Most business relationships begin with a contract that spells out how business will be done. It could be a formal contract, like the one drafted by a team of lawyers, or aninformal one, such as the agreement between a customer and an e-commerce retailer. Contracts spell out how revenue will be generated, and what each party’s recourse will be if expected outcomes don’t happen. Yet, even though contracts are so important, it is still surprising how many companies manage their contractual processes by using a clumsy combination of emails and printed documents. The files could all have different document formats or even be stored in multiple locations, many of which are only known to those directly involved in the business relationship.
Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platforms have revolutionized this process, having created today’s contract management industry. Contract management software unifies all of the parties, contracts, and versions involved in contract negotiations in a trusted medium in which all parties see changes and can track the timeline of a contract from inception to signing. The best platforms, like many of those included in this review roundup, also provide detailed reporting and analytics, intelligent notifications, and a wealth of ongoing management and workflow automation features to boot.
These digital services also range in complexity. Some platforms have broader applicability and canbe completely customized depending on an organization’s needs. Others hone in on simplicity, servicing a few select contract management use cases and business verticals. In this review roundup, we’ve included products on both ends of the spectrum. Depending on your organizational requirements and contract management needs, any one of these platforms has the potential to transform the way your business handles contracts.
What Is Contract Management Software?
In the past, contract managers often kept all of their documents in physical file cabinets and maintained lists or spreadsheets of an entity’s different agreements, with a fewkey terms and dates noted.
This style of contract management can lead to a host of problems. Contracts could be misfiled or taken from the cabinet and never returned. The contract manager could leave the organization after implementing a system that does not make sense to future managers. Audits could paralyze the manager with extraordinary amounts of work. Records could be too numerous to effectively manage. This could result in costly, unintended renewals to automatically go into effect or certain intellectual property (IP) rights to lapse.
The heavy burden of contract management—and the risk that purely human management poses—has led many entities to implement contract management systems. These services often promise time savings for managers, long-term reduction in costs, increased auditability, future stability, and reduction in risk.
In response to the increase in demand, a host of contract management systems have entered the market. Hundreds of contract management systems now exist. They all offer services that help distinguish them from their competition, while ensuring that the core needs of a contract manager are met.
Basics and Core Functions
In today’s market, contract management systems can take many forms. Some are for the sole proprietor who is trying to keep track of the few core contracts that keep his or her business afloat. Others are for large teams who are maintaining the thousands or even millions of contracts that accompany multinational corporate behemoths. Financial and legal departments are, unsurprisingly, the most prevalent users of contract management software. However, these solutions extend into a number of other business scenarios as well.
Sales teams might integrate a contract management system with their customer relationship management(CRM) platform to manage sales contract renewals and negotiations on anything from manufacturing contracts to car leases. Businesses might employ contract management software in the supply chain to handle supplier and distribution deals with vendors or tie into all of the contracts that keep inventory stocked and retail operations smoothly running.
All contract management systems help departments tied into their enterprise resource planning (ERP) operations to manage agreements with third parties. A company’s human resources (HR) department might integrate its HR Information System (HRIS) with a contract management platform to automatically handle employment contracts, terminations, and employment and benefits agreements. The use cases go on and on. Contract management is useful just about everywhere in a business.
At its most basic, contract management often centers on four key functions: contracts must be stored, key provisions must be tracked, a system must exist to find a contract based upon specific criteria, and information contained within or implicated by the contracts must be understandable or reportable. The abridged version: Contracts must be stored, tracked, searched, and reported.
These core functionalities are often what drive the features of the different contract management systems on the market. Nearly every system offers an extensive repository that holds copies of contracts (often remotely) in virtual file cabinets so the documents can never be lost. The systems often offer the ability to input data related to the contract in tags and key terms so that information can be quickly discovered and alerts can be set to warn managers of impending, important events. The data added to the system for tracking purposes usually also serves an additional purpose: to facilitate the finding of particular contracts or groups of contracts that meet certain criteria. Lastly, that contract data can be aggregated in numerous ways to help give a bird’s-eye view of the state of the entity’s contracts.
For the contract management systems we reviewed, the greatest emphasis in each review was placed on these core functions. All of the following questions helped guide the review process in order to provide a common core upon which to evaluate. Namely:
- Does the system offer contract storage? If it does, in what manner?
- Could the data entered about contracts be customized based upon the needs of the user?
- Could alerts be set to notify the manager that a contract was automatically renewing, expiring, or a key provision was taking effect?
- Were the data fields entered by the user searchable? To what level could the search be filtered and refined?
- Could that search be saved for future use?
- Could the actual contract be searched?
- Could the results of a search be exported or made into a report?
- Could the system generate visual reports or just data/numerical?
Managing the Full Contract Life Cycle
However, beyond these core functions, contract management platforms have evolved a great deal since the first time we tested these products. These platforms have become full contract life cycle management solutions. More advanced contract management features they now have include rich editing, formatting, and document management capabilities as well as customizable templates for repeatable contract creation. Many of the platforms feature more polished user experiences (UXes) with drag-and-drop functionality, action-based triggers, and automated logic to facilitate smarter workflows and notifications. Plus, many offer granular access control for various users and parties.
Auditability and dynamic multi-party collaboration are also key and included in many of these systems. The best contract management software gives both internal users and external parties permissioned ability to make changes to different versions of contracts, chat and comment on specific provisions to negotiate terms, and go through the signing and execution process—all in one place. To do this, however, a full audit trail is required. This audit trail should include inline change management and annotation, version control, and a full transaction log that shows every change made to every single contract and by whom.
We found how each platform tackles electronic signing can also vary. Some solutions offer native e-signing within the product while others offer integrations with services such as Adobe Sign and DocuSign. Still other vendors offer both options and let the organizations choose the e-signing option that works best for them.
Contract Management and the Bottom Line
Poor contract management could be costing your business money. According to a report from SpringCM, 64 percent of companies say that contract approval processes are causing deals to stall. The biggest barrier faced by companies, according to the survey, is the lack of processes to manage and move along contracts. Sixty percent of companies are using email to manage contracts while only 32 percent of companies are using a contract management tool. Six percent of companies say they have no contract management process in place at all.
SpringCM surveyed 1,409 respondents, 32 percent of whom are from companies of fewer than 100 employees and 16 percent of whom are from companies of more than 8,000 employees. Ninety-two percent of contract management errors are attributed to humans, according to the respondents. Therefore, the more automated your contract management system is and the more aspects of the end-to-end contract life cycle it can oversee, the less chance there will be for a snag that holds up the approval process.
The length of the typical contract cycle for survey respondents was between one and two months (33 percent). Twenty-two percent of respondents say their contract cycle lasts longer than four months. Twenty percent of respondents say that using contract management software has saved their business money.
Image credit: SpringCM
Smart Contracts on the Horizon
The elephant in the contract management room is blockchain. This distributed computing technology provides an immutable foundation upon which a new generation of systems is being built. It gives all parties in any type of digital transaction an equal playing field. Everyone agrees upon the rules. Plus, every single asset or transaction on that field has a unique cryptographic signature that’s stored across a worldwide network. Within this network, everyone sees the same proof of what happened. Every transaction includes the immutable history of what came before it.
Think of blockchain as a sort of distributed operating system (OS) for data: a historical fabric underneath everything you do online. On top of this OS are blockchain’s killer apps: smart contracts. Smart contracts are a set of rules evaluated by an automated system in which all parties agree to a common rule set. They are a computerized version of an English-language paper contract, with a level of automation that essentially provides Adjudication-as-a-Service.
Blockchain and smart contracts have not yet reached mainstream adoption. However, in the next several years, this tech has the potential to completely upend how contracts are managed and executed. Uses cases for smart contracts include identity management, recordkeeping, complex multi-party agreements, and transactions from mortgages, land titling, supply chain management (SCM), and auto insurance. The current contract management landscape and the products reviewed in this roundup do not currently support blockchain infrastructure or smart contract functionality. However, in the next few years, the entire legal industry—contract management vendors included—will be dealing with how smart contracts have transformed the construct of a digital agreement.
Image credit: Capgemini Consulting
Choosing Your Solution
There are a number of contract management solutions that offer highly customizable, feature-rich systems. Some of these systems can be scaled to smaller groups but they provide systems and features that can be better utilized by large entities. Not to mention that the price tag that will likely be involved can often be better handled by groups with deeper financial pockets. On the other side of the contract management market are those solutions that are more refined in the services they offer. These options often address a particular issue faced in contract management. In general, these systems often come with more manageable costs for smaller groups that have fewer users.
The good news is our solution is both cost effective and feature rich!