Anyone who has seen Francis Ford Coppola's Gothic potboiler Dracula might recall the crazed English inmate, incessantly pleading for the 'master' to wing his way from Transylvania and rescue him from his tormenting warders.
Nosferatu duly puts in an appearance but, as might be expected, his salivating servant is not so much freed from the prison gates as blasted through them - a last act of petulance by the vampire antichrist.
Such cinematic allusions might be a tad exaggerated for comparison between outsource suppliers and their clients, but if - in negotiations - garlic necklaces aren't sported by the latter it's probably because the relationship is already doomed.
A recent report from independent London facilities management (FM) consultancy Morgan Chambers confirms the horror scenario that while many users of outsourcing services want to sever their bonds with suppliers, most are unlikely to do so for fear of grim repercussions. Being hurled beyond the gates of hell might even be a blessed relief.
If Morgan Chambers' findings reflect the UK situation as a whole, three-quarters of FM users in banking and finance would today happily drive a stake through the heart of contractors, and as many as 80 per cent in the local government sector would also wield the mallet given the chance.
But in reality only 10 per cent will do so because of the threat of disrupting IT operations - all of which should make disturbing reading to Vars and dealers involved in the outsourcing business, unless they have an acquired taste for mouton jugular. But the upturned end of the crucifix is whether service providers are being wrongly defamed.
So what is going on? One problem may be that customers are expecting too much of their suppliers. Another survey by Olivetti earlier this year, and involving more than 700 major IT sites in the UK, revealed that between a quarter and a half of all IT expenditure currently goes on software service support, with four-fifths of that spend on finding its way into the pockets of outside contractors. The study also revealed that most of those canvassed expected the percentage spent on software support to rise significantly in 1997.
This haemorrhaging may have less to do with the blood-sucking abilities of FM suppliers as the sheer mayhem that client/server technology - with its labyrinthine networks of autonomous users - has wrought on the corporate world.
In public sector circles, the natural tendency to offload the whole nightmare to contractors has been abetted by Tory encouragement, be it through the wholesale contracting out of Whitehall and local authority IT departments, or the sponsorship of new projects through the private finance initiative.
But it's a strategy that in many respects has backfired, and in which smaller dealers and Vars have been tarred with the same brush of disaffection.
When it comes to the huge government outsourcing contracts, the apparent ease with which huge US suppliers like EDS and CSC pluck multimillion pound deals out of the air has struck a sour chord. Not only is that true of the Inland Revenue staff who have been on the receiving end of change, but with smaller UK specialists that are not given a glance yet share a collective ignominy when things go wrong.
Probably because of the reduced influence of the unions and the natural hesitance of boards to admit disaster, failed FM contracts in the private sector are less manifest. But the damage to the outsourcing sector as whole can be widespread, with the waves of discontent lapping on the shores of even the smallest contractor.
Over at the Computing Services and Software Association (CSSA), executive director Tony Lewis believes that suggestions of widespread dissatisfaction over outsourcing are sweeping generalisations.
'In the public sector, you have closely knit communities, thanks to the unions and professional bodies. If users were that discontented about the nature of FM contracts then I'm sure they would have made their views known,' he argues.
'What also has to be remembered is that most of the channel is not like EDS or CSC, involved in billion-pound contracts, but instead service much smaller firms and organisations. Providing they carry on delivering a quality service, which seems to be the case most of the time, there is usually no complaint by the customer.'
But Lewis acknowledges that when problems associated with large outsourcing contracts hit the headlines, the smaller players often suffer the same stigma. 'When majors players screw up, it always reflects badly on the rest of the industry,' he says.
'I remember when Clive Sinclair's electronics group got into trouble, and inexplicably Logica's shares took a dive. There was no correlation between the two - it was just the way that cookie crumbled.'
In order to protect the image of its Vars working in the outsourcing sphere, CSSA recently drew up its own practice guidelines. They stipulate adherence to the EC's Tupe rules demanding that staff taken over in an FM deal continue to enjoy the same terms and conditions that were enforced by their previous employer. But these rules complicate matters when a firm wants to break off from its existing outsourcing contractor and take on a new one.
This, along with upfront investment by the FM suppliers in retraining, redundancy payouts and perhaps completely new IT, often means the outsourcer is taking just as big a risk than the customer.
Lewis points out that before Ross Perot decided America sorely needed him as president, EDS's condor-eared founder gambled on the prospect of hardware prices falling when he entered into FM deals.
'Perot got his margins right and EDS became the most successful company in the business. But outsourcing is all about long-term relationships with customers. Quite a few contractors that didn't do their sums properly have ended up with burnt fingers,' Lewis says.
Meanwhile, the new trend in outsourcing is for longer contracts with maintenance of legacy systems among the most active areas of agreement.
One CSSA member has just entered into an FM agreement spanning the next 25 years.
'If you have ever run a DP department, you would know that very few staff are keen on running old computer systems. Instead they want to be trained in the latest skills and techniques because that's where the future is,' reveals Lewis.
'But that in turn makes the maintenance of legacy systems one of the fastest growing areas of business for outsourcers. As they say, where there's muck there's brass ...' He quips: 'I'm even thinking of brushing up on my own Cobol skills.'
Yet another lucrative area for the channel is in taking over a customer's network management. Though sometimes it's part of a larger parcel of activity that is put out to FMs, as was the case when chemicals giant ICI outsourced its Lotus Notes and frame relay networks to Origin in a u75 million deal.
In a similar move last summer, Unisys was able to clinch network FM deals with a large insurance company, a county council and a top financial house for its Network Enable FM service. But this again is at the top end of the outsourcing market. For most of the channel, areas such as desktop maintenance and help desk work is more worth pursuing.
Indeed, helpdesk outsourcing has become a major business for resellers and support specialists. Figures suggest that by the end of the century external contractors will account for just under one third of the estimated $11 billion European outsourcing market.
But organisations like the Helpdesk User Group (Hug) have done much in recent times to make their 1,000-odd, mainly corporate customers, aware of the pitfalls of choosing an outsource contractor. This in turn has led to an almost commoditisation of the helpdesk market, according to Phil Brooks, sales director of Dorset-based specialist Deverill.
The company, whose biggest FM coup to date is a u500,000 contract to run Powergen's helpdesk supporting more than 800 users, has invested heavily in state-of-the-art call centre telephony. But, admits Brooks: 'The helpdesk business is still a good one to be in, though pricing structures have found their own level in the market. Like any commodity, the margins are being driven down. As the market matures, you get more competition which drives prices down, so it's all getting a bit cutthroat.'
OUT DAMN SPOTS
Another firm providing outsourcing solutions is ABS of Witney, near Oxford.
Tony O'Shaughnessy, the company managing director, echoes the view of Phil Brooks that FM customers are today much sharper when it comes to negotiating. But it's with the rider that FM novices which don't have organisations like Hug to guide them can find themselves at the bruising end of contracts when they want to either break off the deal or amend terms.
'A lot of outsourcers have caught a cold in the past,' he points out, 'and know the contractual ropes. Customers that enter into an FM contract looking on it only as an accounting function, or as a means to reduce overheads in the short term, often have a shock when they finally do wake up.'
Another area of contention stems from situations where customers try to offload a technological problem to the outsourcer, in the hope it can inject greater professionalism.
Leslie Willcocks, author of the report Best Practices in Information Technology Sourcing believes it is a mistake for both sides to enter into a relationship on this basis. 'Companies should never outsource a problem, only tasks they already understand. Sort out the major problems first, buying in the resources if need be. Worry about FM afterwards,' he says.
Even stronger counselling for users comes from Organisation and Technology Research, a London-based outfit providing strategic advice on IT to more than 70 corporates. Its group commercial manager Peter Feltham is less inclined to give outsourcers the benefit of the doubt and argues that if surveys of the kind put out by Morgan Chambers cast the FM industry in a bad light, it's probably because it deserves it. 'Too often we find the contractor does just enough to win the deal, putting in a low bid and loading up the back end of the contract. Once that honeymoon is over, customers finds it hard to untangle themselves.
'He might have thought he was entering into a partnership with the contractor, but if both sides are not sharing equally in the profits and losses then it's just a one-sided relationship,' he says.
Final words come from Lewis who says: 'If FM clients make sure they fully understand the long-term implications of outsourcing, if they find a reputable contractor and sign on the dotted line only if they are happy with the terms, there is no reason why the marriage shouldn't be blessed.'
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