Gunslingers and White Knights

Every now and then, we get requests for recommendations of firms who do work on a contingency fee basis – that is, their compensation is tied to the amount of savings they obtain for their client.  You know the firms – the ones that ride into town on their white horses and promise to save the day by giving you that silver bullet: a bundle of cost savings. Clients falsely believe that such an arrangement is a no-lose proposition for them.

We’re not advocates of the contingency fee approach because the consultant is solely motivated to obtain the lowest price for the client.  While this may work for utility audits, it doesn’t work in IT contracting.  This approach does not take into account other risk factors which could adversely affect the client. Getting better deals means getting both excellent terms and prices.

A contingency price engagement is not in the customer’s best interest – it could incent some negotiators to focus exclusively on price and the “cheap deal”, which almost always foregoes much needed contractual provisions for the customer.  There is a balance between price and protection in every deal.  If the focus is exclusively on price, there is an impact on critical functioning of strategic issue deliverables that include, but is not limited to: terms and conditions, quality issues, service level agreements, remedies, warranties, etc.

Our advice is to avoid contingency fees based on cost savings because:

  1. Often the cost focus clouds the key strategies for doing the deal.
  2. The quality aspects of the agreement are often neglected.
  3. It provides wrong incentives for negotiator to seek good remedies.
  4. In software long term savings are often obtained by solid, long term provisions that address future pricing, rights of use, movement of software to another location and/or machine.
  5. It is difficult to determine ‘what is the basis for cost savings’.

            So before you think of these gunslinger consultants as knights in shining armor, think twice.  They may not be offering you such a great deal after all.

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A ‘Top-Down’ Look In Challenging Times

By Joe Auer

As the daily media drumbeat of “economic downturn” picks up volume, we’ll no doubt be challenged to optimize IT costs and value as we move into possibly tough financial times. So doing better deals and managing vendors better will become much more important for IT organizations this year.

Traditionally, most IT organizations view their technology deals from the bottom up. That is, they tend to have a project-oriented perspective rather than a big picture-oriented overview. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach – especially if it’s coupled with a disciplined procurement process – you may miss opportunities to leverage major negotiating power.

Of course, focusing on a specific deal is important and can add value to the organization. But if you pay attention to only one deal at a time in uncertain economic times, huge cost and risk issues may go unaddressed. It’s the age-old “not seeing the forest for the trees” thing.

If you have to cut costs significantly, you should look at IT spending from the top down, identifying each major spending area. An excellent way to do this is to look at your annual IT budget. The major budget categories – hardware, personnel, software, communications, services and the like – provide a high-level indication of where the big money is going.

Armed with this information, you may be able to find opportunities to cut significant costs and risks and maximize your vendor’s attention. Remember, technology vendors are also under financial pressure and need all the business they can get. They may be willing to cut you a break in order to keep your business.

An analysis of each spending category should include adding up what you spend globally with each of your largest suppliers. You may be shocked at how much bargaining power you have but aren’t using.

Then, review the existing contractual relationships with those suppliers since you may have contractual restrictions such as cancellation fees that have to be included in your analysis. When you’re done, you’ll find opportunities to consolidate spending, leverage your negotiating power, reduce costs and improve contract protections.

After the spending categories have been identified and totaled, they should be prioritized. There are many approaches to prioritization. A simple method involves rating each category according to four criteria: cost, complexity, risk and business need. You can weight each criteria using a 10-point scale to generate a numerical score that can be used to prioritize the opportunities. A 1 would be the lowest rating and a 10 the highest. A category with very high cost, complexity, risk and business need would rate four 10s for a total score of 40. Let’s look at each factor:

• Cost is obvious. Areas of significant spending should receive more attention than the nickel-and-dime stuff.

• Complexity is important because spending areas involving sophisticated, new or unproven technology, or complex business processes should receive scrutiny.

• Risk goes hand-in-hand with complexity because the higher the complexity, generally the greater the potential risk. But risk should be evaluated separately. A category with a low complexity rating could carry a high potential risk. In any event, and in every deal, have your suppliers at least be contractually accountable for nonperformance through clear warranties and sufficient remedies. That’s a great start.

• Business need establishes a relative value of importance of the category’s overall contribution to the business – and the bottom line.

With the categories having been identified, totaled, analyzed and prioritized, the real work can begin. Start with the categories that score the closest to 40 (highest priorities) and work your way down as far as time and reasonableness allow. Focusing on the highest priorities will ensure that your efforts are directed at achieving maximum benefit.

Developing the discipline to objectively scrutinize major spending categories and vendors creates opportunities that would otherwise go unnoticed.

A tough-times strategy to leverage purchasing power, reduce costs and maximize vendor performance goes a long way to answering an economic wake-up call.

 JOE AUER is president of International Computer Negotiations, Inc. (www.dobetterdeals.com), a Winter Park, Fla., consultancy that educates Professionals on IT Procurement, Sourcing, and Vendor Management. ICN sponsors CAUCUS: The Association of Technology Procurement Professionals. Contact him at joea@dobetterdeals.com.

Work out details later? No! Now!

By Joe Auer

Suppliers often skillfully avoid tougher service-level guarantees by convincing the customer that service-level agreements (SLA) should be negotiated after a 90-day transition period. The supplier convincingly argued that service levels could be better determined once it understood the customer’s operations.

Suppliers suggest that the two sides work together to identify service levels during the transition. The customer many times falls for this, believing that information gathered during the transition period would produce more favorable SLAs. The customer signs a contract with no specific SLAs, no “out” clause if the two parties failed to agree on service levels and no recourse if the supplier failed to perform.

And guess what usually happens! At the end of the transition period, the supplier is willing to sign only a few weak SLAs with no remedies. For example, the supplier agrees to make applications “generally available” and that help desk calls would be answered “as soon as practical.” As you might suspect, the supplier escapes accountability with these “commitments” because no one could agree on what those terms really meant. As a result, the customer ends up with a multiyear contract that heavily favors the supplier.

To avoid this kind of mess, start with specific SLAs and remedies in your request for proposals. Let a qualified supplier perform due diligence of your operating environment under a nondisclosure clause as part of its preparation before making its proposal. A supplier’s bid should be based on your required SLAs, which should at least match the service you are currently receiving. In most cases, the SLA should exceed the current levels because you’re considering services provided by “experts.” The key is to specify desired service levels up front, early in the supplier evaluation process.

The critical error is signing a long-term contract without agreement on a fundamental issue – service quality. With a signed contract and no SLAs, a supplier won’t be motivated to guarantee exemplary service, only a minimal quality commitment that would leave the customer without meaningful recourse for unsatisfactory service.

JOE AUER is president of International Computer Negotiations, Inc. (www.dobetterdeals.com), a Winter Park, Fla., consultancy that educates Professionals on IT Procurement, Sourcing, and Vendor Management. ICN sponsors CAUCUS: The Association of Technology Procurement Professionals. Contact him at joea@dobetterdeals.com.