Some processes can be tackled like jigsaw puzzles: one piece at a time, in no particular order, because once the puzzle is complete — even if you use a method that takes you longer — you will end up with exactly what you expected.

Others require a certain consciousness of how the process itself contributes to the finished product. You wouldn’t hire an architect to build a house and say, “Don’t worry about designing the kitchen; I’ll take care of that some other way later.”

Otherwise, to eventually get a kitchen built, you might have to hire a new architect with a different style, or end up trying to DIY (not always recommended).

Connecting With Your Contract Management

Using a customer relationship management (CRM) tool that doesn’t allow you to manage contracts as documents within the CRM itself is akin to not using one architect for your entire custom-built home: It creates a disjointed, chaotic process that doesn’t solve all your problems and requires extra steps to achieve the desired result.

Applying document management principles to contracts processes is essential to increasing productivity and visibility and ensuring compliance.

An IDC study shows that having documents disconnected from business processes lowers productivity — business leaders say their staffs spend more than one-third (36 percent) of their time on administrative tasks and less than two-thirds (64 percent) on their core job functions, such as sales – and creates business risk or compliance issues.

It notes, “More than a third of business leaders say they have problems with agreements that are missing signatures, initials or dates — or that have been signed by the wrong persons; nearly one-half (46 percent) aren’t sure they have copies of all signed agreements. Just over one-half (51 percent) say they have problems with documents that are misfiled or lost.”

This disheartening picture can be mitigated, however, by treating contracts the right way.

Contracts as Documents

Many contracts and CRM systems are built using spreadsheet-like formats, with rows and columns, but contracts are not simply figures that can be slotted into a cell. It comes down to the difference between structured data and unstructured data: In a row or column of a spreadsheet, the data is structured, and data points are searchable within a spreadsheet; you can search for a piece of data and see it in cell A1 or B25.

Contracts are not structured data, however, and cannot be treated as such. A contract is a discrete entity that can’t simply be put into a cell in a database. It needs to be able to be viewed in its entirety – not based on a single field or piece of data in a spreadsheet.

Within a CRM platform, a contract is not the same thing as an opportunity record and cannot be managed the same way that other data points are.

For example, within an opportunity record, you can see a company or contact name and address with a specific product that contact may need, but there wouldn’t be any information about the contract (for example, terms and conditions or special clauses).

Managing contracts as documents allows them to connect with sales records via the data within the contract, thus streamlining the buying and selling process.

The following are some examples of why document management processes need to apply to contracts.

Editing and Versioning

Contracts start with templates, into which data pertaining to individual situations is added. The data being merged into contracts needs to be examined for accuracy and to ensure the template used is the appropriate one (as many companies have multiple templates), so legal departments need to be able to review a contract and lock it while they are inside it so others cannot overwrite information.

After fact-checkers are done, a new version of the contract then exists, and others involved in the process need to be able to access it, search for it and see where it is within a workflow process. The contract needs to be traceable — who sent it to whom and when, when it was opened, who it was passed to, who signed it, etc.

Visibility is the only way to ensure a given version of a contract is the latest and most updated one.

Variability

The nature of contracts is that they are variable and thus different contracts need to be managed differently. In a database, certain fields will always have the same information.

A participant can open up the database and know that a certain field will always contain a customer name, not an address or dollar amount. Contracts are not data points in a database, however, and so the information within them can vary widely even within similar or the same templates.

For example, two contracts might be negotiated service level agreements for the same product, but the negotiations ended differently, so now the fifth paragraph in one contract is completely unlike the fifth paragraph in the other. A contract tells a story in a way that fields in a spreadsheet do not.

Searchability

In addition to the content of a contract, there also is metadata, such as the author, date created, type of contract, who the customer is, etc., that help participants find it. If the contract is not being managed as a document, then the contract itself is just a blob – there is no context for it; it’s just a file and is not able to be easily searched.

In a CRM, you might be able to find attachments such as a data record associated with a contract, or a customer account record, but you would not be able to find the contract itself because it is simply a file name.

With a document management system, in which a contract is treated as an individual entity and not just an object within a CRM, you search an entire repository for particular types of documents or key phrasing/clauses and can go right to the contract itself. This concept applies whether you are searching for a contract template, work in process or an executed agreement.

Variations and Complexity

In very transactional kinds of contracts, employees need not worry about terms and conditions or service level agreements, because those types of contracts are not negotiated.

An example of this would be a contract with a cable company; when a new customer signs up, the contract is the same every time, depending on package and region of the country.

This means the workflow is not complex enough to merit document management principles; contracts are never versioned, they are simply signed and moved along. Transactional contracts do, however, require process efficiency and automated workflows that keep the contract moving from generation to signature, allowing the sellers to sell instead of manage contracts.

However, the need for document management principles in a contracts process becomes greater as a contract becomes more complex and less transactional – for example, contracts that enter lengthy negotiations or require several schedules or exhibits will create bottlenecks.

A contract that has been highly negotiated drives an even greater need for the ability to edit and search. An employee would need to be able to find contracts based on certain characteristics, including different service level agreements (SLAs), clauses, wording and more.

If a complex contract – or even a simpler one – is not kept in a centralized repository, this creates business risk as well as customer service issues because a contract cannot be immediately searched for and found.

Templates

Some organizations have multiple contract templates. For example, a wealth management company might have hundreds of templates used for customers to open new accounts, transfer money, etc., and it is critical employees use the most current version of the contract.

A contract of this nature would reference various SLAs and statutes that require those documents to be cataloged, indexed and organized even before they become a signed contract, so those templates have to be managed as well.

Produce and Provide

What this all comes down to is pure productivity. We live in a fast-paced digital world and no one has time to spend searching for a contract, figuring out if the version in one’s hands is the latest version, wondering where it is and blindly estimating when a deal will close.

Managing contracts as documents creates visibility and searchability, reduces business risk, and quickens the process, ultimately speeding up the sales cycle and getting a business from quote to cash faster.

Title image "Contract Work" (CC BY-ND 2.0) by Ant‫‬