I was asked recently what it takes to move from Demand Planner to Demand Planning manager. Is it machine learning, AI and technical skills? No. They’re important but they’re not what sets a good planner apart from a great planner. To me, the quality that separates great from good is one’s ability to influence others. Here’s how ambitious Demand Planners move from a data cruncher to a true business partner-and reap the rewards that it brings.
1.Talk the Talk
Just as differences in language and culture create disconnects between people from different countries, disconnects are also created within organizations when there is a language barrier between departments. When disconnects and discomfort exists, it is very difficult to reach consensus and alignment—2 top priorities of effective demand planners. Like being in a secret club with decoder rings and secret handshakes, speaking the same language creates understanding and a sense of belonging. Suddenly, you’re in! It is much easier to influence from the inside, and for demand planners who operate at the intersection of many departments, knowing which language to use and when is important. You need to know your audience, and your audience varies from meeting to meeting. Your Marketing partners will want to talk about their distribution points, GRPs (Gross Rating Points) and velocities. Speaking their language will require insight into POS and syndicated data.
Master the different languages and your likelihood of getting your cross-functional teams on the same page will be much greater.
On the other side of the planning house, your Supply and Material Planning counterparts will likely only be interested in shipments out of your DCs. Sales will likely want to talk about both shipments and POS, but they will need it by customer and perhaps by region. Once you master the different languages, your likelihood of getting your cross-functional teams on the same page will be much greater.
2. Tell the Story
Once you’ve got the language down, focus on the story-telling to expand your influencing capabilities. Demand planners have a unique role in a company’s planning cycle because we are the only group without a bias in regard to forecasting. Marketing will tend to over forecast – they are the champions for their products so naturally they bet high. Finance will want to under-promise and over-deliver. That certainly makes earnings calls with investors easier. Sales is tricky because they will swing during the year. They may low-ball during the budget exercise to set achievable targets but will often want to increase forecasts during the year to cover any service concerns. That is a good strategy if you don’t own the inventory budget. Those who do have inventory on their scorecard, like Supply Planning, will favor a more conservative call. All of these groups bring their bias into the forecast. Unlike our partners, our number one objective is to make the forecast as accurate as possible. This presents a great opportunity to influence.
3. Keep Data as the Main Theme
When working on your story-telling, you will be much more compelling if you appeal to people’s logical side, the side of them hungry for knowledge and reason, and for that data is key. There’s no question in today’s environment of digital disruptions that data is King. Still, data can be slippery. Depending on your industry, data can be hard to come by and when it is, it’s often not integrated. Working in the professional haircare industry for L’Oréal with much of our end sales going through mom and pop establishments, sell through data was scarce. In my current role at WhiteWave Foods, I am thrilled to have access to Nielsen syndicated data, as well as POS from several top customers.
Use data to take the emotion out of your meetings and be the objective voice in the room.
However, neither the syndicated nor POS data is integrated with our business warehouses, making it cumbersome to connect the sell in and sell out stories. Data availability and, more importantly, usability, is still a challenge for many companies. As a Demand Planner, you need to find creative ways to use what you have to influence. The silver lining of scarce or unintegrated data is that you can become the keeper of valuable information. Use this valuable information to take the emotion out of your meetings and hold your cross-functional partners accountable for making data-based decisions.
4. Make Metrics Your Friend
If used correctly, KPIs are a great influencing tool. There are a couple of things that will enable you. First, the KPI must be actionable and resonate with the group you are trying to influence. At WhiteWave Foods, we assigned a forecast bias KPI to the Marketing team, which we tracked monthly. As the owners of the Brand P&L, the Marketing team was accountable for the overall volume calls, and many of our Marketing segments would consistently over-forecast. To address and hopefully influence their behavior, the demand planning team got alignment with the division presidents to have forecast bias on the Marketing and Finance teams’ scorecards, which would affect their year-end performance reviews. The decision to have forecast bias on the Commercial team’s scorecard certainly made this KPI influential. It became a key component of our monthly S&OP meetings to ensure our monthly demand management process was supporting correct behaviors. In other words, are we making the correct adjustments when we are seeing bias one way or the other?
To make the KPI clear and understandable, we presented the simple forecast bias dashboard as shown in Table 1. Showing this dashboard proved to be very impactful in keeping forecast bias at the forefront of people’s minds. It actually created a competition between the Marketing managers, which influenced their decision-making in a positive way.
5. Make Forecasting Fun
All of the aforementioned tips for becoming an influencer are much easier when you establish a connection with the group you are trying to influence. My advice for building strong connections is to have fun with your cross-functional partners and be enthusiastic about the process. Remember that forecasting is likely not at a priority for Marketing and Sales partners. However, their engagement in the process is crucial to getting the best business intelligence baked into the forecast. Getting Marketing and Sales engaged largely depends on their connection with you as a person. You can build connections by embracing a collaborative approach and showing a willingness to connect. Seemingly little things, like attending Sales meetings or participating in Marketing business updates, will go a long way in developing the partnership.
I recommend bringing a dose of laughter to the office. It’s been my number one tool for fostering engagement.
I also recommend bringing a steady dose of laughter to the office. It’s been my number one tool for fostering engagement. This partnership will make you and your Sales and Marketing partners feel like you are on the same team, working together to achieve the same goals. With partnership, connections, a little laughter and a “one team” mentality, you are well-positioned to influence the decision-makers around you.
6. Focus on the Long Game
Finally, managing your own expectations for what you can control will help you maintain a positive influencing position. As a young Demand Planner, I used to get frustrated coming out of my consensus meetings when the executive team would not accept my data-based recommendations on the forecast. My manager at L’Oréal would tell me not to worry because every month we will come in and show them how much closer our projections were. And fortunately, we were usually closer than the emotionally-driven, subjective calls from the Sales and Marketing teams.
Being OK with losing the battle but winning the war, can actually be an effective influencing skill.
Focusing on the long game, being OK with losing the battle but winning the war, can actually be an effective influencing skill. Your cross-functional partners can grow weary of battling with you every month. In the long run, you will need these people on your side. So know when to push, do your best, and be able to let off the gas and move on to the next month.
Becoming an influencer is the best thing you can do to move from good to great, from data cruncher to business partner. Work on developing this skill by sharpening your storytelling skills, while making the story relevant by knowing which data, language and level of aggregation makes sense for your audience. The right data and the right metrics are effective influencing tools, and they will help establish your objective voice in the room.