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Purchasing Equipment: Selling the Brass

Getting your chief or sheriff to buy into acquiring new equipment involves finesse, good timing, and hard work.

August 02, 2011  |  by Tim Dees - Also by this author

Photo: Mark W. Clark.

Everyone has ideas on how to improve their workplace. Sometimes they're even good, workable ideas. You know how you would do things if you were the boss. Fortunately, you don't necessarily have to be the boss to bring your brainchild to reality. You just have to sell it effectively.

Selling your idea or convincing the brass to make a major purchase requires more than just finesse. You have to become an expert on the product or service you're championing, understand how the decision-making process works in your organization, and have a grasp of the resources necessary to make your idea work.

Organizational Culture

You can't have a group of people working together without politics. "Politics" is a pejorative term in law enforcement, but at its root it describes the social relationships between people. Social relationships and the environment that surrounds them make for your agency's organizational culture.

Ideally, the policy or operations manual you work with describes the organizational culture-its ethos, procedures, and processes that define how your department works. More often, the organizational culture is subtle and difficult to describe even by those working within it.

An understanding of your outfit's organizational culture is critical to getting your project off the ground. The informal power and communication structure dictates who has the ear of the decision-makers, who they will listen to, and how they can be approached to maximize success. If you're unsure of your "take" on your organization's culture, go to someone with more experience in the department and describe to them how you think things work. They can probably set you straight on any relationships you have overlooked or misinterpreted.

Consider that you may need to turn over the presentation and management of your initiative to someone else if it is going to have any chance of success. If you don't have the political gravitas to make the sale, it won't matter how good the idea is. If this notion dissuades you from putting forth the effort, consider what is more important: that the project is realized, or that you are the one who handles it.

Backwards and Forwards

When you're talking about spending public money, you have to approach the issue from the perspective of the harshest critic. Competition for tax dollars is as desperate as it's ever been, and there will always be a project someone believes should take precedence over yours. You have to make a case that your brainchild delivers the most bang for the buck.

Exhaustive research will prepare you for questions intended to derail your purchase. If you're looking to buy a particular product, you need to know it backwards and forwards and know what other similar products are available. Very rarely is there a product or service that doesn't have any competition. What vendors market this product? How do their products differ in features, support, price, durability? Is there one product that is acknowledged as the industry standard?

Many law enforcement magazines publish an annual buyer's guide, such as this one, or have one on their Website. This is a good place to get a list of vendors of products in a particular market niche. Another source is the exhibitor list from trade shows like POLICE-TREXPO and IACP. Attendees from these shows usually bring the lists (typically in the form of a booklet) home with them. If you can't locate one, contact the organization that puts on the show and they may be able to supply it.

Ask potential vendors for the names of some of their customers, and call those agencies to get a sense of their experience with the product and the company. Would they make that purchase again if they had it to do over? What recurring costs have they experienced? Some vendors lowball the initial purchase price, then make their money on sales of consumables to make the product work. That's the Gillette business model: sell the razors cheap; make your money on the blades.

When you call the departments that are using the product, service, or program you're trying to implement, make sure you save the contact information for future reference. This is a tremendous opportunity to network with other law enforcement officers.

Cops love to talk about their jobs. And don't be afraid to ask employees other than the project manager about the issue under discussion. The project manager has a vested interest in making his operation succeed and might give you an overly favorable report. The street cop who is actually using it may have a very different, and more objective, perspective.

An important question to ask when you speak to the users and managers at these customer agencies is "What benefits do you realize from this purchase?" These benefits can be quantitative or qualitative. Quantitative benefits, like cost savings, more arrests made, fewer officers needed to perform a task, etc., are easily measured. Qualitative aspects are less tangible: better morale, improved appearance, enhanced public image. The quantitative benefits look good on paper, but it's the qualitative aspects that have greater impact. Compare how you felt the first time you put on your uniform with the first time you deposited your paycheck. If the paycheck is the more warm and fuzzy of these memories, you're in the wrong line of work.

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