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How to Sell Data Analytics to Executives - Part I: Partner with the Business

Multicultural businesspeople meet in office hallway walking and chatting about data analytics projects

For data analytics leaders, there is nothing more important than convincing business executives to invest millions of dollars in an enterprise data analytics strategy and program. Without strong top management support, an enterprise data analytics program gradually withers into irrelevance, overrun by dozens of competing data analytics power centers. 

But few business executives part with millions of dollars easily, especially if there is a strained relationship between business and technical teams, fueled by a track record of cost overruns, missed deadlines, and less-than-satisfactory technical solutions. Few executives invest money in operations they don’t trust to deliver the goods. Even in the best of situations, executives need tangible proof that an investment will pay off, especially with dozens of initiatives competing for a limited pool of funds. 

So how can data analytics leaders gain executive support and funding? How can they deflect potentially negative perceptions and create a compelling business case for an enterprise data analytics program? 

Three Strategies. There are three primary ways to sell senior executives on the importance of investing in an enterprise data analytics program. This article—the first in the series—focuses on how to partner with the business through listening, speaking, acting, and waiting. The second in the series focuses on how to align the enterprise data analytics program with the interests of top executives. The final article describes how to make your case to executives in a formal presentation. 

How to Partner with the Business

The primary task of a data analytics leader is to lead—that is, set a course and get people to follow. That is easier said than done, especially with top executives, who have little time for lengthy explanations and little patience for people with ill-founded requests for money. To persuade busy executives to allocate budget, data analytics leaders need more than just a business plan with numbers—they need a relationship. More specifically, they need to foster a partnership with key business executives that they can cash in when it comes time to ask for money. 

Listen. The first step in partnering with executives is to listen and learn. When Tim Leonard was appointed chief technology officer at USXpress, he made a point to take key executives to lunch. “When I join a new company, I spend a lot of time listening to people and learning how the business works. If I open my mouth too soon and expose my business ignorance, I lose credibility. So, I try to master the business quickly.” 

It’s also important to get to know the executives as people—what motivates them personally and professionally. Get to know their families, hobbies, and interests and also their professional history, challenges, and successes. If possible, it’s important to know the metrics or goals they are accountable for and who their allies and adversaries are in the business. Creating a profile or “cheat sheet” of key leaders is good practice. It helps unearth opportunities to establish a professional and personal relationship with executives in big and small ways. 

Speak. Once you have learned how the business works and established relationships with executives, then it’s time to converse with them in their language. Tim Leonard learned the hard way the importance of talking like a business executive rather than a technical one. “I discovered the more I discussed architectures, schemas, and tools, the less business people seemed interested in what I had to say. But if I talked about business concerns, like increasing wafer counts per square foot of factory floor at a semiconductor plant, then executives paid attention.” 

“Ultimately, it’s all about sales,” says Leonard. “You know you’ve made it when a business person says, ‘You know a lot about the business for an IT guy!’” 

Shut Up. But once you start speaking, it’s important to know when to stop. “I also discovered that in key situations –like when you need executive support for a project—it’s best to shut up and let the business people do the talking,” Leonard says. “Although business people appreciate a business-savvy IT person, they would rather hear a business person explain the need for an analytics solution. So, when appropriate, I ask business people to deliver the presentations about data proposals, and I sit in the back and talk only if called upon.” 

Act. But the most powerful way to “sell” executives is with bold action. Many data analytics leaders understand the importance of a quick win to gain credibility, momentum, and trust. Once you demonstrate to executives that you can deliver value quickly, they will swarm with requests. Then, prioritizing projects (i.e., the “curse of success”) and politics replace sales as the key challenge. 

Not long after he arrived at USXpress, Leonard discovered that the CEO had long wanted to track the “idle time” of the company’s long-haul trucks to better manage fuel expenses. So, he gathered his team and took them on a six-week “death march” to build a simple dashboard to display truck idle time. To work that fast, the team decided to build an independent data mart (i.e., data silo) rather than extend the company’s data warehouse. The team also scoped the project narrowly and only captured a handful of relevant data elements out of hundreds emitted by onboard truck sensors and systems. 

“Our quick win gave us instant credibility,” says Leonard. “That dashboard got me in the door and enabled me to pitch other things.” Later, his team rebuilt the dashboard on the enterprise infrastructure and expanded the scope to meet additional needs. The win also created new demand for his team’s services: “Business heads lined up to talk with us. We quickly ended up with many new project proposals.” 

Wait. Leonard was fortunate to work for an “enlightened” CEO at USXpress who was willing to invest money in IT in the middle of the 2008-2009 recession. But not all data analytics leaders are so lucky. For many, getting funding, even for small “quick win” projects can be like pulling teeth. In those situations, the best strategy is to do all the work needed to act when the time is right. 

This is what happened with Kevin Sonsky, former senior director of BI at Citrix Systems. He was appointed to the position in 2005 by the company’s CFO to standardize the way the company reports on key sales and financial metrics. For the next 11 years, Sonsky did his best to work with department heads across the company to gain consensus on terms, definitions and reporting output. 

It wasn’t until the company hired a new data-centric CEO in 2016—11 years after Sonsky started the BI team—that the company got serious about data and report governance. Fortunately, since Sonsky had already established cross-functional governance committees and processes, the company had a ready-made structure to ramp up governance activities. “For years, we weren’t sure we were making an impact,” says Sonsky. “But we had laid the groundwork and had the foundation to accelerate once new leadership arrived.”  

The first step in selling business executives about the value of data analytics is partnering with them. But to do that requires a few choreographed dance moves. To summarize: 

  • First, learn the business by asking a lot of questions—and along the way get to know executives on a professional and personal level. 

  • Second, speak the language of business, not IT. 

  • Third, when it comes to pitching projects, get business people to present the data strategy. 

  • Fourth, act decisively and boldly by getting a quick win even if you have to break the architectural rules of IT. 

  • Fifth, when all else fails, lay the groundwork for future success and wait until there is a change in leadership. 

Following these steps will help position data analytics leaders sell executives on the value of data and help position them to gain needed investments to deliver an effective strategy. The next article in this series will discuss how to create a business plan that aligns with executive interests.

Read - How to Sell Data Analytics to Executives - Part II: Align with the Business

Wayne Eckerson

Wayne Eckerson is an internationally recognized thought leader in the business intelligence and analytics field. He is a sought-after consultant and noted speaker who thinks critically, writes clearly and presents...

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