CXO

Budget talks: What you say vs. what they hear

Budget negotiations are never easy, particularly when you think you're saying all the right things, but the budget committee is hearing something very different. These tips on what to say and how to prepare should help you win the budget war.


It’s budget time, and this year, you’re ready. You’ve talked with all the other departments, and proposed a budget that meets the organizational needs assessment you created from those interviews. When it’s time to go before the budget committee, you create a PowerPoint presentation that clearly explains the costs and benefits of your proposals. The committee asks some questions, none of them too difficult. All in all, you feel good about your efforts.

That’s what makes it so tough when you find out that they rejected most of your new initiatives, opting instead to marginally increase funding for your existing programs. "What went wrong?" you ask yourself.

Perhaps what went wrong was the way you pitched your proposal. Maybe the budget committee (or whoever approves your budget) misinterpreted your answers to their questions. Let’s look at some of the phrases you might use when discussing your training budget, and examine how they can be interpreted differently.

You say x, they hear y
Even when both the speaker and listener are trying to communicate plainly, it’s easy for misunderstandings to occur. Since I’ve been on both sides of this issue—submitting and approving budget requests—I can recommend some phrases to avoid in budget talks:

You say: There are several ways to justify this spending.
They hear: There’s no single, compelling justification for this project.
It’s OK to have multiple reasons to push a project. However, when you’re pitching the project, you need to lead with the main justification, and then follow up with the other reasons.

You say: I’ve built flexibility in my budget to deal with any changes we want to make during the coming year.
They hear: The budget is padded.
Remember that putting a budget together is a zero-sum exercise. There’s only so much money in the pot, and there will always be more requests than available funding. That being the case, whoever approves departmental spending will pounce on any hint of unnecessary spending.

You say: If you approve this request, we can become the best of breed in our industry.
They hear: We can take 20 percent off the top, and still be doing pretty well.
As I said earlier, if you give them a reason to cut your budget, they will. If your company has a goal to be best of breed in a particular category, your positioning would be valid. Otherwise, your audience might assume you’re just overreaching, and that they could trim your spending requests without hurting your department.

You say: We can’t continue to offer the high-quality training we need with our current facilities.
They hear: We’ve been offering high-quality training with the existing facilities.
In point of fact, you can keep using your current facilities, if you’re not planning on doing anything new in the coming year or unless your current facilities are going away. The way to position capital improvements to training facilities is to explain why the current facilities, which were adequate this year, won’t be sufficient next year. Focus on how many more people you have to train or why new training requirements mandate new technology in the training labs.

Tips for the pitch
I could list more examples, but you get the point. The main thing you have to do when justifying a budget request is to consider the impact of everything you say on the person you’re trying to persuade. Remember these points:
  • It’s not personal: To a manager or a budget committee, approving a budget request is a job. This cuts both ways. On the one hand, this means they won’t get upset when you ask for more money for your program—they expect you to do so. On the other hand, your personal relationships with your supervisor or the people on the budget committee won’t be of much help either. Try to leave your ego at the door, and don’t assume that just because you’ve done a great job this year, you’ll automatically get what you want next year.
  • Lead with things you can quantify: The very nature of training means that many of its benefits are intangible. Unfortunately for you, the people who work on budgets are focused on numbers—that’s the very nature of budgeting. Therefore, make sure that you start your pitch by talking about things you can quantify. For example, instead of discussing how the new training will make employees more knowledgeable and more productive, you might want to stress how the proposed training can cut 20 percent off the company’s employee turnover rate. You also could try to quantify the productivity gains you expect to get from the proposed training or show that good training can cut down on support calls.
  • Be prepared: This sounds obvious; it’s also where a lot of pitches go south. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be conversant with the details behind your budget proposals. Be prepared to defend both your cost assumptions and your estimated productivity gains. You don’t have to memorize every number, but you have to be able to produce those numbers when asked.
  • Anticipate the questions you’re going to get: A day or two before your pitch, sit down with a legal pad and try to anticipate the questions you’re going to hear when you discuss your budget. Try to look at your proposal from their point of view. You might even ask someone else to review your budget and get his or her feedback. This will help you to keep from being blindsided—the worst thing that can happen during any presentation.

Give your pitch the time it deserves
At this point you might be thinking, who’s got time to do all that? I’m just barely hanging on now, trying to keep my training group focused and functioning. I don’t have time to bulletproof my budget proposal.

To a certain extent, I sympathize. I’m sure you are busy. The truth is, we’re all busy. Still, we make time to do the things we think are important. If your budget proposals are important to you, make the time to perfect your pitch. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t get the resources you request.

Bob Artner is VP for Content at TechRepublic.

It can be tough to quantify the value of training to people who never interact with students or see progress out on the office floor. How do you prove your worth to the budget administrators? Send us an e-mail with your suggestions for coming out on top of budget debates.

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