Purchasing Equipment: Selling the Brass

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.

Tim Dees Headshot

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.[PAGEBREAK]

Staff Work

Most management textbooks say that a competent manager should be able to supervise between three and seven people. Fewer than three is inefficient; more than seven is overextended. As one rises in the organization, at some point it's most efficient to have a staff that both supervise subordinates and advise their superior. When these staff members make reports to the executive, they should include all of the appropriate research, arguments for all the options, and a recommendation for the final decision. That package is called "completed staff work."

The premise here is that the executive doesn't have to be an expert on the topic in order to make a decision; that's what he has the staff member for. The staff member who creates the report does the research, considers the needs and resources of the organization, and boils everything down to a recommendation for action. Ideally, that recommendation should be set out and justified in an executive summary that leads the report and condenses it to a single paragraph.

Failing to do completed staff work is a common error in the running of organizations, and the reason for many bad decisions. Staff work done badly slants the recommendation according to the prejudices of the staff member and doesn't put the needs of the organization first or it overloads the decision maker with too much detail.

This doesn't mean that the completed staff work should necessarily be brief. Some completed staff work can run into volumes if the project demands that kind of complexity. Still, the work should summarize the pros and cons and tell the top dog, "This is what we should do." If you are called on to make such a report or recommendation to your superior, ensure it's in the form of properly completed staff work.

Finding Funding

Public safety money has never been plentiful, and every police agency these days is strapped for cash. The first and maybe the only objection to your project will be, "We can't afford it." You can overcome that obstacle by including a source of funding in your proposal.

Keep in mind that most public agencies plan their budgets at least a year in advance. If your fiscal year begins in October and you come in with a recommendation for an immediate purchase in September, it's likely you'll be told to come back next spring. Understanding the budgetary process in your department is part of the organizational culture aspect discussed earlier.

Grants are the first choice for funding new projects, as they don't take money away from another category and they don't have to be repaid. For that reason, grants are always highly competitive.

Vendors of products and services may be able to steer you toward a source of funding, and they may even assist you in preparing the grant application. Take advantage of this kind of help whenever possible. The vendor will nearly always have experienced grant writers on staff and will know the hot button issues you need to address to secure the grant.

Some projects have the potential to generate new sources of revenue. For example, you could acquire a driving simulator for training your officers and then sell time on it to businesses with drivers of their own to train. A records management system that converts your report writing system from paper to electronic records could streamline the process for the public to acquire accident and crime report copies. By offering those reports over the Internet, you can generate fees without incurring new personnel costs. Be creative, but also mindful of the public image impact. Citizens who perceive they are being nickel-and-dimed for fees can turn against you.

What's In It for Me

It's rare that we make a decision without considering our self-interest; this is instinctual. One way of framing that self-interest issue is the question "What's in it for me?" (WIIFM)

In making a recommendation to your boss, consider his notion of WIIFM. What are his needs and priorities? Is he on the ropes to cut costs? If so, a recommendation that stresses potential cost savings will appeal to him. If she's expressed dissatisfaction with the personal appearance of her officers, she might be swayed by a program that improves physical fitness or the purchase of a more serviceable uniform item. When your department is under scrutiny over a misstep by one of your officers, a training program or product that would have prevented the faux pas may be favorably received. Sometimes the critical factor isn't the idea, but rather its timing.

The purchase of a new product or service or the implementation of a new program requires change, and people naturally resist change. Even if you overcome all of the obstacles discussed in this article, the adverse response to anything new and untried can undermine your proposal. Try to imagine yourself in the shoes of your chief or sheriff, and see his or her perspective on your idea. By doing that, you'll not just have a better shot at making your idea a reality-you'll be preparing yourself for the day you are making those decisions.

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement Websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He also serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association. You can reach him via editor@policemag.com.

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Officer (Ret.)
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