Land Records Leadership Series: Selling the Value of Your Work

Posted By: Kim Meinert Community,

For many of us, it’s budget time.  How do we make sure decision-makers (and bean counters) know what value we bring to an organization with our geospatial technology and know-how in order to get the resources we need?  Do they even know what we do?  We asked current and former leaders in their areas to share how they were able to communicate the value of their work, and a common theme became apparent:  Know your audience and tell a good story.  Do a little leg work to find out what is really meaningful to the decision maker and will get their attention.  (It’s probably not the thing you think is the coolest part, but that’s OK.)

Zach Nienow, Manager of Aerial Mapping at Ayres Associates, puts it this way:

“I think our industry has a tendency to undersell the value of our work. We are technically minded and solutions oriented but selling our value does not always come naturally. Stories help, especially when selling value of our work to government officials who don’t understand (or care about) the technical details.  For a recent utility expansion project, we started by saying ‘this approach gives your team the necessary data to design 100 miles of line per month and will get the project into construction ahead of schedule’. That was all the project leader needed to know. Work hard to figure out what is most important to the end user and focus your effort on that, even if you’d rather talk about the technology or the process.”

Mike Koutnik, former Esri Account Manager, had similar advice:

“In my role at Esri, often, stories were what allowed me to accomplish objectives. In sales situations, describing the benefits other customers realized, and how they got there, was key. That is also true in implementations and projects. Referring to analogous situations helps individuals and groups get past the fear and discomfort of the unknown.”  Sometimes hearing that another county or city did what you’re trying to do puts just the right amount of peer pressure on and creates some comfort in their decision, as long as you back it up with specifics on how that investment made all the difference.

He continues, “Avoid assuming that there isn't any money for your project.  If the decision maker wants it, they will find the funds to support it. More recently, this occurred in my work with land trusts. Gathering Waters provided partial support for a small innovative project with a land trust that was successful. They then decided to broaden the scope so that all member trusts could receive the benefits of the initial project, but they didn't have the budget to support the work. They discussed the possibilities with a few of their funders and one offered additional funding, over and above their typical yearly contribution, specifically to support GIS efforts. It turns out that the objectives of the project aligned with the funder's goals in helping individual land trusts enhance their operations.”  All they had to do was illustrate their success and ask.

We sometimes find it hard to put the kinds of numbers on things that more budget-minded colleagues can understand.  We know “it’s the right thing to do”, but that’s not always enough for someone to hand over money.  Return on investment may sound like a corporate buzzword, but illustrating it might be the only way to clear the hurdle.

Jon Schwichtenberg, GIS manager at GRAEF, shared his experience with convincing his organization that GIS was worth the investment.  His team does a bi-annual lunch presentation to decision-makers to keep them informed of new technology that might assist their staff and clients.  “This allows us to keep the new technology in their minds, keep new employees informed and allow us to showcase new applications of GIS. We look at our audience and tailor the presentation to them.”   What about really major investments in technology rather than small incremental changes?  Jon continues, “When I first came to GRAEF 11 years ago we had very little GIS going on - we were making maps for people and converting data. We wanted to grow our business, get more outside clientele, serve more of our existing clients and use the technology more effectively internally. We prepared a business plan detailing the need for each of these, the benefits to the company, and the return on investment. (The return on investment was the most important part because making money is why we are in business.)”  The rest is history and why you probably know GRAEF’s name!

Mike got creative and showed that you don’t always have to start with real numbers, just start the conversation with some ideas that they can build on:

“Early in my career, I was product manager for marketing a sales/marketing decision support system. We did lots of homework on our prospects, but since prospects were in a competitive industry, we often could not get internal data to develop specific cost/value analyses. But we did have estimates of general industry costs and pricing. So I developed a spreadsheet that used those industry measures, with factors for how we believed our products could increase sales or reduce costs and how those products might benefit their workflow. Then we turned to the spreadsheet. Starting with the middle of our estimates for the benefits that could be achieved, it was easy to quantify a hypothetical value proposition. Often just using that spreadsheet changed the tenor of the conversation from tepid interest to them thinking of the specifics of how the solution would work in their case. Sometimes they would offer up their own numbers for costs and revenue to help make the illustration more "real" to them. The important point is that the spreadsheet was a way to help them put numbers on a solution they could rationalize, in their context, and see how they could justify to those they would ultimately have to convince. Yet the numbers used to begin the illustration, though they were based on good research, were made up.”

Zach continues with an example of how data from outside of your organization might help:

“Sometimes you can point to studies that have already been completed by other agencies and organizations. This gives credibility and reduces your workload.  For example, the 3D Nation study that federal agencies published in 2022 showed that an improved national elevation program has the potential to generate $13.5 -billion in new benefits each year. It also details out the benefits for a wide range of stakeholders. This is useful information when working with state and local government officials to demonstrate the ROI of updating elevation data in their area.”

You might be thinking “I work for a government agency, we definitely aren’t in the business of making money.”  But we can still put an ROI-spin on things that make your budget analyst smile.  You might be making a workflow that is mandated by a higher agency much less taxing on the employees and saving time for all of the other things they already needed to do.  It may be that you can provide better customer service by creating a self-service point for the public that makes taxpayers feel like they’re getting what they need, and in a faster time than if they had to wait for an employee to get back to them.  Those are all things that can be measured too.

Mike sums it up nicely:  “It is important to always focus on accomplishing an objective that is important, personally, to decision makers. Present a solution to a problem that's a thorn in decision makers' sides. You aren't asking for something. You are helping them.”

Image credit: open book, grow, and tape measure by Zky Icon from Noun Project (CC BY 3.0)