Forrester: How to squeeze your vendors

Everybody wants to cut costs these days, but getting better deals from your vendors will require finesse more than brute force, as well as some creative thinking

IT vendors may be growing increasingly desperate amid the global economic downturn, but customers must employ a range of tactics -- not just bullying -- to extract cost savings from them, a group of Forrester Research analysts said during a client teleconference Wednesday.

Companies simply can't use a shotgun-style approach and expect to succeed, said software licensing analyst Duncan Jones: "Anything that is undifferentiated, like a general letter that goes out [to vendors] saying we've got to cut everyone's maintenance by 10 percent? That's not going anywhere."

[ For more on how to deal with the recession, check out InfoWorld's special report: IT and the financial crisis. ]

Analyst Paul Roehrig, who focuses on outsourcing and IT services, said it is difficult and awkward to extract price concessions on a signed contract.

"Either you're begging or threatening.... Those [tactics] tend to work, but only for a short time," he said, adding, "unless you're really overpaying, there's really not that much room in the provider's margin where they can lower the price point without changing the service level."

And if a customer does succeed in lowering its services costs, "the vendor is going to immediately substitute junior people," said analyst John McCarthy, whose coverage areas include offshoring.

Instead of begging for a rate cut, customers could instead ask their vendors to assign more seasoned workers to their projects, resulting in productivity gains and cost savings, McCarthy said.

Meanwhile, the tactics are different for software licenses and maintenance agreements, according to Jones.

"One of the problems is, you're dealing with a software rep who has different goals than you. He needs to sell new licenses and has no interest in helping you cut costs," he said. "But if you get up higher in the organization, there are going to be people who care more about the long-term relationship, and there's flexibility there."

That said, now is the time to push for bigger discounts on new licenses, as sales representatives "are desperate to meet their number by end of the year," Jones added.

Companies could even indicate they'd be happy to let any outstanding deals float over into 2009, he said: "That will probably be too late for the rep, so try it as a tactic and see how much flexibility you've got."

Also, customers could use money they're prepared to spend on new software as leverage, Jones said: "Anything you're trying to get, like cutting maintenance on products you're not using, you might be able to get that as a quid pro quo for spending in another area."

Beyond maximizing their buying power, companies should save money by determining which software assets no longer need a maintenance contract, Jones said: "You save costs with minimal impact on the business, but you put pressure on other vendors because it shows you're seriously looking at everything."

A similar approach should be taken to IT services contracts, Roehrig said. "If you're asking for the highest levels of service, you're going to be paying top dollar, when the reality is that the enterprise can function just fine with not everyone having gold-plated service."

Companies should also try to get more value out of outsourcing in general through strategic hiring, he said. "If I had money as a client to invest in one thing ... I would get someone who really knows how to manage a service provider. Some of the best outsourcing deals I've come up against have really good people who know how to get a service provider to do what you want."

Customers should also seek to lower the total number of service providers they contract with, leading the way to bigger volume discounts, Roehrig said. But he noted that this can be difficult for heavily federated organizations to accomplish.

It's also possible to save money by actually helping one's vendor cut costs, according to Jones.

If four divisions within a company are negotiating separately with a vendor, they should consider consolidating those relationships, he said: "I would go to the vendor and say, how can I earn cost reductions by dealing with you in a centralized fashion?"

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