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ROI vs. TCO

March 24, 2011 — Leave a comment

A question came in today asking, “What is the difference between ROI and TCO?  Our company uses the terms interchangeably.”

This is common…but they really are different.  Here is some explanation:

I use the term TCO specifically to mean that it will cost you less to produce the same or better results.  By focusing more on business results and less on cost, the seller has a chance to avoid a true ROI study; which may be analogous to asking the CFO to audit your proposal.  The last person I want to sell this to is a CFO (or anyone in the purchasing department).  Once the focus on business moves to finances, value is compared only to the cost of other options, and not on the value you bring to the business.

You might think of ROI as purely mathematical.  One way to describe it is:

ROI = (Financial Gain – Cost of the Investment)/ Cost of the Investment.

True ROI calculations involve a deal’s net present value ( taking into consideration  a proposal’s future estimated cash flow the cost of capital), payback period or hurdle rate, and an internal rate of return.  In other words, ROI at its core is a math problem dealing with investments, returns, and the cost of capital.  The average sales person’s ability to compute these numbers, or even review them with a financial officer is limited in most cases.

TCO might be defined as the cost of acquisition, installation, and operation.  In this case, we can take into consideration only the current solution and whatever solutions might be under consideration or in use at the present time.  Gartner Group often reports TCO numbers for various technologies,  taking into consideration the above as well as long term operations and future replacement or decommissioning of a technology solution.  When TCO is fairly evident, meaning one solution might involve many smaller servers or appliances that require data center real estate, cooling, and possibly additional staff, it makes sense to use this as justification to buy your solution.

I put this under operational efficiency because the cost savings generally are tied to an efficiency gained by the solution, and that is where the seller’s focus needs to stay.  To focus on the math is to kill the deal, unless the customer is already determined to buy, and is just price shopping at this point.

© 2011, David Stelzl

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What allows a company or individual to command higher fees?  I’ve written various posts over the past few weeks on fees, and yesterday, I commented on setting higher fixed fees vs. totaling your projected hours and presenting a fixed amount (this generally leads to underestimating and a decrease in project GP).  But what allows a company to propose higher fees without the competition coming in to win the deal on lower pricing?  Commodity sales compete on price…high-value sales don’t.  Here is a list of category offerings I use when considering how to go to market.

1. Product

2. Staffing

3. Projects

4. Strategy

5. Vision

The order builds from pure commodity to greater intellectual capital.  On the low end, companies like Dell are selling low priced desktop systems online.  Nothing unique here, but they are fulfilling a market demand; consumers want inexpensive computers, in fact they demand them.  Dell can fulfill this market demand by finding more efficient ways in manufacturing and distribution.  What was once a $5000 entry point in the early 80’s (and 5K back then was something to talk about), is now a few hundred dollars.  Netbooks and IPads may further change the game here.

Staffing follows with various skills that set apart individuals.  Projects help companies move forward with initiatives that change the business.  This is where value pricing really starts to make sense.

An interesting question arises with my model at this point.  What about a utility such as SaaS like Salesforce.com?  Cloud computing should fit in here somewhere…but we’ll come back to that another day.

As we move up, start thinking about Accenture or PWC.  Strategy commands big dollars.  In a prior life I referred to our growing company as, The Andersen Alternative (Back before the days of the Accenture brand).  The message was clear; we were consultants, working up the model toward higher value consulting, while selling the technology to implement those things we recommended doing.

Finally we have people who create vision.  People like Geoffrey Moore (Author of Inside the Tornado) come to mind.  Consultants working at the top with large high-tech companies, helping them figure out where to go next.

Most resellers are not built to reach vision creation; their sweet spot is probably in the project area.  Larger integrators are beginning to build business process, ITIL consulting, and other forms of business consulting into their model to offset the commoditization of product.  If you don’t start thinking about this now, you may find yourself without profits next year, and perhaps out of business in the near future.  But let me point out, the problem is not with the area you play in, rather it is in the model you’ve built.  Resellers are built to sell projects, Dell was built to sell hardware.  Both have high profit potential…but building one model and selling another is destined for failure.

© 2010, David Stelzl