From a facilities perspective, having a fully-equipped law office requires much more than having the right space and nice furniture.  At some point you’re going to have to deal with a dizzying array of vendors looking to sell you a copier, a phone system, a mail meter, computer hardware, computer software – the list goes on and on.

Engaging a vendor can often be perceived as a time-wasting affair, so many attorneys avoid doing it altogether or delegate the task to staff. (A decision that they can sometimes later regret).  While there is no getting around the need to work with vendors, the following advice provides some insight into the sales process for you from the vendor’s perspective.  While some of this advice may seem like common sense, you would be surprised at how often firms, time and time again, fail to do the basics in their handling of the vendor-customer relationship and it ends up costing them dearly.

Always do your due diligence.  Don’t pick the product or service who has the best salesperson, or, worse yet, who gives the best PowerPoint presentation or demo.  The salesperson is usually gone the moment you sign the contract.  Pick the best solution for your firm and make sure the vendor has a solid history of success, has references and has knowledgeable people who can support you after you sign the contract.  And, absolutely, positively MAKE THE EFFORT to call the references.  Ask them pointed questions about the vendor’s service and support capabilities.  Would they do business with them again?

When considering a new product or service, decide internally what your needs are first BEFORE contacting a vendor.  You can form a committee, solicit staff input, call your peers and ask them what they use.  Whatever you do, DO NOT involve the vendor until you’ve decided what your needs are and what your timetable is for acquiring the solution.  If you involve the vendor in this process too early, he or she will be delighted to “help” you shape what your needs are.  Those needs will be nothing but his/her greatest strengths.

Don’t allow yourself to be used in a battle of competitive landmines between rival vendors.  Have you ever been “coached” by a vendor to ask a certain question to another vendor about whether or not that vendor has a particular capability?  Sound familiar?  Let’s face facts: vendors in the same space know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  If two vendors know they are both presenting the same solution to a firm, the one that goes first will often “coach” the firm in the asking of these types of “gotcha” questions. “When company X presents, make sure you ask him whether his product can do XYZ (when he/she knows it can’t) – because we do a GREAT job of doing XYZ – here, let me show you.  It may feel good to be able to make the salesperson squirm a bit by asking them about a feature they may not have or about an area they are not particularly strong in, but objectively ask yourself, “Is this something I really even care about or need?” Often times it’s not, but a firm’s decision making process can be affected by this type of gamesmanship between rival vendors.

Long standing vendor-firm relationships can grow too “comfortable” over time – consider making them “uncomfortable.”  Some law firms form very close ties with a core group of “trusted” vendors and do business exclusively with these companies for years. Others have more of a “there are no favored vendors” approach, view all vendors with suspicion and have no qualms with replacing any vendor’s product or service if a cheaper, better one comes along.   No matter where you fall along this spectrum, ALWAYS take an objective look at your existing service provider/vendor at the time your contract comes up and/or it’s time to upgrade or replace equipment.  Consider a competitive bid process, even if you fully intend to re-sign with your existing provider, if nothing else, to “keep them honest” from a pricing standpoint and to assess if there is a better solution out there for you.  You may save money and learn a lot about your existing vendor in this process if the company is forced to compete for your business.

Ask for a proof of concept or free trial before buying.

Get any and all promises IN WRITING.

If a service – get performance guarantees and set benchmarks in the contract.

If appropriate – always go the RFP route.  Vendors HATE, HATE, HATE RFPs but from the customer’s perspective they are an excellent tool at laying out what your needs are in a structured format.  Use a scorecard method to objectively judge the responses.

Make the most of timing of the sale.  Know if your vendor operates on a quarterly or monthly basis and time your purchase around that time to get the best deal.  How do you do this?  Ask your salesperson – more often than not he/she will tell you.  You would be amazed at the discounts you can receive at the end of a quarter or month.  It makes no difference to you whether the contract is signed on March 31st or April 1st but it makes a HUGE difference to your vendor and the amount of commission he or she receives.  Use this to your advantage and you can save a lot of money.

Do you have a maintenance/support contract?  If so, consider terminating it and instead pay only “as needed.” This one is an absolute killer and of all my advice, this is probably the one that my former employers would least like me to share with you. Here goes:  Want to know a secret among legal vendors?  They make a ridiculous amount of money from you in maintenance/support fees, and, quite frankly, a lot of that money is spent unnecessarily. Many vendors even make it mandatory as a part of buying their products. As an aside, have you ever challenged them on this concept by asking them “You’re telling me you won’t sell me your product WITHOUT my signing a maintenance agreement?”  While not advocating you to immediately go out and cancel all of your support contracts, especially in the case of something as “mission critical” as your time and billing system, what I am advising is that you need to look at all of these contracts WELL BEFORE they are up for renewal.  Keep in mind that vendors will often put “gotchas” in the contract requiring you to give them up to 90 days’ written notice, ahead of the termination date, that you wish to terminate maintenance.  Miss the date by one day and it may be too late as many contracts also contain an “evergreen” clause that auto-renews the contract for the original term of the maintenance agreement – several years in most cases.  After you review the maintenance contract and identify the timeframe you need to decide to renew or cancel, ask yourself:  In the period of time I’ve had maintenance, how much have I actually utilized it?  If the answer is a lot, then you are likely getting your money’s worth and you should probably continue it.  If very little, it’s a big red flag that it may be worth canceling your contract and switching to a “pay as needed” model for service/support.  And yes, despite the inevitable protests of your vendor, most, if not all, will allow you to “pay as you go” as the alternative is for you to not pay them at all.  Even if their rates are $200 an hour for a service call, if you are paying $300-$400 (or more) a month for support and only have one service call or one phone call to technical support a year – which is a better deal?

David Phelps is a former top-producing sales and marketing executive for several nationally known legal vendors.  He is a Practice Advisor for Atticus®, one of the country’s leading consulting & training organizations dedicated to improving the lives of attorneys.  He can be reached at davidp@atticusonline.com.

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