Whether your first job out of college is in the dynamic world of demand planning or you are an experienced Demand Planner transitioning to a new company, there are some key principles that will jumpstart the value you bring to your new organization. Here I reveal what they are and how they’ll help you settle into your new role.
As a Demand Planner, the first year in a role is not only focused on learning about the products and processes specific to your company, but also developing trust and credibility with cross-functional partners. Generating forecasts require inputs from key process stakeholders and cross-functional buy-in.
But for Planners, the job does not stop once the forecasts are published. Often, forecasts and assumptions need to be presented during demand reviews and to upper management during Executive S&OP meetings. This requires another set of skills that must be established to be an effective and credible demand planner. With so much to learn, where should time and effort be focused during the first months on the job?
1. Be A Sponge – Absorb As Much Information As You Can
The minute you walk through the door at a new company, your prior experience and education only helps to a certain point. A career is like a book and this new job is a new chapter with blank pages waiting to be filled. A critical component to being a successful Demand Planner is knowing the product lines you plan for inside-out.
Planners need to know the history of the products they work with including when they were first launched and why they were launched. How has the product performed compared to assumptions documented during the development and new product launch process? What products, if any, are the product line cannibalizing? What are the main challenges and opportunities the product has faced since launch? Understanding the history allows for better awareness of where the product is at now and what potential scenarios lie ahead.
This information, along with knowledge of the other products in the portfolio, will help determine where it is positioned in the Product Life Cycle (introduction, growth, maturity, decline).
Knowing where the product is at in its life cycle is essential for forecasting. This will also give some insight into what is driving the annual revenue and volumes, and the year-over-year growth or decline. If a product is in the decline stage of the product life cycle, it is unlikely that the annual volumes will be increasing year-over-year. Therefore, qualitative information provides an important foundation before digging into the numbers.
Building on the topic of Product Life Cycle Management, a product might be in a different stage of the product life cycle in different markets across the globe. For example, a product line that may be on the decline in North America may just be getting introduced in Asia. The global split of the product’s annual revenue and volume needs to be understood as well.
Another example: the product line may have stronger demand in the European market compared to Asia. Even more granular than that, some SKU’s in the product line may have greater demand in certain areas than others. An effective Demand Planner not only knows these facts, but also knows what drives that demand and customer behavior. Other qualitative information includes questions such as what is the customer target market and who are the competitors in the industry? Is there any seasonality with the product throughout the year or throughout the quarter? How about during the month or week?
As you can imagine, it is not likely that all this information is prepared on a document as part of your new hire orientation. Most of this information cannot even be deduced from a spreadsheet or demand planning software. This is where a strong relationship with the marketing and sales organization is not only helpful, but critical to the success of a Demand Planner.
2. Set The Foundation For Strong Relationships
A forecast is so much more than a set of numbers; it is a combination of market intelligence and anecdotal feedback from those closest to the customer. Documenting the assumptions for the demand plan and how the plan connects to the overall portfolio and organizational strategy will help when communicating the forecast during demand reviews and executive S&OP meetings.
Because of the different inputs into the forecast, a Demand Planner cannot just rely on Excel or a forecasting system to develop an accurate forecast. They must put in the time, effort and patience that is foundational to a strategic partnership with cross-functional groups. This includes marketing product managers and product directors, sales operations, commercial finance, customer fulfillment, and R&D.
Just like any relationship, when it comes to building partnerships with other groups in the organization, it takes time to build trust and credibility. Set up introductory meetings with those in departments listed above and learn about each person’s role in the Sales and Operations Planning process and with the product line(s) you will be responsible for. Ask them how long they have been with the company, what a typical day is like for them, and whether they prefer formal meetings or quick touch base discussions. Most importantly, ask what their experience has been like working with the demand planning team and for general advice for being a strong contributor in the organization.
If your goal is to create a strong, long-term partnership with your colleagues, follow up after the meeting with a quick thank you email that is personalized and genuine. Add that you will be scheduling a follow-up meeting in a couple of months after you have had more time to learn about the organization and continue building that relationship. Be sure to provide an agenda in advance of the meeting with the specific questions you want to ask. This preparedness starts building credibility and following through with the follow-up meeting starts building trust.
Even more important than building strong relationships outside of your team is building bonds with those in your team. Being genuine, bringing a positive attitude each day and working hard to learn and start contributing are all things you can control. These actions are foundational to being a great team member. As you learn from team members, take note of who is an expert in different areas on the team. Everyone brings a set of unique strengths, experiences, and skills.
In addition to learning about your specific product lines, you will need to learn about the different reports, processes and planning systems the planning group and organization uses. This is where your peers will be your greatest resource and support system. Learn who loves teaching certain topics and go to that person when you have a question on that topic. Not only will you be learning from each of the experts in your group, but your team members will be happy to have helped you. It is a win-win opportunity and great for developing that relationship.
3. Develop The Craft of Executive Communication
The most successful Demand Planners are not necessarily the ones with the most accurate forecast. Succeeding at the skills above are prerequisites to publishing your demand forecast. That forecast means nothing if you do not get the buy-in from others in the organization. That can include those who share responsibility for the forecast, such as marketing or sales.
It can also include supply planning and operations as they are responsible for ensuring enough inventory is available to fulfill global demand. It includes senior management who are considering the risks, opportunities, and assumptions you present to make critical decisions for the organization.
How you present the forecast and demand plan needs to be tailored to the specific audience you are delivering information to. A key part of developing the craft of executive communication is knowing your audience and presenting in a way that is simple for them to understand and answers the questions lingering in their mind. Consider that marketing and senior management speak in dollars and do not care much about units. On the flipside, supply planning and operations speak in units and are concerned with how a forecast change is going to impact absorption, inventory dollars and capacity utilization.
Being able to present the data visually and provide concise, documented assumptions takes practice. It also takes confidence. This is where the first topic we discussed about absorbing as much information as possible helps you learn your product line inside-out. In college it was always easy to tell which groups prepared and did their research and practiced before a presentation. It was also evident when other groups were just “winging it”. Some natural presenters may have completed the presentation unscathed, but the façade would inevitably be broken during the Q&A portion of the presentation. As a Demand Planner, you must spend extra time in the first months of your role preparing for demand reviews and other S&OP meetings because you will still be learning everything you can about the product lines you are planning for. That means spending time truly understanding the data you are presenting, crafting a style of communication that delivers valuable information in a way suitable for your particular audience, and asking others on your team about the structure and expectations for each of the meetings in the S&OP process.
The powerful combination of knowing the numbers and background of all your products, investing in relationships throughout the organization and communicating with confidence all help build organizational street cred. This is how others will gradually trust and turn to you when major decisions need to be made.
It is vital to remember that in forecasting there is always something to learn and improve. Every product line and company bring a unique set of challenges and opportunities that add to your craft as a Demand Planner. Leveraging the keys to success outlined in this article will help you beat the steep learning curve and accelerate your success as a Demand Planner in any organization.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of The Journal of Business Forecasting. Become an IBF member to get the Journal delivered to your door quarterly, plus a host of other member’s only benefits including discounted IBF training and conferences, exclusive member’s only workshops, and access to the entire IBF knowledge library. Click here to register.
To develop your S&OP skills, there is no better training than IBF’s Forecasting, Demand Planning, & S&OP Live Online Training, held in May 2021. You’ll learn all aspects of the field from university professors and Directors of Supply Chain and Demand Planning at multinational companies. Pick and choose each module for $379 ($329 when you become an IBF member) or the full course plus exams to get IBF CPF certified. Find out more.