the number of users, the software vendor may even be able to easily recommend a suitable specification for the SQL box.

You could build a database to house information like this in something as simple as Microsoft Access, but a tool like QuoteWerks does a lot of the work for you. This quote generation tool includes the ability to create product databases and include service and product information (complete with predefined prices) into a quote on the fly.

Positive feedback loops
The ultimate sign of maturity for your business is the creation of a positive feedback loop, in which previous experiences with SMB server sales are documented and used to refine future tactics. Locke recommends that companies create a catalogue that keeps track of solutions sold to customers, with details of their specifications, and subsequent support activities. Not only can a CRM system like this serve as a valuable way to increase customer satisfaction, but it can also be used to help you lock down specifications for future sales. The next time you encounter a potential customer with a challenging set of requirements, employees can search the catalogue to look for similar implementations in the past, and reuse many of the assets.
Don’t forget to do some postproject validation too. Were they happy? Did it run quickly enough? Score that in the system.

With these tools in your war chest, the task of selling servers to inexperienced SMB customers with little technical knowledge will be easier – and your overheads could fall as a result. The best way to deal with common problems in design and implementation jobs is to weed them out before they have a chance to cause problems. In the world of computer sales, as in no other, a smart pitch in time saves nine.

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