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Special Report - Show Me the Money

By Daniel Burrus

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Today’s technology is nothing short of amazing. As a CIO or other top level IT professional, this presents an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, you see so many technological opportunities for your organization, from new ways to communicate with customers to new revenue streams, that the possibilities for business growth seem endless. On the other hand, each technology comes with an expense. And when budgets are tight, selling your ideas to the CEO, CFO, or board can seem near impossible.

Unfortunately, in most companies, IT is seen as a cost center rather than a revenue generator. From a financial and business perspective, cost centers need to be controlled. As such, IT budgets are usually fixed and firm. No matter how wonderful the newest technological revolution is, no matter how many features and benefits it offers, if it’s over the allotted budget, chances are slim that you’ll get to implement it.

In addition, no matter how excited you get about the new technology, often your enthusiasm is not contagious. Company leaders who do not have a technology background simply don’t get excited about technology, no matter how revolutionary it is. In some cases, the non-IT people don’t understand the technology, and in other cases they only see the expense associated with it.

But let’s face the reality of being a CIO: When you have a new technology that costs money but will save the company even more money, you need to be able to sell that. When you have a new technology that costs money but will save the company time (which will ultimately save money), you need to be able to sell that. When you have a new technology that costs money but will create a new revenue stream for the company, you need to be able to sell that, too.

This brings us to the real question: In an era of budget, time, and labor constraints, is it possible to sell your ideas, your innovations, and your new technology finds to the CEO, CFO, board of directors, or whoever is in charge of the final decision? The answer is: Yes! You can sell your ideas up. It simply depends on how you frame the opportunity.

Perception is everything

First things first: When you’re selling your technology ideas up, don’t talk about technology. While that may sound strange, it’s the primary sales rule that most IT people break. Remember that IT and technology are what you love, not what everyone else loves. And when you’re selling your ideas to non-technology people, you can’t focus on your preferences. Rather, you have to focus on the other person. Here’s how you do that:

Tune into the pain of the person you’re talking to. Forget about yourself and how excited you are about this great new technology. At this point, you and your likes are not important. If you’re going to sell your idea, technology, or concept, you have to understand where the other person’s personal pain is. For example, maybe they’re dealing with an upset board or stockholders who don’t like last quarter’s results. Or perhaps they have to reorganize. Or maybe sales are down or they just lost the head of marketing to a competitor. Do your research and uncover the main challenge they’re dealing with right now.

Once you know the other person’s pain, you can position the idea, technology, or concept you want to sell as something that can solve that pain. In other words, you have to show the CEO, CFO, board, or whomever you’re selling to that there’s a direct payoff to them if they approve your idea. So if you know that the CEO’s greatest pain is the fact that the sales team isn’t communicating with marketing or manufacturing, resulting in lower sales and poor customer experiences, then you have to look at the new technology you’re proposing and figure out how it can ease that pain or even solve that problem.

As you do this, state it clearly. Don’t make anyone guess or come to their own conclusions. For example, you could say, “I know you’re dealing with [lagging sales, poor internal communications, customer complaints, etc.]. I’ve come across some things that I think can help you overcome those challenges. Obviously, I want to help the company succeed and grow, so let me tell you about what I’ve found.”

Then talk about the new idea, technology, or concept in terms of solving the current problem only. Don’t go into all the functions, features, or costs. That’s an entirely different conversation you have later. Right now, you’re simply getting the decision maker on board with the idea, technology, or concept and in agreement that it will solve his or her problem.

Solve the predictable problems in advance. As you have this discussion and talk about how the idea, technology, or concept can be the solution to their pain, you’ll also have to address the most common objections. So plan for them in advance. In other words, get into the other person’s shoes and figure out what his or her objections are likely to be. Pre-solve those objections before you have the discussion.

For example, if you’re talking to the CEO about your solution but you know budgets are tight, you can safely deduce that he or she will say, “This sounds great, but the CFO won’t approve this right now.” However, because you’ve anticipated the likely objections, you would reply, “I’ve already run this by the CFO because I knew it was important. I already have an okay from him, which is why I’m coming to you now.”

Of course, before going to the CFO, you would have identified his greatest pain and presented the idea, technology, or concept in a way that solved that challenge. And likely, the CFO’s pain is different from the CEO’s pain. However, if what you’re proposing is really a solution and not a fad, and you showed how it supports the organization’s strategic imperatives with a good ROI, you will have a receptive CFO.

Additionally, remember that the technological understanding and literacy of C-level executives varies considerably. Some are very tech-savvy, while others don’t have any understand of anything technology-related. That’s a problem to address while you do your homework. How tech-savvy is the person you’re selling your ideas to? Is he or she seeing technology as a solution or a problem? Does he or she see technology as a cost to be controlled or as a strategic investment?

The goal is to overcome the potential blocks before they arise. Solve the predicable problems before they happen and you’ll eliminate objections before they’re presented. Don't skip this step, because the objections will come. You need to be prepared and have your homework done in advance.Use the power of certainty to your advantage. When you’re selling your ideas, the people you’re talking to are thinking risk: personal risk, financial risk, reputational risk, etc. You have to alleviate their fear of risk. How? Remember this: Strategies based on uncertainty have high risk, while strategies based on certainty have low risk. Therefore, before talking with the other person, ask yourself, “What are the things I’m absolutely certain about regarding this solution? What are the current hard trends? Where is the industry, company, economy, etc. going, based on what we are certain about with this solution as well as without this solution?”

Identify the things you’re completely certain about. This is not a time for “if,” “maybe,” or “might”. Only address the things you know for sure. It’s about what will happen versus what might happen. In a world filled with uncertainty, what are you certain about?

Make your list of hard trends; the things you’re certain about. For example, smart phones and smart pads (such as the iPhone and iPad) are gaining more popularity every day. Is this a trend that you know will continue, or will people eventually trade in their new smart phones and go back to the traditional cell phones of yesterday? The answer is obvious. People won’t go back. So look at the current technologies available and how people are changing behaviors based on their use. Look at the sales trends. Look at your customers. Look at the economy. Look at everything around you and get clear on what’s a hard trend and what’s going to pass.

Additionally, look at the strategic imperatives of the company and the current plan. Determine if your proposed solution is an accelerator or a brake. Obviously, you want to show how your ideas, technology, or concept can accelerate the plan and the results of the plan. You want to show how your solution can help increase sales, increase innovation, increase product development, etc. Again, this can’t be a “maybe". It has to be something you’re certain about.

Then, after talking about the pain and how you’ve solved it, and after overcoming the objections, go into your list of certainties. You could say, “Here are things I’m certain about in the marketplace and in our company ... . Based on this certainty, here is why implementing this technology or solution is low-risk and a winner.”

You’ll find that this approach is a powerful sales tool.

What about cost?

Sometimes, cost really is an issue, especially these days with many companies streamlining both budgets and staff. So it’s quite possible that you can go through all the steps outlined here, only to have the decision maker say, “This sounds great. But we really don’t have the money to fund it.” At that, your reply should be, “What would it take to get the funding?” And then be quiet. Throw the objection back at them and then listen. After a short silence, they’ll tell you exactly what needs to happen.

Interestingly, people always manage to find money when they’re excited about an opportunity. You’ve probably seen this in your own life. Your teenager wants a car and asks you to buy it. You say “no” but that you’ll match whatever money they save to buy the car. A few months later, your teenager has saved a substantial amount of money (by teenager’s standards). With your matching money, he or she has enough to purchase a quality used car. Or maybe an unemployed friend learns of a business opportunity that requires an initial investment of several thousand dollars. Even though they are unemployed and have limited cash at their disposal, they often find the money to invest in the new business.

So when someone says, “We don’t have the money,” it doesn’t really mean that there’s no money. It simply means that what you’re offering isn’t a priority, doesn’t have urgency, and isn’t relevant to them. Therefore, ask yourself, “Have I made this idea, technology, or concept a priority? Have I made it urgent? Have I made it relevant?” If not, then you’ll likely hear the default answer of, “We don’t have the money.”

However, if you have made the idea, technology, or concept a high priority, urgent, and relevant, then all of a sudden the other party can, “Shift some things around.” As other things become less important and your idea becomes more important, the money is suddenly available. So you have to place your idea, technology, or concept at the top of the list of priorities and then show the CEO, CFO, board, or decision maker why it’s there.

An anticipatory approach

This approach to selling your ideas up is a switch for many in IT, because even after all these steps and all these discussion points, our passion for technology often over rules and we slip back to a discussion of the new tool’s features instead of what it will do for the listener. It’s important to remind yourself well before the meeting that if you haven’t done the groundwork to get the other party excited or on board, you’ll likely go nowhere. As you’re busy talking about features and benefits, the other person is thinking about costs, risks, ifs, and maybes. That’s why you need to solve all those things ahead of time. This is really just an anticipatory approach to selling – you’re anticipating the problems, the rejections, the objections, and the concerns so you can overcome them easily and turn them around.

Anyone who has worked with C-level executives knows that leaders get excited about many things, but they’re working with the weight of costs, controls, and constraints on them. Therefore, you need to challenge those costs, controls, and constraints. Instead, make what you offer about priority, relevancy, and strategic imperatives and you’ll get your ideas sold.

Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology driven trends to help clients better understand how technological, social and business forces are converging to create enormous, untapped opportunities. He is the author of six books, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal best seller Flash Foresight: How To See the Invisible and Do the Impossible as well as the highly acclaimed Technotrends.