Rob was angry. He felt trapped.

It was the third month of a new CRM implementation project and he was the tech lead. The project had just taken a nasty turn. During the last meeting with the vendor, Rob asked when they could expect the data de-duping work to start.

“We’re not doing any data clean up.” the vendor’s Project Manager said. “It’s not in our scope of work.”
“But we talked about this when we saw the CRM demo!!!,” Rob sputtered.

The PM was empathetic, but she pointed Rob to the contract – and she was right. There were no data de-duping services in the contract!

Rob’s outrage became panic. Why didn’t he pick up on this? He assumed the vendor had included the stuff they’d talked about, and when the contract came in, he passed it off to his boss for signature. Now he was faced with two bad choices – either find the time to de-dupe 125K records… or pay the vendor more money.

Either way, the timeline was now out the window. And he needed to tell his boss about it. Rob felt like a fool. And he could have completely avoided this situation if he had asked just five simple questions during the contracting phase.


The Contract is the Vendor’s Version of the Project Story

Here’s the thing about contracts that’s so important to remember. Your contract isn’t just a binding legal document. It tells the vendor’s story of what you’re buying and how they’ll deliver what you bought. No matter what you’re buying, it’s super important that everyone is on the same page. With Rob and his tech vendor, well, they simply weren’t. He and the vendor had different stories about what the organization was buying.  This is the part in a project story when it’s really easy to start finger-pointing, and we all know that blame doesn’t bring a team closer together!

If Rob had gotten answers to the five simple questions I’m about to share with you before the contract was signed, he would have been able to flag the missing data services long before the project started.

But there’s an even more basic thing that Rob didn’t do well enough. He didn’t give enough priority to reading and understanding the contract before passing it on to his boss. Reading and understanding the contract will usually help to prevent that dreaded “gotcha” that can come up later.

Why don’t we read the vendor’s contract? Usually it’s due to one or more of these things:

  • We assume the vendor has put everything in there correctly
  • Our organization’s attorney reads it instead
  • We think that’s our boss’ job
  • We don’t understand what we’re reading (so why bother?)


The Five Questions to Ask Your Tech Vendors Before Signing Any Contract

Question 1: Do our lists match up? Let’s start by getting clear on exactly what you are buying. If you don’t already have one, make a list of the things that you expect the vendor will do for you. As an example, here’s a short list of deliverables for a digital fundraising campaign:

  • Design and build three donation forms
  • Create matching email template
  • Design images for social media promotion
  • Design and build a lightbox on the website homepage
  • Train us to make updates

Now, look at the vendor contract and highlight the deliverables that are on your list. How well does your list match up with the contract? Is anything missing, or is there something that’s not on your list that’s in the contract? Flag anything weird for follow up before you sign.


Question 2: Does the contract provide enough detail? Now you’re ready to go a little bit deeper. You may think that you know what ‘design and build three donation forms’ means – but there are lots of ways to deliver those forms. Maybe you expect three custom designed forms and the vendor is planning to use a predesigned template. Are there enough details in the contract to paint a clear picture of what you are buying? (Side note – if there’s techno-jargon in the contract that you don’t understand, the vendor should be happy to explain.)


Question 3: What’s the timeline? You probably won’t have the detailed timeline yet, but project timing can be a huge deal. Do you know how long the project will take from start to finish? Make sure the contract includes any hard dates that must be met. If you need the fundraising campaign to be ready by October 1st, for example, make sure this is in the contract.


Question 4: What tasks do you expect us to do? Unless your project can be done without you, there are things that you’re on the hook for. What is the vendor expecting your team to do? Knowing what’s assigned can help you make space on your to-do list and pull in the right people for specific tasks. And if you can’t make enough space to do the project work, it might be time to talk with your boss about moving things around to help get everything done.


Question 5: How you manage scope changes? If you think your project is going to roll along exactly as planned, think again. It’s very unlikely. How does your vendor manage changes in scope? Technology projects are a lot like renovating your kitchen – you make one hundred little decisions along the way, and that can potentially add up to a hefty increase in the budget. Tracking these changes will help you avoid sticker shock if the final invoice includes any approved extras. Understanding the process for this can help you avoid any unpleasant surprises.  Okay, MOST unpleasant surprises!


What Else Should We Ask?

I’ve written thousands of contracts for my nonprofit clients. Dealing with them is nobody’s idea of a good time. But if you make sure that your project story aligns with what’s in the contract before signing it, you will set the stage for a successful digital project or software purchase. Do your organization (and yourself) a huge favor and ask these five questions – and get answers that you understand before you sign on the line!

Read more about preventing project failure.

It’s always better when we learn together. Got other questions that are important to ask vendors before signing a contract? Please share them in the comments below.