Building an IT Business Case That Actually Sells

By Marc J. Schiller  |  Posted 09-21-2011

Making a Business Case That Sells: Where CIOs Go Wrong

It's Q4 and you're fighting for your 2012 tech budget. To help you win your business battles, we're featuring a series on the most effective and advanced methods for selling your IT/business projects. Last week we met the Madison Avenue Presentation Technique. This week, we turn our attention to the centerpiece of internal project sales success: The business case. But as usual, we have a twist on the way it's done.

What's wrong with most business case presentations?

Basically, they don't sell. They have lots of facts and figures and information but they don't really sell.

Why's that? Because the vast majority of business cases are missing two critical ingredients:

  1. an outcomes-based vision, and

  2. the promise of real-life change.

I'll explain what these are in a minute but first a quick review of the building blocks of a business case to make sure we are on the same page.

The typical business case presentation

If you take a look at a typical business case presentation, you're likely to find it structured into three big parts:


Part I - Project Overview. I've often heard this part referred to as The Irritating Part because it is usually an overly detailed review of the project given the audience and purpose of the presentation. By the time you are presenting the business case for the project, the audience better have a pretty good idea what it's about and require no more than a one-page refresher.


Part II - Indirect Benefits.This is often called The Mushy and Fluffy Part. You know what I mean. It's the general statements about benefits that the project/system will bring, such as the "improvements in productivity for our people," "improved insight into our customers" or "the benefits of applying 'best practices." These may all be true, but executives tend to discount these benefits heavily when considering whether or not to fund a project.

Part III - Direct Benefits. This comes in two flavors:

  1. Revenue Generation - Affectionately referred to as The Dreaming of IT, this is the part of the business case where the IT team makes the case that the system will directly generate improvements in revenue production. This is most commonly found when the specific project is focused on supporting revenue-generating activities. Making this case believable is tough in most companies--the sales and marketing groups often shoot it down saying something like, "the system is only a tool," and emphasizing that it's the people that count. After all, it's their bonus dollars on the line. (There are of course a few notable exceptions, such as ecommerce and CRM projects.)


  2. Cost Savings - This is The Meat of the business case and where the executive team spends most of its time. This part of the business case presents: (a) the current costs that will be reduced due to the project, and (b) the future costs that will be avoided as the result of implementing the project/system. Cost reduction and cost avoidance. Ahhh...Nice highly financial and tangible items.

So, what's the problem?

Well, when the executive team finally reaches the meaty part, that's when they really dig in. Until then, they have only heard the mushy general stuff. And, rather than being argumentative about generalities they wait for The Meat.

Once they have some real numbers, decision-makers kick into challenge mode. Typically they challenge the assumptions for achieving cost savings and question the basis for cost avoidance. Pretty soon you can feel the skepticism in the air and everyone is focusing on whether or not your projections are realistic or attainable given the nature of the business. In short, the business case isn't selling.

It's not that the typical business case is wrong. The problem is that the typical business case doesn't go far enough.

Building an IT Business Case That Actually Sells

To build a business case that sells, you will, of course, need all of the information from the typical business case above. But, what is different is:

  • how you present that information, and

  • how you anchor it in reality.

In short, we're talking about what I referred to as the "two key ingredients" at the start of this article:

1. An outcomes-based vision: How you present the business case really matters. Don't make the executive suite wait for the meat. Start off strong. At the outset of your presentation, declare the outcome that your project will deliver. Describe that outcome in crisp operational terms using clear business metrics. For example: For a new A/P system, the metrics might be increased use of early pay discount, or reduced cycle time for invoice processing. For a campaign management system it might be reduced cost per contact. Whatever metrics you choose, make sure to show them in terms of before and after. Before = Where they stand today. After = Where they will be as a result of the project. Then, you continue your business case by quantifying the value of moving these hard-core operational metrics from where they are today to where they will be in the future as a result of your project. It's compelling because you have everyone on the same page with you from the start. But (and this is a big but), for the numbers supporting your metrics to hold up to executive scrutiny you need the second ingredient.

2. The promise of real-life change: For example, rather than presenting a business case supported by a mushy statement of "enabling marketing to do multi-channel campaign management in house," phrase it like this: As a result of the project, marketing will actually be DOING multi-channel campaign management in house. And then spell out the specific programs that will be done. Focus on actual, real, tangible changes in the real world. There is a huge difference between investing money to "enable" something and investing money to actually "do" something. Yes, I know, that's a tough assignment. It means getting a crisp commitment from business users about what they will be doing differently in the real world as the result of the project. We're talking about real-world change commitment, not just requests for capabilities. It's huge. But that's also why it has power to sell. Because it truly makes the project a business project.

The Result

When you add these two ingredients into your business case mix, you have a highly compelling story. You start by presenting a target vision in terms that are highly meaningful to the executive suite. Then you back it up with specific actions that will be taken to ensure that the targets are achieved. What could be stronger than a vision with known and defined business outcome targets accompanied by a set of easily tracked business metrics.

Now that's a business case that sells.

Next week...the ultimate secret weapon for selling your projects.

About the Author

Marc J. Schiller, author of "The 11 Secrets of Highly InfluentialIT Leaders," is a speaker, strategic facilitator, and an advisor on the implementation of influential analytics. He splits his time between the front lines of client work and evangelizing to IT leaders andprofessionals about what it takes to achieve influence, respect andcareer success. Download a free excerpt of his book at http://11secretsforITleaders.com