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Outsourcing contracts and negotiations getting more complex

Stephanie Overby | April 30, 2012
As IT outsourcing matures, you'd think negotiating IT service deals would get easier. Not so, according to the attorneys who deal with service levels, contract structure and pricing models.

Given the maturation of the IT outsourcing market and the introduction of more standardized offerings like cloud computing, you might assume that negotiating IT service deals is getting easier.

Not according to the lawyers hammering out the agreements.

KPMG reports that 41 percent of outsourcing attorneys surveyed for its 2012 Legal Pulse report indicated that complexity in contracting for outsourced services—as evidenced in things like service levels, contract structure, pricing models, use of global sourcing—has actually been increasing. (The survey included outsourcing attorneys at 31 law firms.)

Sure, buyers and suppliers are more experienced and new out-of-the-box services are gaining traction. But that may be increasing complications in contracting. More sophisticated buyers are seeking higher-value benefits from outsourcing, globalization is increasing, and business leaders are sending more complex functional and process work out the door.

"As buyers gain more experience they continue to push the envelope in terms of scope, complexity of work outsourced, number and diversity of service providers utilized, geographical scope and mix of service delivery models. Complexity comes with the territory," says Stan LePeak, KPMG's director of research for advisory services. "So while the outsourcing market is maturing, it is not necessarily getting simpler, easier, or safer."

Address IT Complexity Upfront

A complex contract, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It can result in greater benefits for the outsourcing customer or may better address issues of pricing, performance and risk "Problems arise when complexity is not adequately addressed, recognized or accounted for upfront and in the ongoing management of the outsourcing efforts," LePeak says.

The key is to make sure that the level of complexity in the legal documents is commensurate with the nature and goals of the outsourcing arrangement and not just the result of a once-burned buyer or overzealous counsel.

Typically, as services markets mature, best practices in contracting tend to cement themselves in the way of standardized pricing, performance assurance and—particularly—defined terms. However, 27 percent of the attorneys polled reported little or no standardization in defined terms, which LePeak says also points to the fact that while outsourcing is maturing, it's also been expanding into uncharted territory in terms of scope, objectives, and geography.

The survey asked about the most contentious issue in outsourcing negotiations. The most challenging contractual terms to reach agreement on were limitation of liability, indemnities, step-in rights, pre-defined direct damages, and supplier financial risk—all of which involve potential financial exposure to supplier or client. The most challenging commercial terms to come to consensus on were termination fees, termination rights, service levels, transformation and transition fees—all of which involve service provider risk.


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