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The Hard and Soft of Return on Investment (ROI)

I think it’s the first day of spring today and I know it’s an exciting day for training. Unfortunately, I did not get outside to enjoy the spring day in Atlanta. This trip was a quick in last night and a quick out, nothing too glamorous. My cab driver got a bit lost and I had to help him with my phone to get him to my hotel. I don’t like using Uber in huge airports like Atlanta since it’s hard to find your ride when they keep changing the pickup point.

The training involved a sales team for Proliant, a payroll HR support company based in Atlanta. This sales group was about 40 individuals who hailed from all over the United States. My sponsor was the son of the founder and president of the company. It’s turns out that the founder started out as a CPA and started providing payroll services for their clients. Along the way he discovered that payroll services and support was a better business than the accounting business. It’s interesting to see how these businesses get started.

This sales group was very concerned about how to connect with the finance team for their potential customers. Since much of what they sell fits in the finance function, they sell primarily to CFO’s and controllers of these mostly mid-sized private companies.

The key issues for the group surrounded how to approach these finance leaders and what they look for. Many mentioned the need to better understand return on investment (ROI) models. We had a lot of discussion on the tools of ROI and how one would go about creating a sound case for their products and services.

Return on InvestmentWhen doing ROI analysis, one needs to consider the upfront cost of the investment, then figure out the projected returns for that investment over the time it is used in the business. The challenge for this group is that many of the returns are not based on what I call hard evidence like increased sales or direct cost reductions in expenses. They are based on the soft evidence types of savings like less payroll mistakes and a more consistent pay reporting system that employees like. When you are trying to sell an investment on these types of soft items it still makes sense to put a number to them. To sell to the finance folks you need to make your case in ROI and we discussed ways to do that in this class.

A funny point came up as I told the story of an experience I had with a GE sales executive. During a training at GE for their Management Development Program I had a lunch with a division sales executive Vice President. I told her one problem we experienced in my little manufacturing company, Setpoint Systems, was trying to get our sales representatives to talk less and listen in meetings with potential customers more. She laughed and pulled some GE business cards out of her bag and handed me one. It simply said on the card STOP TALKING. She then explained she had these made up and when her sales people start talking too much in a sales meeting she simply slides over the GE card. She gave me a few and we had some made up at Setpoint. That story really resonated with the sales director who sponsored the meeting. Listening more seems to be a universal issue with the sales professional.

Well there are no good food stories to report because this was a quick in and out. It was, of course, a great day for finance.

For more information about Return on Investment (ROI) and how to calculate it, download the ROI Toolkit from Harvard Business Review.

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