8 Questions You Need To Answer When Selling a Cloud Solution

Cloud computing can offer small and midsize companies wonderful potential benefits -- in cost savings, time efficiency and simplifying business processes. However, solution providers must be able to distill the hype from the benefits of cloud computing to provide a solid foundation for any solution. (See what Presidio's Dave Hart, executive vice president and CTO, said in his CRN Tech Elite blog: Dispelling Industry Hype.)

Following are eight typical customer concerns you'll need to address when selling a cloud solution.

1. Will I save money by going to the cloud?

SMB customers are acutely aware of the challenge of minimizing cost, while being able to maximize their offerings. "SMBs won't buy your cloud-based IT offerings unless you can clearly demonstrate both immediate and ongoing cost savings.," said Jacob Kazakevich, president of OS33, a cloud-based IT-as-a-Service platform provider for MSPs, "While a move to the cloud is generally expected to bring significant cost savings, the real challenge is to demonstrate the specific savings to the customer. Providing a detailed quote that clearly demonstrates the savings in hardware, management and operations costs realized by moving IT assets to the cloud is critical."

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2. Is a cloud solution the answer to my business challenge?

Identify the customer's problem first, and then sell the solution. "One thing that cloud does is level the playing field. It allows them to access the technology, services that they normally could not on their own," said Margaret Dawson, vice president of product management at solution provider Hubspan. That means that both large and small customers might benefit from going to the cloud. But because there is so much hype about cloud solutions, customers sometimes approach solving their business challenges in a backwards way: They try to fit cloud into the solution instead of seeing if the best solution is in the cloud. "You need to evaluate the cloud like you would any other technology," Dawson added. "So, one of the things I often tell people is, 'Don't buy the cloud, buy the solution.' If that solution happens to be the cloud, great. But don't start there, start with the challenge you are having."

Next: What Size Cloud Computing Solution?

3. What size solution do I need?

Customers may have a preconceived notion of what size solution should be cloud hosted. Some may not understand that these types of solutions aren't always implemented on a grand scale — the cloud isn't only for gigantic concerns. Determine the size and scope of what needs to be accomplished, and view the solution in steps. "What's the scale?" asks Irfan Saif, principal at Deloitte LLP. "Say your customer is a small company with a small IT outfit. You want to grow in scale…you could be well served by moving the customer to the cloud and giving people access to world-class apps in a manageable way. It's very attractive for the SMB because they can get robust security and controls at an affordable price point."

In addition, determine what the customer already has that can potentially be allocated more wisely. For example, said Saif, "Has your client already invested in data centers? How can you help them leverage what they already have?" While the cloud may be ethereal and seem difficult to explain, your job is to make it understandable.

4. Explain to me how my solution is going to work.

You must be able to explain the architecture of the cloud. Expect your customers to treat cloud computing as they would any other technology. They should want to look under the covers and have confidence in how the cloud is set up. It's up to you to be able to explain it to them in terms they can understand and feel comfortable with. Behind every cloud solution is still a data center, a place they are familiar with and that is tangible.

"A lot of concerns boil down to the customer having less control over their data. Today, they might have full control," said Saif. " If you outsource to one provider, you can still touch and feel the data, know all the details, in other words. When you put it in the cloud, part of the concern is that you don't necessarily know where the data physically resides. The abstraction the cloud offers is also a concern. You have no direct control over that."

5. So, what about that data center?

Despite the ethereal nature of cloud computing, in the end, it's all powered by nuts and bolts — and software. Customers will want to know how the data center is locked down. Who is allowed access? What are the personnel roles? "Whether you are a Fortune 500 company or an SMB, there are rules around your data center," said Dawson. "Do you follow the highest industry standards around security and access control rules?" You need to be answer questions about the physical security of the data center, the application layer security and what is the fail-safe in case of an outage or a breach. If you are partnering with a cloud provider, you are responsible for vouching for your contractor.

Next: Audit Your Cloud 6. Has your cloud been audited?

What assurances can you provide your customers that you are adhering to proscribed security practices? Being able to show good results from an audit can help customers come onboard. Different industries have different requirements; clients with credit card security concerns might require adherence to PCI standards, for example.

7. What's in your SLA? Service level agreements can make or break your deal. Some cloud providers don't offer SLAs, noting that their technology is so reliable they are "unnecessary." If that's so, then committing to that reliability in writing should not be a problem. Savvy VAR customers are beginning to understand that they can include such areas as compliance, liability and reliability into SLAs. Get ahead of the curve by offering only those products and solutions with which you have confidence, and then draft SLAs around them.

8. How will the cloud impact my corporate governance?

Providing a consultative approach helps reassure the client that a cloud solution isn't going to change his or her company in an adverse fashion. "Develop workflows to ensure current governance is extended into the cloud, " said Joel Friedman, CSO of Datapipe, a managed service provider. "A compliant platform is not the same as a compliant solution. There is concern that not every touch point is being secured. The underlying platform that is touted as being compliant doesn't carry all the way up the application stack to ensure the solution is compliant. "

Friedman suggests offering a consultative approach to develop workflows similar to the ones the company already has, and extend those into the cloud. On the platform side, document what exactly the platform is doing, and educate the client. Detail what aspects are compliant what services are going to be placed on top of the cloud (e.g., an operating system).