SELL IT BETTER
Issues & Strategies for Internal Practitioners
Here are practical points for promoting the value of O.R. and selling your services, drawn from the input of INFORMS members who work as internal O.R. practitioners.
Sell the value
- Tame the chaos: INFORMS veteran Harlan Crowder likes to say that today's business world is fraught with complexity, uncertainty, and chaos – there are too many choices and too little information. Tell your potential clients that we operations research professionals have the special gift of confronting and taming that complexity, uncertainty, and chaos.
- Provide reliable information: Make clear that your product is not computers, application software systems, user interfaces, or database connections. Your product is reliable analysis and techniques that help answer compelling business questions.
- Emphasize the bottom line: Tell them the powerful, bottom line potential of O.R. early in your presentations to show why they need to work with you.
- Measure: We provide something that no one else can: a quantitative framework. That's so important because if you can't measure it, you can't manage it.
- Be consultative: Keep in mind that most decision makers don't really know what they want; part of your value is helping them figure it out.
- Sell the solution: You're going to address their problem and provide a solution. Tell them that. Don't dazzle potential clients with a value proposition tied to technology or optimization; dazzle them with the quality of the solutions you can provide.
- Simplify, simplify: It's all right to impress a potential client with the fact that you are using advanced methods to solve a complex problem that only you are qualified to tackle. But from that point forward, phrase the problem in the simplest, most easily grasped way. For example, if you are working on scheduling an entire airline's crews, demonstrate the more easily grasped challenge of getting one group of pilots and flight attendants from point A to point B.
- Go beyond the dollars: Tell them about the benefits that are quantifiable, and also about the benefits that aren't a mere matter of dollars and cents: faster production time, productivity savings, cost avoidance, and strategic value.
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Market yourself and your group
- Promote yourselves: In an article about consulting in ORMS Today, John Ranyard and Robert Fildes remind us to come out of our O.R. cocoon and promote ourselves.
- Publicize your achievements in your organization's newsletters and electronic news.
- Make presentations to potential internal clients.
- Circulate your project reports.
- Attend meetings with potential clients.
- Give in-house courses.
- Deliver presentations at conferences.
- Publish external papers establishing your expertise.
- Attend seminars, both those in O.R. and those in your industry.
- Show your pride:
- Make sure you're in the loop to attend meetings with other departments and explain your projects.
- Post quarterly and annual reports about your department's accomplishments.
- Distribute brochures and leaflets about the general services your department offers.
- Always cite your past accomplishments for clients in your organization.
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Strengthen your department's standing
- Develop rounded business skills. Get training for you and your staff in general business skills, sales techniques, and presentation skills. Hire staff who are not just good modelers, but good business people.
- Make friends with those who can help you. Cultivate champions in your organization: executives and management who appreciate the value of our quantitative methods and can advise you how to navigate the political culture. Also develop major sponsors for O.R. at your organization. It is especially important to demonstrate your abilities to those who commission projects.
- Clarify your place in the organizational chart. When executive Jack Levis was first assigned to oversee the UPS O.R. department, he thought O.R. was part of IT. In fact, IT had no idea what O.R. professionals do. He clarified it, and you should, too.
- Send out emissaries. Is there a major satellite office far from yours? Find a way to hire an O.R. professional for that office so that you have people who are close to the action.
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Make O.R. pay for itself
- Implement: You don't save your organization a penny until you implement. Work backwards and plan your implementation from the beginning. Solve a series of smaller, simpler problems whose payoffs become clear to management in a brief period of time. That way, you'll rapidly make a good impression.
- Charter: Publish an O.R. Department charter. Declare: "Here's what we do."
- Make a business plan: Communicate your project's business plan to your internal client: share the risks, a realistic time frame, and most certainly the benefits.
- Project control: Ranyard and Fildes tell us to develop a plan to make sure that a project is completed within an agreed time period. Be sure to include milestones and plan regular and close contact, both formal and informal, with your internal client to reassure them and make sure you're on track.
- Pay your way: One INFORMS Roundtable member sets a goal of earning two dollars for every one dollar in his budget. Set a goal that's right for you and show management your value.
- Build your reputation: By solving problems quickly and well, you become the department of choice for advice on tough challenges.
- More tips from Jack Levis, of the successful UPS O.R. team:
- Beware the term "research" and consider using "development" instead. (Research is considered risky—and organizations shun risk.)
- Balance long-term and short-term projects. Remember: Short-term projects pay for your beloved long-term research.
- Take on small problems, then expand.
- Solve a long-range problem by reducing it to a short-range problem, thus reducing data needs and earning credits.
- Remove bottlenecks. It will be appreciated.
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Strengthen your general consulting skills
John Ranyard and Robert Fildes have observed successful – and failed – O.R. groups in the United Kingdom. They come away urging us to improve our consulting skills, concentrating on:
- Interacting with client management at all levels. Let's resist the desire to isolate ourselves in our rarified world.
- Writing effective reports and giving good presentations – in plain English that the average person at our organization can understand.
- Understanding the complexities of our clients' problems, and the prevailing organizational culture. Remember what Gene Woolsey has been telling us for years: We've got to spend time as forklift operators before we can tell forklift operators how to make improvements.
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Strengthen your specialized O.R. consulting skills
Harlan Crowder has made his mark as an O.R. professional at IBM, HP, ILOG, and in his own consulting firm. He offers some worthwhile tips.
- Help solve the problem that execs don't have a handle on. Clients always know best – except when they're describing their business problem. Your job is to help the client identify and understand the problem that needs a solution.
- It's about the data. ORMS consulting engagements have little to do with algorithms and convergence rates. They have everything to do with data. And getting good usable data is the greatest challenge. You'll spend only 15% of your time modeling. The other 85% will be identifying, extracting, cleansing, validating, and formatting the data. Plan accordingly.
- Limit your assignment. Determine if you're being asked to provide scheduling or planning, and make sure both you and your client agree. If your assignment is planning, don't let your client ask you to work on day-to-day operational problems like scheduling. And vice versa. You and your client should write a design document for the model so you're both in agreement.
- Limit your assignment some more. Don't let "scope creep" bog you down and distract you.
- No whispering, please. Don't be secretive about your methodology. Encourage your client to learn as much as possible about what you're doing. This approach gets more people in the organization thinking about modeling, and breeds enthusiasm if you do your job in the open with energy and gusto.
- Under-promise, over-deliver. Promise whatever you will to your client, but always deliver more than you promise.
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Develop sources for new projects
Establish your group's reputation for helping different departments in your organization. Market your O.R. group within your organization. And keep in mind these ways to secure projects.
- Partnerships with other groups: Identify other quantitative groups you can work with at your organization. At Boeing, INFORMS Roundtable member Michael Grant relates that the O.R. department, applied statistics, and others band together in the Boeing Math Group. They work together to secure projects.
- IT: Reach out to your organization's IT department and explain how you can work together.
- Networking: As you participate in organizational meetings, and even social gatherings, sound out your colleagues for problems that O.R. can solve.
- Active sales teams: Make friends with your company's sales team. Make sure they understand the products you can supply for your company's clients.
- RFPs: Investigate RFPs that potential internal clients may be sending out for responses from external resources. Consider responding to them yourself.
- Planning meetings: During planning cycles, attend meetings at your headquarters and, whenever possible, at regional offices.
- Company research: At one auto maker, O.R. people actively research projects being conducted around the company. You should do the same, and step forward when you've identified projects to which you can bring significant value.
- Large corporate initiatives like ERP: At a plenary session at the 2003 INFORMS Practice Conference, Gerald Brown of INSIGHT told operations research professionals that we could do a lot to improve the performance of Enterprise Resource Planning systems, especially those that prove disappointing because they lack strong O.R. tools. Jump in there.
- Bringing ideas to management: Raise staff observations to the management level when appropriate. Let your staff make presentations to build team spirit, and give credit where credit is due.
- Other sources
- One INFORMS Roundtable member says that at her manufacturing company, the operations group is the major source of projects.
- Another Roundtable member says his group is organized along the lines of a consulting model. Projects come as either exploratory work from executive management or as embedded work within an enterprise, brand, or division initiative.
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Adopt strengths of successful O.R. groups
- In their research on the UK's successful O.R. groups, Ranyard and Fildes identify the characteristics of successful O.R. groups. They found that the two major success factors are high-quality staff (with good O.R. skills and good business skills) and project management skills. Your chances of success improve if you work at providing:
- Good value for your internal client's money
- Skill at client relationships
- Good tech and IT skills
- Good quality work
- Innovation and wide-ranging approaches
- Management talent
- One INFORMS Roundtable member says that at her company, top management turns to O.R. professionals like us and says, "I've had some good ideas – what's next?" Work on answering that question for your top management.
- Another INFORMS Roundtable member says that his group ruthlessly selects projects based on potential impact and probability of success. By handpicking chances to succeed, they ensure that they will be offered the projects they desire in the future.
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Shun mistakes of unsuccessful O.R. groups
Jack Levis of UPS warns us to beware of practices of weak O.R. groups:
- Lack of O.R. sponsor in organizational leadership.
- No quantifiable benefits. This can come from managing too many "Big Bang" projects that take forever to show management results.
- Analysis paralysis: The quest for the perfect answer – when a good answer is sufficient to produce benefits.
- Designing systems that are too complex for general management to understand.
- Gathering data in ways that present unreasonable demands on the organization.
- Projects lacking usability – a common and potentially deadly complaint among O.R. critics.
- Not having your O.R. work institutionalized within a current process.
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