Selling a Company on Enterprise Search

    November 30, 2007

I spoke at the Gilbane conference yesterday (you can download my slides on semantic search).

I fielded a number of interesting questions, but the one that made me stop and think for a minute was this one, "What’s the hardest objection you ever overcame to sell a company on enterprise search?"

I was glad the other panelist answered first, because it took me a moment to think of something. It was several years ago, but I remember it like yesterday. (OK, OK, I’m old. I remember it a lot better than yesterday.)

A very well-run company had an unusually sane way of making technology decisions. They developed real business cases based on improved revenue or reduced cost, and they actually tracked whether the projects delivered on the promise one and two years later. (It was not great for your career if they didn’t.) So, they wanted to subject their decision to license an intranet search engine to the same scrutiny.

They asked a simple question: "How can we prove that this search technology will increase revenue for our company?" It was a simple question, but the toughest one I’d ever gotten. There would be no productivity savings business cases here. No "If we assume that we save just six minutes each week for every knowledge worker…" No! This one needed a real business case. I promised the customer I’d put on my thinking cap and get back to him. (Since then, I’ve decided to wear my thinking cap all the time, despite all those snarky comments about my appearance.)

But how do you claim that anything you do to improve employees finding information will generate revenue? At first, I couldn’t think of anything. I mean, if the HR people save some time, would a nickel roll in under the door from a customer? What about the executives? Or the accounting department? I couldn’t come up with how I could stitch together revenue stories for every different usage of search across an entire enterprise full of employees on the intranet.

So I took a different approach. I started to ask myself which employees really did have an impact on revenue. Of course! It’s the sales force. But how could I justify revenue based on making sales people more productive? I needed to go back to the customer for more information.

So, I asked my customer how they had justified that spiffy sales force automation package they used. And their spanking-new customer realtionship management system. At first, he was puzzled about why I wanted to know, but he showed me the studies they’d done that showed how their sales people spent their time (18% was finding information) and the revenue impact of saving time for their sales people.

That was all I needed. I put together a business case that showed that the extra revenue stemming from the increased productivity of sales people more than paid for the search facility for the entire company. In fact, making information available to busy sales people on smart phones (where search is one of the few effective interfaces for a small screen) was enough to justify the search investment all by itself.

It was a tough question, but it had a good answer. You can’t always justify technology investments based on revenue, and search is one of the toughest, but if you think about it a little bit, sometimes you can pull it off.