This is a guest post by Greg Miliates.

Back when I had a “real” job, my boss referred to me as her “cash cow” since I was the only member of our customer support team who was doing work that generated revenue — everyone else was a cost. I didn’t mind the nickname, kept mooing, and was able to snag a sweet bonus. Now, being appreciated feels good, but a compliment won’t pay the rent — or help fund the down payment on that Ferrari you’ve always wanted. Being the cash cow wasn’t underhanded — I’ll cover that later — but it definitely fattened my paycheck.

So why should you get a bonus? Simple: you either generate cash or cut costs. If you aren’t doing one of those things, you’re a cost center, and as everyone knows, departments viewed purely as costs are vulnerable to cuts. You’re viewed as a necessary evil of doing business. The poor stepchild of the company.

So what’s the trick to guaranteeing a bigger bonus?

Actually, there’s more than one trick to guaranteeing a bigger bonus — I’ll mention some of the underhanded ones later — but for the moment, let’s stick to the high road.

As IT professionals we’re essential to keeping things running smoothly, ensuring uptime, making sure critical data is backed up, and all the zillion things we’re expected to do. But we often stay stuck in that mind-set: the mind-set of an employee who supports the organization. The key to a bigger bonus is to stop thinking like an employee and start thinking like a business owner. Once you do that, you can start looking for opportunities to generate revenue and/or cut costs — though hopefully not cutting things in your own department (after all, we all like to have our own private fiefdom).

And here’s another trump card: as tech geeks, we’re in the know about new tools and technologies that can help businesses. No longer do you have to be the pocket-protector, glasses-held-together-with-tape, flood-pants-wearing, pasty-skinned office outcast. No. Here’s your chance to shine — and get you some bank.

Understand your company’s business model

The first step is to understand your company’s business model. To really succeed, you need to understand more than “we sell stuff online and people pay us for it.” That might be how you capture revenue, but it’s not your business model. A business model is more comprehensive. It includes aspects like:

  • What problem is your company solving?
  • What customer segments are you targeting?
  • What channels do you use to reach customers?
  • What solutions do you offer for the customer’s problem(s)?
  • What’s your unique value proposition?
  • What costs are required to generate revenue?
  • How do you capture revenue?

Obviously, that’s a simplified list, but this isn’t a grad school business course. We’re just scratching the surface on the kinds of things you need to start thinking about. Keep in mind that no matter what your company’s product — whether it’s a physical or digital product or a service — the product is NOT the business. The goal of the business is to execute the business model. So whether it’s widgets, wakeboards, or weasel grooming, your business needs to execute and optimize its business model.

Armed with that knowledge, look for ways to amp up the business model

Now that you have a solid understanding of your company’s business model, you can look for inefficiencies, gaps, or new ways to create revenue or cut costs. Think about:

  • What current activities generate revenue?
  • What are the most costly aspects of the business?
  • How can you optimize current revenue?
  • How can you capture and/or generate new revenue?

Where the rubber meets the road: real-world examples

Here are a couple real-life examples to drive the point home.

In my consulting practice, I work with law firms, and most attorneys bill by the hour. Like most professionals these days, attorneys don’t do all their work in their office sitting in front of a computer. They make calls from their car or at their kid’s soccer game, meet with clients out of the office or in court, and write e-mail from their smartphones and tablets. But guess what? Most firms have enterprise time & billing systems that don’t have a way to allow remote time entry. So, although attorneys MIGHT remember to enter that out-of-office billable time, they typically don’t, and that already-worked billable time ends up being lost revenue. I saw that as an opportunity, and my business partner and I built native mobile apps to capture that revenue and import it in real time to the firm’s enterprise database. The result is an IT solution (CloudTime) that generates revenue for firms: attorneys bill more hours (WITHOUT doing any extra work) and therefore get bigger bonuses, and the IT folks who brought the technology to the firm get bigger bonuses too.

Another example: Sales-driven organizations like real estate and insurance brokerages generate revenue by closing transactions, whether it’s a four-bedroom ranch home or a life insurance policy. The more transactions closed, the more revenue generated. However, there are a couple steps in the process that can be improved: increasing & optimizing lead generation channels, and optimizing lead conversion. (As an aside, MIT co-sponsored a study on lead conversion which found that, among other things, the faster a lead is followed up, the more likely it converted to a sale). A few ideas for how IT could improve those steps are:

  • Create additional channels for capturing leads, such as separate websites and/or web pages that target more specific keyword searches such as “Santa Fe luxury homes” or “over 55 life insurance policy”.
  • Add easy opt-in web forms for capturing leads.
  • Add a prominent toll-free phone number on every page of the company website to make it easy for leads to contact your sales team.
  • Implement an automated system to notify salespeople in real time when a prospect completes the web lead form. A great example of this is Follow Up Boss, which automatically connects leads to agents and has a centralized, automated lead tracking system.

Create quick, cheap tests to demonstrate your value

Depending on the size and structure of your company, you may need to partner with your marketing/sales department on some of these ideas. Or you could just go rogue and bear the consequences — as the saying goes, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

The goal here is to test and measure things using small, inexpensive experiments to find out what’s most effective. You can create these kinds of experiments — called A/B tests or split tests — for nearly anything, but now that you’re thinking like a business owner, you’ll want to focus on things like increasing traffic or leads, or optimizing conversions (i.e., sales). Depending on the scope of your experiments, they can either stand on their own or act as a springboard for bigger initiatives. Either way, you’ve shown how using IT tools and technology can add to the bottom line. Some examples:

  • Test whether displaying your company’s toll-free number prominently on your website increases leads and/or sales.
  • Test whether getting listed in Google Places increases leads and/or sales.
  • Create Google adwords campaigns to see which keywords generate the most traffic and/or conversions (i.e., sales).
  • Experiment to see which copywriting messages on your website create the most sign-ups and/or sales.
  • Test different designs and calls to action on your website’s sign-up form to see which converts best.

Take matters into your own hands to justify a bigger bonus

Like I mentioned earlier, there are other, more underhanded ways you can ensure a bigger bonus. Here’s a sampling:

  • Kiss up to the boss. Yes, it’s unimaginative and spineless, but it can work delightfully if your boss responds to that kind of thing.
  • Mercilessly cut costs. Fire your underlings to reap huge short-term savings, then get your bonus and quickly transfer to a different department before things blow up.
  • Sleep with the boss. Again, unimaginative, but tried and true, though not without its risks. It’s also a transferable skill.
  • Get you some sleazy clothes and work that moneymaker. Yes, defying the office dress code can get you a lot of attention and maybe even a bonus. But let’s face it, we’re IT people. The most revealing thing people want to see us wear is a Sith cloak.
  • Get blackmail on the boss. Works well, especially when someone — you perhaps — is sleeping with the boss.
  • Golf with the boss’s boss. Underhanded like blackmail, but just a hair classier.

Come to think of it, there are quite a lot of ways to guarantee a bigger bonus. But like I said earlier, we’re taking the high road here. By thinking like a business owner, increasing revenue, or wisely cutting costs through things like automation, you’ll have surefire ways to achieve sustainable career success –and get bigger bonuses.

And if one of your subordinates ever tries a low-road tactic to hook a bonus, you’ll at least be prepared. But by that time, you’ll be golfing with your boss’s boss, so you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

Greg Miliates started his consulting business in 2007 and quadrupled his former day-job salary. His blog gives specific tricks, techniques, and tools for creating a successful consulting business on the cheap. Being self-employed, he’d like to find his own cash cow so he doesn’t have to kiss up to or sleep with the boss to snag a bonus.