Selling Tech to the C-Suite? Use Business Cases to Get Approvals

Partnering with IT, getting free trials from vendors can be effective as well

By Dave Zielinski Jan 27, 2015
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When human resource leaders approach C-suite executives with requests to fund new HR technologies, they can feel a little like a teenager asking a date’s parents for permission to stay out past midnight.

“No” is the common and often-anticipated answer, owing to HR’s position as a staff support function rather than a profit center. But human resource information system (HRIS) leaders who’ve beaten those odds say it doesn’t have to be that way.

Whether it’s seeking dollars for a human capital management (HCM) upgrade, a new cloud-based talent management system or analytics software, some proven tactics can increase the chances of getting the green light from chief financial officers (CFOs), chief executive officers (CEOs) or chief information officers (CIOs).

Pitch Products from Their Perspective

One of the most important strategies is simple but often overlooked: Know the differing predilections and pain points of your C-level audience. Scheduling short meetings with a CFO or CIO in advance of pitches can reveal specific issues they’re looking for in proposals, but many HR leaders never take the time to do this.

“If you’re making the case for a technology investment to a CFO, they’ll want to look at it from a pure dollar- or cost-savings standpoint, and the system’s features, functions or new efficiencies will be secondary considerations,” said Jeremy Ames, president of Hive Tech HR, an HRIS consulting company in Medway, Mass.

It’s vital to know your audience’s expectations going into pitch meetings, Ames said. “Where I’ve seen proposals fail is when your audience arrives looking for projected dollar savings and HR comes in with softer benefits like automating performance management,” he said. “In other cases that is flipped, and people are looking as much for soft benefits like an ability to hire faster or save line managers time as they are for quantitative data.”

Roy Altman, an HRIS manager at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said executives approve HR technology proposals for some combination of three reasons: to save or help make money, for risk avoidance, or for longer-term strategic purposes.

“Unfortunately, the pitch for most HR software is made around the latter reason only, and a good case isn’t also made in terms of hard dollars,” Altman said.

When Altman was considering transitioning from a current on-premise HR technology system to a cloud-based system at Sloan-Kettering, he conducted a total cost of ownership analysis to evaluate the two options.

Such an analysis doesn’t only quantify comparative licensing costs for the two models, it also factors in requirements such as customizing and integrating software, migrating data, maintaining the new system, and training the staff.

“The analysis concluded that over five to seven years we would save ‘x’ millions of dollars, and we got the go-ahead to move to the cloud,” Altman said. “But while the cost-savings captured people’s interest, we also were able to show how the new system would provide better service internally and relieve other pain points.”

Altman also has successfully used data from the annual Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey to help make the case for investments in things like analytics software. The survey identifies best HR technology practices in organizations, like the use of data-based decision-making, and shows a strong positive correlation between those practices and organizations with good performance in financial metrics like return on equity or revenue per employee.

Laying the Groundwork

HR leaders noted that selling technologies internally doesn’t happen overnight. Plan on laying the groundwork with CFOs, CIOs or chief operating officers (COOs) over long months leading up to a final pitch. Success also requires demonstrating a strong three-to-five-year life cycle technology plan.

“Proposals are most successful when initiated as high as possible in a company’s hierarchy,” Ames said. “When you know the need for some new technology has been recognized or accepted, it becomes easier to prove out your case for a particular vendor’s system.”

A good sense of timing also can tip the scales in HR’s favor. The shrewd HR leader knows when business conditions are conducive and the right executives are in place to launch a higher-stakes pitch. That’s when, rather than proposing a mere upgrade of an existing talent management system, they might suggest moving to a different vendor’s new, more feature-rich and expensive system that can meet strategic HR needs far into the future.

Sherryanne Meyer has had success getting technology requests approved by using business cases to show how technology can affect the bottom line. Meyer, an IT manager with Air Products and Chemicals in Allentown, Pa., is an expert in HCM systems. She said identifying situations where HR technology can contribute to improved revenues, even if indirectly, is a good strategy.

“If you’re having trouble recruiting key talent in a specific geographic region, showing how an [applicant tracking system] or other recruiting technology can help you identify and hire good people faster is a strong selling point,” Meyer said.

HR also needs to have a willingness to give something up when negotiating for resources, Meyer added. “If you want funds for new technologies, are you also willing to reduce the size of your HR staff from any new efficiencies gained?” she said. “You have to be able to answer those hard questions.”

She also said persuading top executives to invest in new technologies based on the recommendation of third-party consultants can be risky. “Using a consultant who may have a lot to gain financially from an expensive implementation can make your case suspect when you take it to a CFO,” Meyer said.

Kristen Fife, a senior recruiting consultant with Hansell Tierney, a staffing services company in Mercer Island, Wash., said one approach that has worked for her is using free trials offered by technology vendors.

“If you can conduct a one-to-three-month free trial and have measurable ROI [return on investment] results from it to show your CFO or chief information officer, it can help persuade them that dollars will be well-spent on new technology,” Fife said.

Free trials also can help you avoid bad technology investments. At Fife’s former company, a product trial offered by a vendor was used in an effort to boost employee recruiting efforts in China.

“They agreed to give us a one-month free trial and a discounted two-month trial, but at the end of the three-month period we decided the service wasn’t worth it,” Fife said. “We were getting less traction with it than with our existing recruiting methods.”

Partnering Across Functions

HR leaders with a track record of successful pitches also know the importance of involving IT early in requests for new cloud-based or on-premise systems.

“Bypassing information technology or a CIO in large proposals can be a recipe for disaster,” said Meyer. “You’re eventually going to need them anyway in managing the technology on some level, so there’s no sense not making them partners up front. And if you go to the CFO with an investment that both HR and IT can stand jointly behind, even if it costs a significant amount, you have a better chance of buy-in.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.

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