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Getting Your Boss to Pay for Conferences

December 11, 2007 — By Dr. Pete

Last week was a big one for professional conferences in my particular niche: PubCon Las Vegas, SES Chicago and User Experience 2007. Conferences are not only a great place to learn, but an incredible networking opportunity; unfortunately, many people have a hard time justifying conferences to their employer. As someone who used to work in the conference/tradeshow industry and a former boss, I'd like to share a few tips that will hopefully allow me to meet more of you at future events.

Locked Cash

Bosses Are People, Too

Some days, it probably seems like your boss's favorite word is "no." I've had my share of those battles as an employee, but as someone who's also been on the other side of the fence and had to manage departmental budgets, I can tell you that bosses often hate saying "no" as much as you hate hearing it. The problem is, everybody wants something, and there's only so much to go around.

This may seem especially frustrating when you're arguing for something like professional training that you know has real value to your organization. So, how do you convince your boss of that value?

Have All the Facts

One of the most common problems I used to have when someone asked me to approve spending was being presented with a vague idea instead of a specific plan. If you go to your boss and say, "I want to go to more conferences," you're probably going to get a polite shrug or an "Ok." That "Ok" doesn't mean "Ok, sounds great, I'll approve anything you want"; it means "Ok, come back when you have a plan."

If you want a clear answer, ask a clear question. It's a lot harder to say "no" to a specific proposal, so make sure you're armed with all of the facts. If you're interested in attending a conference, make sure you know the location, date, and cost (including travel and hotel, if needed), and can summarize what you'll learn. Better yet, bring your boss a printout with all of the relevant details, giving him/her the option to review it later. This also shows that you've thought your plan through, and that you care enough to put time into it.

Justify the Benefits

It's easy to see your boss as someone who only cares about the bottom line, but every boss has to work within a budget, and that means he/she has to weigh the benefits of every expense. So, make your boss's job easier: explain exactly what you want to get out of the conference you're proposing and, more importantly, how that will benefit your work and your company. That doesn't mean that training has to translate directly into profits, but you should be able to demonstrate how the conference will improve your productivity or revenues, or contribute to some quantifiable result.

Of course, don't promise what you can't deliver. If you go to a usability conference, don't tell your boss that you'll get your site conversion up to 3%; instead, tell him/her that you'll conduct a thorough usability review with what you've learned when you return. Likewise, if you're attending an SEO conference, don't make wild promises about your search rankings; instead, tell your boss that you'll produce 3 decent pieces of link-bait when you get back or will conduct a thorough review of your keywords and current strategy.

Don't Screw It Up

This is really a tip for what to do after your boss says "yes," but it's important enough to mention here. Getting permission to attend a conference is only half the battle; ideally, you want that conference to pave the way for future conferences. A few tips:
  • Don't go crazy on the company dime
  • Don't do anything to make your boss/company look bad
  • Make sure you actually attend the educational sessions
  • Make good on your promises

Closing the Deal

When you approach your boss, think of it as a bit of a sales pitch. Keep it short but professional, and come armed with the facts, including a few bullet points about the benefits. Your boss isn't always going to say "yes," but if you know what you want, are sincere, and can demonstrate why attending a conference is valuable to the company, you'll dramatically improve your odds.