Selling Your Proposal to Senior Executives – Part I

9/1/2005 | Palmer, W., LossPrevention Magazine

Originally published in LossPrevention Magazine, Sept/Oct 2005

“Great ideas are worthless unless they are put into practice”

Most, if not all, of us have experienced this maxim time and time again in our business careers. We have a brilliant plan that will significantly reduce shortage, improve efficiencies, and increase safety of our employees and customers. There is just one problem—we can’t get the organization to approve it.

In presenting his findings from this year’s National Retail Security Survey, Dr. Richard Hollinger highlighted some of these same frustrations expressed by loss prevention executives in trying to accomplish their goals. In his survey, executives identified such issues as “lack of upper management support,” “staffing,” “ineffective training,” and “budgetary pressures and constraints” as major impediments to the success of the LP department.

While there are many factors that go into those responses, we must look within and decide if we are doing a sufficient job in presenting our proposals, plans, and projects in such a manner as to gain support from the organization. This article looks at how we improve our odds of getting approval for what we’re requesting. While it would be impossible to give an exact formula for success in every company and with every project, it is reasonable to explore a framework that can be used to increase our chance of success at getting our proposal approved and implemented.

A Framework for All Levels of Management

It is also important to understand that this framework can be applied at all levels of an organization. Too often, we think in terms of corporate executives maneuvering the political landscape to get budgetary approval, corporate blessings, and senior executive support. However, proposals and projects have to be sold at all levels of an organization. At the same time the vice president of loss prevention is sitting in a budget meeting with the CEO and CFO, the store-level LP manager in a location far removed from the corporate office is having an important meeting with the store manager of operations and his district LP manager trying to sell them on his proposals for addressing issues at his location.

Whether you are a senior executive, store detective, regional LP manager, or an investigator, you have to sell your ideas and proposals to others to get buy-in, approval, and budget. In fact, most senior LP executives want their direct reports to do a better job at presenting proposals. One executive confided, “It seems as if my regional directors believe it is my job to get approval for projects. They simply send in a list of what they want without presenting any real justification or argument for it.”

There are at least two important lessons in that comment. First, no one has a better grasp on the proposal you are submitting than you do. If you really want to see it succeed, you have to help those who are responsible for approving it understand its importance. Second, the manner in which you present proposals reflects on you as a professional and establishes…or undermines…your credibility. An individual who presents well-thought-out proposals that are convincing and effective is not only improving their odds of getting that “Yes” answer they are seeking, but is also building their own long-term credibility as an independent thinker and leader within the company. As a result, your ability to be a salesperson and present good projects in an effective way affects your future success.

This can often be seen at budget time within an organization. It is quite certain that your financial staff has developed an informal list of those individuals who present well-supported budgets that have clear data to support them and those executives that don’t. Do you want to guess who they spend more time with during budget reviews and who they challenge more aggressively? Think about the implications. If you present a budget that gets challenged and ultimately reduced by a significant amount, what reputation are you establishing within the organization? How receptive is your audience going to be in the future to your proposals?

What you need is a framework to improve your odds. The framework we will examine involves four key components—process, premise, proof, and presentation. In this article, we will examine the first two components. Proof and presentation will be discussed in a future article.

Process

When setting out to construct an effective strategy for selling your proposal, the first thing to consider is the process that you will need to follow to succeed. This includes considerations such as the following:

  • What are the protocols in my organization for presenting this type of plan?
  • Is approval dependent primarily on one person or a committee?
  • Who will be the decision makers?
  • How do they feel about me and my department?
  • What are the priorities of my audience?
  • How does my proposal fit into overall corporate strategy?
  • What are the most likely objections to my proposal?
  • How have they reacted to similar proposals in the past? Have they said or written anything in recent months that might give an insight as to how they will react to this proposal?
  • Will there be others who support or oppose the plan?

Do you see the common theme? People. The whole idea of selling your proposal is about persuasion. And, persuasion is about people. We’re trying to persuade someone to adopt an idea or viewpoint they don’t currently hold. Or, at the very minimum, we are asking that they not oppose or fight us on an idea until they have all the facts. In many cases, we are asking them to spend money on an idea that could otherwise be spent in hundreds of other worthwhile efforts.

So, before you think about premises, proofs, and presentation, you simply have to understand that it’s about people. You must consider who you’re trying to influence, how they view the world, how they are predisposed, and what biases they may hold.

This process also involves considering how your proposal fits into the decision maker’s interpretation of corporate strategy. For example, in the retail sector, let’s say the CEO has just been in a chain-wide meeting where she announced the corporate strategy for growing the business is to focus on creating an upscale environment and make the shopping experience as pleasant as possible. How would that impact a proposal you have been preparing to lock up all of the high-shrink accessories? How do you think the CEO is going to respond? In other words, how does locking up accessories align to a corporate strategy of a luxury shopping environment?

In addition to how this affects the current proposal you are considering, you must examine the consequences of the proposal to your long-term credibility and expertise. If you go forward with your proposal to lock up the accessories, what will the CEO’s perception be of your business acumen and understanding of corporate strategy? This is not to suggest, in this hypothetical example, that you should automatically drop your proposal. Rather, these are considerations that must be factored into the process.

During this phase, it’s also helpful to consider the types of arguments that have been successful with the audience in the past. In addition, what types of arguments do they use when they’re selling a proposal? Recognize what works for them, and, if it fits your proposal, you may want to appeal to them on the same level. It is also wise to consider whether there will be people involved in the process who already support your plan or, conversely, may oppose it.

On the tactical level, one of the best ways to answer many of these questions is to meet one-on-one with all key decision makers you want to influence before you formally present your proposal. This will accomplish many of the goals identified above and one more, very important result—it gets them involved in the process. The others involved and impacted by your proposal need to feel as if their input is valued and matters to the direction it will take. Surprisingly, this step is often overlooked to the detriment of the process.

On this point, there’s an interesting article in a recent issue of Fortune magazine about decision-making. Jim Collins, author of business best-sellers Built to Last and Good to Great, says one of the best things CEOs can do to make better decisions is to say, “I don’t know,” and let other people give the answers. While the CEO still makes the ultimate decision, he or she can involve other people by listening to their reasoning as a part of the process.

Unfortunately, when we don’t involve people in the process, we open the door to a potentially hostile environment and possible backlash. Why? Because the others were left out of the process; they didn’t get to buy-in to the result. Remember, the process has to start with people.

Premise

In order to effectively sell your proposal, it is critical that you identify the underlying premise that it is based upon. In other words, what are the primary reasons, from the viewpoint of the audience, that your plan should be adopted or invested in?

Identifying your premise is important for at least two reasons. Most obviously, it is the building block for your proposal and subsequent steps in our framework. However, clearly identifying your premise serves perhaps an even more important purpose—it allows you to clearly articulate your message repeatedly and consistently.

Our last presidential election, regardless of your political viewpoint, helps illustrate this important point. You may recall hearing political analysts talk about whether or not the candidates were “on point” or “on message.” In fact, many analysts credit President Bush’s victory largely to his success at staying on point. While many observers find President Bush’s speaking skills to be, at best, average, he excels at being on message. He picks two or three points and sticks with them, repeating them over and over again with great consistency. That is what we mean by being “on point.” It paid off for Bush, and it will pay off for you, too.

By contrast, Senator Kerry often seemed unfocused, inconsistent, or even contradictory in his remarks from week to week. Kerry is considered an intelligent professional, but tended to talk about the nuances around issues and, as a result, often lost his listeners and left them puzzled as to the direction he would take our country.

What you are trying to accomplish is really no different. You are attempting to convince others to “vote” for your plans and that requires you to consistently and repeatedly articulate the underlying premise of your argument. It is important to realize that there are many different types of premises you can use and, in choosing one, you may drastically alter the appeal you are making to your audience.

It is also worth noting that you may use multiple premises, that is two or three underlying reasons for adoption of your plan. However, one should be cautious of trying to use too many. Even if your argument is supported by every category of premise we will explore, you must be careful to avoid “muddling the water” by using them all. You should consider picking the two or three most important and persuasive premises and build a clear, “on point” proposal around them.

Mandate. Perhaps the most straight-forward argument is based on the premise that the proposed action is mandated or required by law. The most obvious example from the past several years are the significant investments publicly-traded companies have made to comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act.

In addition to SOX, you have legislation and requirements from the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), and numerous state requirements.

In recent months, the issues of data security and identity theft have led many states to pass regulations around the issues of social security number usage and length of retention for other forms of personal information collected by retailers. While sometimes unintended, many of these laws impact loss prevention operations and systems, such as case management systems or refund databases.

Other legislation that impacts retail LP operations includes various state laws around licensing, regulation, and screening of private security personnel. In some cases, these requirements do not impact retail loss prevention employees, but in many cases they do apply.

But, perhaps the most common “mandate” of all comes from your boss rather than a government agency. The real world fact is that sometimes there is little justification needed for a project if your boss or the organization simply tells you that it has to be accomplished. However, if that is the case, it is a worthwhile exercise to see if you can find another premise to support the initiative in addition to the charge from your supervisor.

Aligning to Corporate Strategy. An initiative’s primary selling point might be that it supports the business and aligns to the corporate strategy. There are several examples of this specific to our industry, including open merchandising of product and brand protection.

Ten to fifteen years ago, the “open merchandising” of women’s accessories, a historically high shrinkage item, was an issue that caused LP executives to examine new strategies. In the past five years, the issues are the same, but the product affected now includes video games, ink toner cartridges, and jewelry. Why would organizations put these high-value items out in easy reach of potential shoplifters? Of course, the answer is to increase sales and make the customer shopping experience more seamless.

As a result, savvy LP executives have had to devise alternate protection or mitigation strategies to limit the losses on these items. This strategy has often involved the use of electronic article surveillance (EAS). The premise behind the deployment of these strategies has largely been around the issue of “supporting the business” or, in other words, aligning to the corporate strategy.

Another current example where corporate strategy plays an important role in the approval of loss prevention initiatives is in “brand protection.” This can mean different things for different companies, but many retailers have been concerned about product diversion, organized retail theft, and counterfeiting of proprietary product in relation to the impact these problems have on brand image and perception. For example, they’re concerned about their products being sold on eBay, not just because of the financial loss if the merchandise was stolen, but, more importantly, because their product being sold in this channel (or in swap meets), cheapens and devalues their brand image.

Please note that if aligning to corporate strategy is not your primary premise or, as importantly, if you’re proposing a project that might conflict with certain aspects of your corporate strategy, you will want to come back and examine this issue. It is not to suggest that you should never propose an initiative that flies in the face of corporate strategy. However, you must recognize the risks this involves and make sure that the other supporting reasons are so strong that it justifies the project.

You must also recognize the possible risks to your professional credibility. The last label you want to have hung on you by the CEO is, “Here’s someone who doesn’t understand the needs of the business.” We simply have to be careful of how our proposals fit into overall corporate strategy.

Financial. In most businesses, this is the most important premise you can utilize. If you use the classic business objective of “delivering shareholder value,” then financial return on investment (ROI) is a great premise. In fact, one of the major perceptions that CEOs have of our functions that we have to overcome is that we are simply a cost center. If, by contrast, we can make a ROI argument for a project, we will capture their attention.

When your premise is financial, you speak the language of senior management. You are also speaking the same language as most of your competitors within the organization. Remember, you are competing for a limited pool of funds within your organization. Your “competitors” are operations, HR, real estate, merchandising, buyers, and any other group who is seeking funding for their initiatives. If they are all speaking in terms of ROI or payback period and you are not, you are out of step and have a harder sell for your initiative.

Emotional. Most executives don’t want to admit they use emotion as a premise for justifying their initiatives. Perhaps this is because they view it as a “weak” premise. But, in reality, it is used quite often. In fact, most loss prevention practitioners have probably said, on at least one occasion, something like. “If we don’t do this, we are going to have [insert fear] happen.” Maybe it was an increase in theft or a lawsuit or a Y2K problem or any number of other possible negative outcomes.

It can also be used to fund an initiative designed to bring about a positive emotion. For instance, there are many times after an incident occurs at a store that extra measures are taken—increased attention, contract guards, improved physical security—in large part to make the store staff “feel better.” Or, in a publicly traded company, many initiatives are undertaken to not only make employees feel better, but also investors who might be concerned about short-term results in the stock market.

Another emotional response can come in the form of a reaction to an emotional event in a company. If an employee or customer dies in a store location from a heart attack, it might prompt a company to make a significant investment in the deployment of automatic emergency defibrillators (AEDs) that are not required nor do they make financial “sense.” Rather, it is an emotional reaction to a tragedy that causes the reaction.

Risk Management. This is a common premise, if for no other reason than the fact that much of the LP discipline is based in risk management theory. Many of our programs fall into such classis risk management strategies as risk avoidance, risk transfer, risk reduction, and risk mitigation. How many times have you argued for a proposal based on the fact it will reduce liability? Or that it will limit losses should an incident occur?

Additionally, many loss prevention groups are getting more actively involved in safety issues and the management of general liability expense. At a recent meeting with senior LP executives, several major retailers reported that their general liability reserves are almost as high as their shrinkage reserves, so the financial impact here is significant.

This can also lead to an argument to support an initiative based on reducing insurance premiums. When dealing with major insurance and reinsurance packages, premiums can run into the millions of dollars and can be negotiated provided that you can convince your insurance carrier you are implementing initiatives that will reduce their financial exposure.

Shift in Environment. A crisis, a competitive threat, or a sudden or gradual change in demographics can drive a need for new initiatives or proposals. For instance, the tragic events of 9/11 caused many loss prevention professionals to face new issues. Mailroom security and safety became a major factor for everyone as the anthrax scares in Washington and Florida caused heightened sensitivity to substances from cornstarch to baking soda to silica. Suddenly, business continuity planning (BCP) was thrust onto the plate of most senior LP executives. While no one might have seen these events coming, the sudden impact of the terrorist attacks caused a major shift in environment that necessitated different strategies, initiatives, and budgets.

Fortunately, not all shifts in environment are so tragic, but may still be extremely important to the business. For instance, a change in the competitive environment may provide an impetus for new strategies or proposals. As briefly noted in an earlier example, many companies have moved to “open merchandising” of high-risk product. In the office superstore segment, this has resulted in the major players merchandising their ink-jet and laser cartridges on the floor. Once one company in this segment takes this action, others may follow. If you are at a company where this strategy has not been considered, you may find yourself implementing the same initiative in your organization because of this “shift in environment.”

Finally, there are major shifts going on with the demographics in the United States. Notable in these shifts are the generational and ethnic changes in the make-up of our customer base and employee population. The aging of the Baby Boomers and their upcoming retirements from the workforce require us to consider how to mine their expertise and knowledge for lasting impact into organizational performance. The entry of Generation Y into the workforce requires us to examine the strategies we use to influence, train, and engage this new demographic group.

The changing ethnic makeup of the workforce requires us to consider language, cultural mores, and different world views when planning our programs, training, and customer demographics. There are now several states where caucasians are no longer the majority, and the trend shows this shift to become even more significant over the next several years.

Continue on to Part II of this article