Each year, benefits professionals around the country spend months determining the plan of action for the next year's health care. Numbers are crunched. Alternatives are explored. Numbers are crunched again. Finally, all of the information is compiled and presented to the executive team. While we don't think of it as presenting a business case, that is essentially what we do each year - and we can learn a lot from our peers in marketing, product development and finance about building an effective business case.

Building a business case starts well before you present your proposal. Here are seven steps that, if done early in the process, can improve your chances of success.

1. Detail the current state of affairs. Your executive team may or may not remember the details from your last meeting. Provide the top three or four data points that best illustrate the current position.

2. Identify the problem you are solving. This has two prongs: the perspective of the stakeholder and the perspective of the participant. Within every organization, the stakeholder's perspective varies, so it's important that you not only sit down and get a clear picture of the desired end state but also that you validate it. Depending on the problem (i.e., How much is cost a factor? How much of a factor is focusing on wellness or productivity? Do they want to see a one-year plan, a three-year plan, or more? Where should the company be positioned in terms of overall total rewards?), the answer may be different than what you would have originally proposed had you not asked the question. As for participants, you need to analyze the impact of any proposal on them as well.

3. Develop a proposal. Based on the priorities, create a strategic solution that you think addresses all of the key areas of concern, or as close as possible. Then, identify at least two other solutions to show a range of options. Highlight the proposal you recommend and detail why it is recommended.

4. Include benchmarking and financial proof. As you develop the proposal, ensure that you have credible data sources and financials to support your recommendation. Don't forget to include both direct and indirect costs, but keep them separate. Some executives will want to see both, others will only want to see the hard numbers.

5. Outline the risks. Prioritize your identified risks and list how you intend to minimize each one. Don't forget to consider all aspects, including financial, communication, IT and third-party vendor support. If there is a cost associated with minimizing any of the risks, provide an estimate.

6. Provide an executive summary. Always have a persuasive executive summary that hits the highlights of your proposal and is never longer than one or two pages. In case your meeting gets cut short, someone gets called away or circumstances prevent the necessary people from meeting, you want your audience to be able to have all of the key details available at their fingertips.

7. Present the business case. Practice, practice, practice. Try to anticipate the questions that will come up and have answers available. Tailor your presentation to the audience and be aware of nonverbal signs such as quickly flipping to a specific page, looking unengaged or frequently checking a laptop or Blackberry.

The goal of any business case is to get approval in one meeting without needing to do additional research, due diligence or financials. If you make sure that you have all of these areas addressed, you'll not only look like an expert in your field but in business matters as well. If you need feedback on your proposal or presentation, reach out to partners in other departments and get their informal input. It will make your business case that much stronger and bring up viewpoints that you might have overlooked. -S.S.

Contributing Editor Shana Sweeney - a self-proclaimed geek and political junkie - is a benefits professional at Google. She is an SPHR with degrees in politics and human resources. She has more than a decade of experience working in various industries, including high-tech, utilities, manufacturing and health insurance. She can be reached at calshana@gmail.com.

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