Channel Partners Share Tales From The Trenches During Coronavirus Pandemic

With all the news about the macroeconomic impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus, along with travel restrictions and business closures, it's important to remember that we are all personally affected to some degree as stories from 13 diverse solution providers show.


It's Personal

The United States has lately been trying to catch up with the realities that come from facing the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, with business and school closures, travel and crowd restrictions, and fear of catching an easily transmitted and potentially deadly virus changing the way people live and work.

While the world has faced disasters before that have affected business, particularly the IT industry, those are typically one-time events whose impacts, while massive, happen at once. With the COVID-19 virus, the impact is only now beginning to be felt, and no one knows how big it will be or how long it will last.

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IT solution providers are key to keep businesses running at a time when employees and customers are increasingly forced to remain at home. The only way such business can run is by having access to the internet, VPNs, remote access technology, and data protection, and that means depending on their local solution providers to be there with assistance even if those providers can't just always jump in a car or on a plane to provide support.

CRN reached out to several solution providers to talk about the difficulties--and sometimes the joys--of supporting clients in trying times.

Turn the page for their stories.

And from CRN to everyone: Stay safe. Stay healthy. And wash those hands!

Dave Seibert, chief information officer at IT Innovators, an Irvine, Calif.-based solution provider

Seibert told CRN that, during the coronavirus crisis, IT solution providers are in some ways like health care providers.

"Much the way health care is doing for [patients'] health, we are doing for people and their technology," he said.

While many companies now have their employees working remotely from home, those homes are much less secure than their normal offices are, as home computers don’t have the same level of endpoint protection, Seibert said.

"Cyberattacks will be on the increase," he said. "People want news and up-to-date information. They click on 'sources' to learn the coronavirus status, and in the meantime attackers are compromising or infecting these sources. It’s important to educate, to train users not to click on untrusted links. While many companies have remote worker tools, many users haven’t been trained to best use them. They are learning as they go under a stressful environment."

Internet connections are also an issue, he said. "The ISP (internet service provider) infrastructure for residential [use] was never designed for this new load," he said. "Kids are home from school watching assignments and streaming content. Adults are working from home and remoting into their office, or double connecting. I see internet bandwidth being stress-tested, which will cause remote worker issues."

In some ways, however, work from home is easier than it could have been, Seibert said. Leveraging cloud services is overall increasing, and clients that haven’t yet leveraged the cloud are now trying to quickly adapt, he said. And employees of companies that have deployed VOIP phones can easily work from home with the same phone abilities they have in their office."

"I’ve been on peer group calls with other partners," he said. "The above issues and more are on everyone's minds and agendas."

Robby Hill, founder and CEO, HillSouth, a Florence, S.C.-based MSP

Hill said his company's focus on healthcare managed IT.

"We are not seeing any slowdown as many of our clients are in the primary care business and at the front lines of this crisis," he said. "One anecdote: I wish that we had thought to offer more clients text-to-email services before this crisis came as they could leverage it to talk to their customers more efficiently during this time when you need to urgently message large groups."

While the local government hasn’t yet issued restrictions on companies, he said the state closed schools, placing an enormous strain on families and forcing businesses to look at the best way to operate.

"We have too many employees with children to keep our office running in person," he said. "Also, we are cognizant of [recent] guidelines to avoid congregations of 10 or more people. We feel as an MSP we have the tools to do enormous amounts of work remotely in support of our clients' needs, but we'll miss the camaraderie of being in the office together. We feel it’s prudent to not ask our people to go away from their families and their children during this time of national emergency, and have empowered our team to work from home for the foreseeable future."

Mark Galyardt, president of XIOSS, an Atlanta-based MSP and solution provider

Galyardt said the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is completely different from the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Our portfolio includes Fortune 5, Fortune 10, Fortune 500 customers," he said. "They're all struggling with an ever-changing situation. That's the big difference from 9/11. Once that was over, it was over. With coronavirus, as the situation grew, people ignored it, and felt it wouldn't happen to them."

The pandemic and worries about the virus spreading is resulting in a surge of interest in webinars and remote-work solutions, Galyardt said.

"People are also asking to expand their VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) environments)," he said. "I'm not saying this in a sensational way because of the business opportunities. But this is an opportunity for companies to help customers with remote work solutions, and to help some look for telemedicine solutions."

For those times when face-to-face meetings are needed, it is important to plan carefully, especially since there's a good chance that clients might be locked out of the office or otherwise working remotely, Galyardt said.

"It's hard to get quality time with our customers," he said. "It all boils down to quality meetings with quality customers, and be prepared to make changes when needed."

Jerry Pape, principle at Excalibur, a Bozeman, Mont.-based solution provider and MSP

Excalibur has worked with clients to make sure they are prepared for remote access, Pape said. That includes one client which had been desktop PC-heavy, which required gathering up spare laptops and configuring them for work-from-home use, he said.

"All our clients who need remote access now have it," he said. "Now we're looking at telemedicine. Some clients are now narrowing down alternatives because they have not yet been asked to leave their places of work. And some are ready, especially with Zoom, which is HIPAA compliant."

The corporate owners and C-suite executives at managed clients typically have had VPN access, but the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic means making VPNs available to a wider range of users, Pape said.

"The only issue is, do they need additional adjunctive work, and will they have problems using work laptops at home," he said. "If their VPNs don't work properly at home, they can use Splashtop [remote computer access software] to get remote access to their office PCs."

Pape said that it is still important to visit clients face-to-face, but how IT companies visit clients has to change.

"I've given each of our people a box of nitrile gloves which reminds them to not touch their face," he said. "And I tell them to change gloves every time they visit a different client."

Pape said his employees all also have 700-milliliter commercial spray bottles with 70 milliliters of bleach and 630 milliliters of water to spray surfaces to eliminate viruses. "For computer cleaning, we use window cleaner which has water and ethanol," he said. "We can spray a washcloth and clean glass and surfaces, and then it evaporates quickly."

Pape said solution providers should prepare for a long slog by making sure they have good internet connectivity, remote meeting software, and data backup regimens. "And don't send multiple people to a site," he said. "Try to send one person to limit exposure."

Pape said that on a personal level, he is a bit of a prepper. "When I saw this happening, I started getting ready a month ago," he said. "If things get worse, I expect I can be a happy camper for two to three months."

Ed Tatsch, president of ETS Networks, an Arden, N.C.-based solution provider

Tatsch said that he has set up all his clients to work remotely, and is now doing remote support and finishing up bench work.

"And I'm keeping reasonable hours for a change," he said. "Health is good. And I’m enjoying more time with the family."

Project business is a bit slow, Tatsch said.

"However, it’s a great time to clear the benches of client work and get to stuff around the shop I’ve been putting off," he said.

Rick Chernick, CEO of Camera Corner Connecting Point, a Green Bay, Wisc.-based solution provider

Chernick said it is not easy to change his company's work model in the face of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, but having a good company culture and good people helps.

"We have most folks now at home and doing a banner job," he said. "Morale is high and we stay positive. Our engineers, installers, and break fix people are still in face of clients where clients allow."

CCCP's retail operations are still open for business, Chernick said.

"Anyone wanting to go home can," he said. "They chose to stay. We adhere to cleaning the best we can, and customers are still coming in for things to help them work from home. If any employee wishes to not be here because of health reasons or fear, we let them go home. Customers are buying items in bulk now, and I suspect that will end soon. Distribution has been great! They all are trying to help, and their efforts are so appreciated."

The community is quickly adhering to new rules and other changes, and people are away from other people or large groups, Chernick said.

"I bet St. Patrick’s fun goers are not happy but they live for next year," he said. "Parents who have kids at home are not complaining. They are making due. It is a total group effort. We are in this together and will win together. I always loved a challenge, and we have one here now. Winning is key, and we all want to win together.

Chernick said he misses sports more than he thought he would.

"Then I think about all those less fortunate and really needing to be out with sports like the handicapped, and how different it must be for some who can’t be ready or function like I can. I have no complaints other than I miss the hugs and handshakes I give daily, and I miss my grandkids. I will forgo my birthday party this Saturday to keep all of us safe. As long as I make another, we will celebrate more then."

That said, there are personal benefits to working from home, Chernick said. "I’m cuddling with my wife so much she has a rash," he said.

Bob Olwig, vice president of corporate business development at World Wide Technology, a St. Louis, Mo.-based global solution provider.

Olwig said the health and safety of WWT's employees and their families is the company's number one priority.

"Communication is key," he said. "[WWT CEO] Jim Kavanaugh and our Vice President of HR, Ann Marr, have been issuing companywide emails. And Jim sent a reassuring video to all of our employees late last week. We have internal and external FAQs posted that we’re updating almost daily. Our crisis management team has a daily standup meeting and is collaborating in a Microsoft Teams site."

WWT has also implemented work from home policies for all of our employees that are able to do that, he said.

WWT's integration centers are up and running around the world in order to help the company meet demands from customers, many of which are the world's largest healthcare service providers, Olwig said.

"We have been helping customers and partners in very unique ways in terms of getting them better equipped for remote workers, updating clinical admissions apps to help expedite the checking in of patients, and helping a partner test in our Advanced Technology Center (ATC) some load balancing operating system software to handle the increased internet demand," he said.

Oli Thordarson, CEO of Alvaka Networks, an Irvine, Calif.-based MSP

Alvaka Networks on Tuesday held an all-hands video conference call to provide an update for all employees and to answer any questions and concerns, and Thordarson said it went very well.

For Alvaka Networks, most employees are now working from home, leaving a skeleton crew of about six people in the office, he said.

"Most of the engineers work remotely for clients anyway, so that continues," he said. "We bought a bunch of supplies that are in short supply, such as latex gloves, hand sanitizer, face masks, throat lozenges, zinc lozenges, paper towels, even dog food, and of course the ever-valuable toilet paper. We placed it all in a common area of the office, and if anyone needs some of those items for home they are free for the taking."

From a business risk management perspective, Alvaka Networks on Tuesday held a management meeting to review employee safety and the policies and practices, and to review its client list, Thordarson said.

"We started at the top by revenue and assessed how we viewed our clients would be hit positively or negatively by current economic and health conditions," he said. "In our top 12 clients we viewed three as having a high-risk profile to current conditions. We assessed how much revenue we estimate to be at risk. We assessed our current backlog of work and what we view as demand going forward the next couple of months. We feel we are currently in a good spot, but we are staying alert."

For safety reasons, Alvaka Networks is making sure its NOC (network operations center) employees are separated by at least six feet, Thordarson said. The company also created alternating shifts in seating so employees are not sitting next to each other. "We have also sent others to work from home, further spreading people out," he said.

At the personal level, one employee with serious immune system issues is working from home with a full office IP phone and remote access, Thordarson said.

"Other than that, the rest of the company is following the advisories from our health authorities," he said. "We only have one worker in a childcare bind, and we are working with him with great flexibility. One employee even volunteered her daughter to help with his care needs."

Lori Koch, director of marketing at Comport Technology Solutions, a Ramsey, N.J-based solution provider and MSP

Koch (right, in photo) said she is holed up on Cape Cod, Mass. with her best friend, Amanda Wastrom (left, in photo), assistant curator at Sandwich, Mass.-based Heritage Museums and Gardens.

"We are from different worlds when it comes to business but right now we are both teaming up so we can get our work done," Koch said. "When I found out about the outbreak, I waited three days and then left my house ... in the middle of the largest COVID positives in Massachusetts and came to the Cape. Yes, I know it was a no-no, but I have asthma, and there is a better chance for myself and my daughter for safety down here. Every winter when I get a cold I get bronchitis or pneumonia."

Koch's and Wastrom's families sleep in their own houses at night, and during the day bring their kids together to play so the adults work, Koch said.

"We have created a schedule that we found on Facebook to stick to for them, and we are each working at night to make up time for what we don’t get in the day," she said. "Each of us has conference calls, each of us has work hours, and each of us have kid hours. We don’t socialize with anyone else. It's just the five of us."

Ollie Strickland, managing member at Bitstream, an Atlanta-based MSP

Strickland said his colleagues all work from home offices anyway, and so his company did not need to make big changes to its day-to-day routines.

"We have had a steady ticket load as a result of the pandemic, but we have not been overwhelmed," he said. "It's been manageable. There are four of us, and we manage a client base of just over 2,000 node devices (computers, servers, firewalls, switches, WAPs)."

Bitstream's clients also now want to work from home, and Bitstream has received many support tickets with requests to facilitate this, Strickland said.

"We already have a product in place for a remote desktop service that we manage," he said. "We decided to give away free additional licenses to clients for the duration of the pandemic. In just a matter of minutes we can have it all done. An emailed invitation goes to the client, and they get a link to our public facing guide in IT Glue on how to use our remote desktop tool."

Bitstream is a RingCentral solution provider with the "RingCentral Certified Communications Expert" certification, Strickland said.

"For our clients already on the platform, we have been able to easily transition them to work from home," he said. "RingCentral natively has everything needed for this. For our clients on a legacy PBX, the pandemic has led to us being able to close a couple of new sales because they now urgently need the remote work and business continuity advantages afforded by a well-architected cloud VOIP system."

Phillip Walker, customer advocate CEO at Network Solutions Provider, a Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based telco

Business-wise, Network Solutions Provider is having a rush on UCaaS (unified communications as a service), VPN, and MiFi mobile Wi-Fi devices, and has seen help desk password resets triple because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Walker said.

"Major projects are on hold," he said. "Nobody is spending, so we will see a dip in revenue, which will be our third major one in the last 16 months, with the Huawei trade wars, the government shut down, and now COVID-19. So we will need to have a huge sales spike with growth going up and not flat."

Walker said he is spending a lot time at night working with new vendors and looking for emerging technologies and programs to push sales up and keep recurring revenue going at 21 percent by year-end.

"We do have 14 job sites that are shut down," he said. "So service revenue will be down this year if we go past 30 days. We are looking for cloud, LTE, cybersecurity, and HPE GreenLake to pull us through the second and third quarters. We are also investing in online certs and training."

On a personal front, Walker said his family is locked down in Ohio.

"I will be joining them at the end of month," he said. "Since I was in Boston and Orlando, I'm giving myself two weeks alone."

Steve Riat, sales manager at Nex-Tech, a Lenora, Kan.-based solution provider

The good news is that Nex-Tech is prepared, helped in part by its geographical isolation in the center of the U.S., Riat said.

"However, we are on the main corridor from east to west across the country, so it would be naïve to think [the pandemic] hasn’t rolled by," he said.

Nex-Tech has over 20 locations, and has initiated a virtual-first policy using Microsoft Teams and limited the number of team members in in-person meetings, Riat said. The company has also started to diversify team members geographically. "We have three offices in one town, so we're making sure the help desk is split up instead of being in the same building," he said.

The biggest impact so far is school closures, which means some workers have had to go remote, Riat said. "My team has that ability already, and we encourage them to do this," he said. "We are a telco, so phones are no big deal."

Riat said he was expecting business would slow down, but the opposite has happened. "We have been slammed with bandwidth increases, ways of working mobile, and other logistic changes," he said. And along with everyone else, we did send a message to customers."

That message to customers includes a notice that Nex-Tech has implemented measures from its Emergency Response Plan to ensure customers' and employees' well-being, and has taken multiple steps including stocking stores with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, asking customers to wipe phones with disinfectant wipes before turning them over for assistance, and reminding them that emails will help it more efficiently distribute work to remote team members.

While Nex-Tech's technicians will continue to do installations and on-site repairs, it has asked the team to increase daily handwashing and use disinfectant wipes, Riat said. Customers will be asked if there are individuals at their location experiencing flu-like symptoms, and if so, work will be done with them on a case-by-case basis.

"Also, we have coached our team to be aware of these symptoms, and if they are uncomfortable entering a home or business location, we will leave that to the technician’s discretion," he said.

Riat also said area school closings will mean many employees may need to work from home to ensure safety while providing uninterrupted service. "This may cause us to close some stores, and it will be a fluid situation each day," he said.

Charlie Collins, director of sales at Secure Data Technologies, an O'Fallon, Ill.-based solution provider

Collins said Secure Data Technologies' employees are not necessarily self-quarantining, but they have been set up to do all their functions on a remote basis as needed. "We have added some increased proficiencies for work from home," he said.

Employees are scrambling for childcare if not at home, Collins said. "And with the working from home, children make it more interesting," he said.

Ed Palmer, chief operating officer at Winslow Technology Group, a Boston-based solution provider

The health and safety of employees is Winslow Technology Group's number one priority, Palmer said.

"We are fielding many questions from our customers and assisting them with their unexpected, near-term IT needs," he said. "Many are asking about the availability of laptop and desktop systems, end-point security solutions, VDI, and network connectivity. Our professional services staff is ready to assist via remote support and deployment capabilities."

To help address the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the company last week sent a proactive notification to its employees about plans to keep them safe, Palmer said. Measures include directing all employees to work from home, suspending all customer and partner events and all non-essential travel, moving to remote implementation and support model for professional services, and proactively assisting customers with their end user compute, VDI, and endpoint security needs while sharing strategies for dealing with the coronavirus situation, he said.