“There is only one boss. The customer.” – Sam Walton
With all the buzz around human-centered design, customer-centric businesses, and external-facing organizations, corporate America is (finally) waking up to the importance and value of creating things that people actually want and that solve people’s problems.
Teams of innovators, ethnographers, socialists, researchers, and consultants scurry about gathering customer insights, soliciting customer feedback, and generating reports that can be funneled back to R&D, innovation, and product development teams to inform the development of the Next Big Thing.
While this is all important work, amidst all of this activity, one customer is consistently overlooked. And it is this customer that often decides the fate of the Next Big Thing
There is only one first customer. Your boss.
Let’s start with what a customer is:
“The recipient of a good, service, product, or idea obtained from a seller, vendor, or supplier via a financial transaction or exchange for money or some other valuable consideration.
Yes, you should spend a lot of time getting to know the people outside your company who will eventually be asked to exchange money for the good, product, or service you are creating.
You also need to spend time getting to know the people inside your organization who you are currently asking to exchange money (give you a budget) or some other valuable consideration (time, people, permission) for your idea and its development.
And you need convince them that “a financial transaction” is worth it because, if you don’t they can and will spend their money elsewhere.
Your boss is a tough customer
No matter what type of company you are in — from a company of 10 to a company of 10,000 — you are faced with limited resources. A dollar spent in one place means a dollar not spent in another place. A person allocated to one team means one less person on another team.
Managers have to make resources allocation trade-offs all the time but are often moving pieces between functions and teams where they know the ROI of additional investments. This situation changes dramatically when a manager must decide whether to invest resources into a new and uncertain venture or to invest in the core, and much more certain, business.
Convincing your boss to buy your idea, especially if that idea is a new venture, is tough because you’re asking your boss to buy (or invest in) something with an uncertain ROI rather than buy (or invest in) something with a more certain ROI. But you can be successful if you understand your boss.
Your boss can be understood (and their decisions anticipated)
First, get comfortable with the fact that your boss is a human being. And, just like other human beings, your boss makes lots of decisions, believes that these decisions are based on logic and reason, and actually bases most decisions more on emotion and instinct.
As frustrating as this may be when you are at the receiving end of these decisions, take comfort in the fact that you can actually use the tools you use to understand external customers to understand, and even anticipate, your boss’ decisions.
- What is the current business situation? While this is usually an easy question to answer, it can be hard to anticipate what impact it will have on your boss’ willingness to invest. Just as most people are hesitant to invest in something new when the current business environment is poor, many people are equally hesitant to invest when business is booming. This is usually because investments in the core business are generating more than usual upside and that’s great for your boss and/or there is no urgency to do anything new because people assume the good times will go on forever (news flash: they wont’). So while you can’t anticipate what impact the answer to this question will have on your odds of securing investment, you do need to know the context within which you are asking.
- What is your boss being asked to deliver? How is she measured and rewarded? Is your boss expected to deliver revenue increases? She’ll be drawn to new ideas that increase revenue. Cost savings? Then pitch ways to improve efficiency. How much time does she have to deliver results? If she needs to show results quarterly, you have to generate results quickly. If she has a year to show improvement, you have a longer runway to show results.
- What is your boss’ reputation? Does she like it? Humans are hard-wired to be social creatures so, whether we admit it or not, we really care how other people see us. What is your boss’ reputation — is she known for being a steady hand that consistently delivers or a renegade willing to rock the boat and take risks? And how does she feel about her reputation? Does she like it or does she see herself differently? If you have a boss that likes being seen as reliable and a defender of the status quo, you’re going to have a much harder time selling your new idea than if you boss is seen (or wants to be seen) as the next Steve Jobs.
With the answers to these questions, you can figure out the likelihood that your boss will buy your idea. If you boss is managing a business that is struggling, is expected to increase revenue after years of decreases, and is happy to be known as someone who always delivers, it’s unlikely she’ll be willing to invest resources in a new and unproven idea. But if your boss is managing a struggling business, is expected to develop new revenue streams that will replace the old ones, and enjoys a reputation as a someone who challenges the status quo, odds are she’ll support a reasonably well-thought out proposal for initial investment in a new venture.
Before you get the opportunity to sell a new product or service to external customers, you need to sell your idea to internal customers…your boss. Take the time to understand you boss, the things that motivate her and the issues and challenges that she faces. Then, just as you create a product or service to solve your external customers’ problems, you can create a pitch that shows your boss how your idea solves her challenges.
Approach your boss as you would a customer and you’re likely to get the support you need. Forget that your boss is your first customer and you may never get the chance to pitch to the ones you’ve spent so much time studying.