Negotiating Technology Contracts
Have you ever tried to negotiate a deal for software, computer equipment, or consulting services with a technology company? The task can be daunting. Unfortunately, the sales forces of most IT companies are armed to the hilt with techniques to get the best deal for them, and not necessarily the best deal for you. And even worse, most of us computer folk (like myself) have never been trained in the art of negotiation, so it can be difficult to spot a snake in the grass. Before you begin negotiating a technology deal, know what you’re getting in to.
Solicit, Don’t Be Solicited
I receive at least three calls each day from technology vendors interested in selling something: hardware equipment, software tools, consulting services, etc. Usually, these calls are “cold”. My name somehow landed on a telemarketing list in the hands of some vendor who is calling me out of the clear blue sky hoping that what they sell somehow matches what I need. You can waste hours on the phone letting some non-technical, script-reading, telemarketer or sales representative chew your ear off about their latest and greatest gizmo. Very rarely do these types of calls ever translate into a real business opportunity.
The most popular cold call opening is “Good morning. This is Joe from the XYZ software company. We offer break through whatever solutions to help you reduce your total cost of ownership for whatever. Let me ask you, are your responsible for managing your companies whatever investment?” I get so many of these calls that I can answer them in my sleep. Years ago, I used to engage in some level of discussion with these people and it always went nowhere. Unless you really think they’ve got something you might want to buy, cut them off immediately. And just like any telemarketer, they have a scripted response for anything. If you answer the above question with “No. I am not”. The immediate response will be “Could you direct me to someone in the company that is responsible for whatever”. If you hand out a name and number, you’re just passing the buck to some other poor soul in your organization. My favorite response is “No. We don’t respond to phone solicitations.” Nine times out of ten, they will give up.
Sometimes, the cold caller will make another run at it and re-state their purpose or as they close the call, sneak in another sales pitch. “Yes sir. I understand. We offer something really great for your company and would love to send you a free trial version at absolutely no cost. Its free to try.” You could be tempted to say “Free? Tell me more.” Again, this type of response will just open up the sales speech flood gates and you will be wasting your time trying to get a word in edge-wise. Stick to your guns: “As I said. We don’t respond to phone solicitations.” is the proper response. If they make yet one more run at it, the final blow would be “Not sure if you’re deaf, but I said we don’t respond to phone solicitations. Tell me your name and transfer me to your supervisor.” You will either hear apologies or a dial tone. Either way, you’ve just gotten yourself off of a call list and will never be bothered again.
If you’re interested in buying something, you do the calling, not the other way around.
Put The Horse Before The Cart
Never begin looking for technology solutions without knowing what you’re looking for. Know the business problem you’re trying to solve. If you know you need a software package that automates statistical analysis, flush out a more detailed set of statistics requirements (types of model, sample sizes, etc.) before you begin to shop around. Usually, software products have bells and whistles that, although look cool, are not absolutely needed. Before you begin comparison shopping, define your basic technology and business requirements. Knowing what you really need will give you confidence and leverage in a negotiation.
Always Comparison Shop
No matter what, always evaluate multiple options. If you’re looking for software, don’t get excited and latch on to the first package that looks good. And certainly don’t give a sales rep. the impression that you’re overly interested in their solution. They will be less likely to move during a negotiation. The IT market is over abundant with hardware, software and services solutions. Probably, you will have many options to choose from. Be picky!
Create Your Game Plan
Before you begin negotiating a deal with any technology vendor, plan your negotiation carefully. I have included some general planning questions that you should answer in preparation for a negotiation. The questions I have listed below may not make sense for your negotiation, so feel free to modify them for the occasion. The point here is to prepare in advance. You don’t want to figure out the answers to these types of questions in the middle of a negotiation as it may give an inch to the sales person. I would even recommend writing the questions and answers on a sheet of paper for reference.
(Price) How much do you think you should pay for this software or service? What is the market rate or street price? What are you prepared to spend? What is the highest price you would be willing to pay?
(Features) What key features and capabilities are you looking for? Force rank the features. What does the prioritized list look like? Of the features you need, categorize them into two categories: “must have” and “nice to have”.
(Service Levels) Do you expect some level of performance from the equipment, software, or service? Are there up-time requirements? Do you need 24×7 technical support? Do you expect the vendor to incur a penalty if they don’t perform up to your service levels?
(Trades) What is most important to you: price, features, or service level? Force rank these in order of importance. Would you be willing to trade items between categories? For example, would you be willing to give up a certain service level for a lower price?
(Suppliers) Which vendors offer something that you think could meet your needs? How long have these companies been in business? Are you doing business with them already? Do you have a good business relationship with them?
(Gravy) If you had your druthers, what extras would you like the vendor to throw in for free? Would you like training or extra manuals? Would you like special reporting?
You will probably have more questions in addition to the ones listed above. Take the time to write them down and create the answers. Once you have established your position, you will save a great deal of time evaluating your potential vendors and negotiations will be less painful.
Lead The Dance
When you are ready to face off with a vendor, do your best to drive the discussion. Get as much information about the vendor and their product and service before price enters into the discussion. Just like car buying, pick out your car (or choice of cars) before you negotiate a price. If you find that the discussion is prematurely heading toward pricing, bring the conversation back to understanding the product or service itself. If you’re not ready to talk price, say something like “Right now, I am just evaluating your product (or service). Unless I think there’s a real opportunity, I’m not prepared to negotiate price right now.”
Pricing for hardware, software, and services follow very different models. Hardware prices are fairly standard unless the product is new. Usually, the mark-up on hardware is very small (1-15%). On the flip- side, the mark-up for software is huge (100%+). Software is priced based on value, not the cost to the vendor so you can usually negotiate software prices down substantially. Services are usually based on labor rates and are marked up based on the demand for those skills (15-50%).
When you are ready to discuss pricing, take the lead in the dance. Here are the steps to follow (in this order):
- Make the vendor throw out the first offer. Never be the first one to suggest a price. Although rare, you could hear the question “how much would you be willing to pay for our product?” A good response would be “As little as possible. What’s your offer?” This response puts the ball firmly in the vendor’s court. Remember, if you’ve done your planning, you really do have the answer to this question, but your job is get a price far below your maximum, so don’t tell the vendor up front!
- Express concern. Never get excited about the first offer no matter what. If you’re considering other alternatives, you may be able to get a better price. My favorite tactic is to say nothing and simply make a non-verbal expression of concern. Usually, the vendor will come back with either “but I’m sure we could sharpen our pencil”, or “we could probably come down lower if that price is too high”, or the ever popular “but we’re willing to work with you”. You may also be prodded with “You don’t seem to like that price. I seem to be out of the ball park. What price would you be comfortable with?” Here’s where the dance gets interesting.
- Make the vendor throw out the second offer. This can be difficult, but by making the vendor throw out more prices, you are lowering the ceiling of the negotiation going forward. If, in step 2, the vendor says “we could probably come down lower if that price is too high.”, immediately respond with “How much could you come down?” or “It seems you didn’t give me your best price to begin with. What’s your best price?”. Latch on to what a vendor is saying and keep asking questions. Stay on this step as long as possible and try and keep the vendor to continue to provide better pricing.
- Counter offer. Propose a different price than what’s on the table. Be reasonable. If you’ve done your homework and checked the going price for the product or service, you know what the range is. If you throw out a price that you know is ridiculous, it will look like you don’t know what you’re doing. However, if you counter with a price that demonstrates that you’ve done your homework, the vendor will know you are serious. Justify for your counter offer. For example, you may want to reveal that you’ve done some market analysis by saying “I’ve researched the market a little and think my offer is more in line with market prices.” Obviously, the vendor may disagree, but at least you’re backing up your counter price.
- Trade. Unless you can land on a price outright, there will likely be gives and takes on both sides. Go back to your to plan and begin proposing trades. Always make trades that bring you little to no value but may be perceived as valuable by the vendor. This can be very difficult, but can pay huge dividends. Here is a perfect example. Let’s say you want a service contract to outsource your help desk (technical support phone service). Let’s say you really want the help desk to answer your calls within 1 minute (you’ve already figured out this requirement in your plan) but the vendor’s first offer is to answer your calls within 30 seconds. Let’s also assume that price is more important to you than having your calls answered 30 seconds faster (remember- the vendor doesn’t know this). And let’s say the offer on the table is $5 per call. A great trade proposal would be “Your price is too high for me. I can recognize that you need enough people to answer those calls within 30 seconds and that has value. I would be willing to sacrifice an extra 30 seconds on each call if you could bring your price down.” If the vendor responds with a counter-offer, circle back to steps 4 and 5. Try and keep the counter offer / trade cycle going as long as possible.
- Nibble. Just as you and the vendor are about to agree to terms and everyone starts smiling and shaking hands, start asking for the gravy. Let’s say you’ve just negotiated a software deal and you would really like some training. Just when you think the vendor believes the negotiation is at its very end, you could say “I am really glad we could work this out. I’m looking forward to using your software. One more thing- would you mind spending a couple days showing me how to use your product. A little training could be useful. Is that OK with you?” You run the risk of opening up the negotiation, but you stand a better chance of getting a few extras free of charge.
- Walk The Talk. If you’ve set your maximum price and you can’t seem to negotiate what you want even with trades, walk away. Be firm and truly be prepared to walk away. Be blunt. “It seems we’re not getting anywhere. I think I’ll take my business elsewhere. Thanks for your time.” Shutting the discussion down can sometimes break the log jam. If a vendor really thinks they’re going to loose the business, they may suddenly move.
- Patience is a Virtue. Negotiations take time. Before you begin, know what your timeframe to make a decision is. Never act hurried or anxious. Come across to the vendor as relaxed and confident (but not cocky). The message you want to send to the vendor is “I’ve got all the time in the world.”
- Never Lie. Although this happens in many negotiations, telling lies will hurt your reputation and could poison vendor relationships. I am not a proponent of outright fibbing. Be honest but don’t give away your hand.
Follow these steps, and you will strike better deals and build confidence in your ability to negotiate. What I have left out in the steps above are standard questions that vendors love to ask. Let me leave you with these questions, their underlying motive, and what you should say. The trick is to always put the ball back in the vendor’s court to better your position:
- Question: “What’s your budget for this project?”
Motive: Setting the price floor
Answer: “That’s confidential. Why do you need to know that?”
- Question: “What’s most important to you? Price or service levels?”
Motive : Prioritizing your trades
Answer : “They’re both important to me. I’m looking for the best package”
- Question: “How soon do you need to make a decision?”
Motive: Setting the timeframe
Answer : “I will make a decision when I can get the overall best deal”
- Question: “Can you make decision quickly. I’ve got to make my sales quota and our quarter is ending soon. I can’t guarantee I give you the same discount”
Motive : Apply pressure
Answer : “I’m not going to rush my decision because of your company’s business calendar. We may need to re-think things…”
There are others, but always maintain your control, patience and poise and always take the lead in the negotiating dance!