Selling Your Ideas to Management – Speak with Data

January 1, 2011

While teaching classes for my in-house clients and at local colleges and universities, I often hear students say they can’t sell new ideas to management. They say things like, “I can’t change anything”, or “No one will listen to my ideas”, or “They don’t want to change anything at our company.”

These students are largely non-managerial, semi-professional employees, many of them without a college degree who had no thought of being in their current profession when they started their career. These folks take these classes to develop their professional knowledge and skills and to learn new tools and concepts that they can use in their jobs.

Often when they try to take newly learned concepts to their managers, they hear answers like: “That is not how we do things, here”, or, “We’ve tried that before and it won’t work here, we are different”.

It is true that in some cases management will reject new ideas based on a “resistance to change” mentality or their own vested interest in the existing system. More often than not the real problem is that many employees simply do not know how to sell their ideas effectively to management. Although they are eager and enthusiastic about their idea or suggestion, often they have difficulty selling it because they just don’t speak the same language as managers.

After 30 years in operations as a practitioner, manager and consultant, I have learned three things about managers that are important to understand when trying to sell them new ideas.

First, most managers don’t have a lot of time or patience for listening to new ideas; therefore employees must be clear and concise in presenting their ideas. Second, most employees don’t know how to present their ideas to management. They need to learn to present ideas in a language and style that is familiar to managers; i.e. charts graphs, financial measurements, etc. Third, and most important, they need to back their ideas with factual data. Data speaks loud and clear to managers.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this point:

Rick, the stock room supervisor at ACME, Inc, goes to class and learns about ABC inventory control. ABC uses a “Pareto” approach for managing and controlling inventories; the premise being that 20% of the items in inventory represent 80% of the inventory value. This is a completely new concept for Rick and he is pretty sure that his company is not using ABC. Rick can quickly see some real advantages to implementing ABC at ACME. He has been trying to improve the inventory accuracy for months, and he can see now that if he spends more time and effort on controlling the A items and less on the B and C items he will be managing 80% of the inventory in terms of its value which will favorably impact the bottom line. He can’t wait to share this new concept with everyone at ACME.

The next morning Rick sees Jane, the materials manager, in the hall. Jane asks, “How are your classes going?” and Rick enthusiastically responds, “Really good, we are learning all kinds of new things.” Jane says, “That’s great, I want to hear more, but I am on my way to a meeting right now. We should talk when I have more time.” Rick then interjects, “Last night we learned about ABC inventory control, and I think we should implement it here at ACME. It would really help us get a better handle on our inventory.”

As Jane turns to leave for her meeting she responds “Well maybe, but we tried that once before and I think Accounting had some kind of a problem with it”. As a result of this brief encounter with Jane, Rick comes to class the next week and tells us that his company won’t/can’t use ABC, and doesn’t pursue the idea any further.

Suppose, instead, after his chance encounter with Jane, where she indicated that she was interested in hearing more about what he was learning but was in a hurry, Rick had not tried to sell her on ABC at that time, but Instead had called his friend Stan in IT to see if he could get some real inventory data to demonstrate a new idea that he had learned in class. He and Stan meet the next day and together they develop an ABC report using the company’s inventory data. Stan helps Rick prepare a brief power point presentation with charts and graphs showing the benefits and bottom line results that could achieved with ABC.

The next day Rick shows this presentation to his manager Tom, who tells Rick that this is something he has been trying to get done for years, but just couldn’t get anywhere with management on it. Tom then sets up a meeting with Jane for Rick to make his presentation to her. Jane is favorably impressed by all of the work that Rick had done and tells him that ABC looks like a good thing for ACME, and she will present the idea to her boss, the VP of Operations, at the next staff meeting. From there on Rick is no longer alone in selling the idea. He has the support of both Tom and Jane. Jane is able to sell the concept to her boss based on ROI, inventory reduction, and bottom line results that can be achieved, by implementing ABC. The following week Rick is asked to be on a team to implement ABC at ACME. He is happy and proud that he has had a part in making a positive change in his company, and everybody benefits from the experience.

What did Rick do differently in the second scenario that got his idea sold? First, he respected Jane’s time and did not try to sell ABC to her after she told him she was busy. Second, he did his homework and supported his presentation with real company data, making the proposal real and thus meaningful to management. Third, he presented his idea using the tools and language of management. And, fourth, he went to Tom with his idea first, thus eliminating any perception that he was trying to go around the chain of command. Lessons learned: be clear and concise in your presentation, communicate in the language of management, and SPEAK WITH DATA.

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