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The way solution providers think about their companies needs to go through a major transformation in the coming years as the move away from products and toward services becomes more pronounced.

For better or worse, most solution providers have seen themselves as an extension of their vendor partners and as such tended to rely on those vendors to create awareness and demand for those products. But as we increasingly move toward a model where the end customer wants to buy a service that performs a function such as backup and restore or end-node security, the service provided by the solution provider becomes the product. In that model, it then becomes critical for the solution provider to brand the service to create the awareness because the service will inevitably be made up of multiple products from different vendors, none of which will be creating the demand for the specific solution provider service.

As noted in a recent CompTIA survey that was presented this week at the Gartner IT ChannelVision event in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., by Brian McCarthy, CompTIA’s chief operating officer, marketing came up as the No. 1 most difficult challenge facing managed service providers. The other leading concerns mentioned in the survey were the inability to hire the right type of employees and an inability to easily demonstrate the return on investment. However, the fact that marketing topped the list suggests that managed service providers are now coming to terms with an issue that has longed plagued the channel.

The fact of the matter is that the majority of solution providers are not very good at marketing their wares and services. Hopefully, organizations such as CompTIA and the Managed Services Provider Alliance and distributors such as Avnet, Ingram Micro and Tech Data will be devoting more resources to help coach managed service providers on how to better do this. But time is running short because companies such as Dell and IBM are ramping up their own managed services marketing campaigns.

In the short term, that could be a good thing because it raises the awareness of managed services across the board. But long term it might be a bad thing for solution providers if they are reduced to merely being agents reselling services built by the major vendors. It’s unlikely that customers will be totally satisfied by the managed services based on a limited number of products from one vendor, but you can be sure that vendors are going to try their hardest to establish as many direct managed service relationships as they can to lessen their dependence on third-party solution providers.

What that ultimately means is that managed service providers don’t have a moment to lose to start heavily marketing their own branded set of managed services.

Unfortunately for far too many MSPs, a lot of them will be working from a standing start because they have no marketing capability to speak of. And that’s going to be a great shame because without effective marketing strategies, a lot of MSPs are going to find themselves with no one to talk to while the rest of the industry passes them by.