Accessibility Business Case: Spending your money intelligently

Frequent readers know I write a lot about the business case for accessibility. In fact, 5 years ago I published a series of posts called Chasing the accessibility business case. The first post in the series outlined the core considerations for building a business case. In general, the value of an effective business case should be measured against one metric: Profit. Profit is Income minus Expenses. If your business case can’t be articulated in a way that shows that it increases profit, it isn’t a business case. The more profit, the stronger the business case.

There are scores of other KPIs that you may want to measure as a business, but most of those that contribute to a “business case” are really more granular measures of income and expenses. For instance, one of the metrics we measure at Tenon is called “CLV” or “Customer Lifetime Value”. This is a measure of how much income is derived per user during their relationship with Tenon. We can increase CLV by keeping our customer happy so they stay longer or by increasing the amount we charge to each customer (or both, of course). But CLV doesn’t provide a full glimpse into income. For instance, adding more customers doesn’t necessarily mean extra income if the CLV goes down. Also, if CLV goes up we can make more money with less users. CLV is a useful metric though. Increasing CLV is a good way to improve income, especially if CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost) lowers or stays the same. Lowering CAC, increasing CLV, and growing the number of total customers is the ideal situation for a company like Tenon.

Increasing income doesn’t happen on its own. Marketing and sales are vital to a business’s existence. This is why the Customer Acquisition Cost is so important. For instance, if your company spent $2.5 Million on a billboard in Times Square how many customers would you get from that? More importantly, would the revenue from those customers meet-or-exceed the $2.5 Million you spent to get them? Then there is perhaps the most important consideration: could you spend less money to get the same amount of customers? 

What does this have to do with accessibility?

Accessibility costs money. I believe that making things accessible should be required because it is the right thing to do. At the same time we must acknowledge that doing so costs money, both directly and indirectly. This is the problem that others attempt to address with their various business case arguments. Our existence, as either internal or external accessibility persons, costs money. Our work costs money. Implementing our recommendations cost money. What the company invests in us must have a return value. That return can be in the short term or the long term, but one thing is certain: expenses that don’t provide value are sure to be eliminated.

As a business owner myself, every penny I pay to another human to do work must have a benefit that is equal-to-or-greater-than the amount I pay for their services. That can be a short-term benefit or a long-term benefit and choosing to not do something could be just as beneficial as doing something. The time necessary to get something done has value, and the time during which nothing gets done has value.

So if a consultant is billing me $200 an hour and doing 100 hours of work, I’m paying a total of $20,000. My primary concern is whether am I going to get at least $20,001 in ROI from that work. Can I spend $20,000 on something else and get higher ROI? Can I get that ROI in less time? During that 100 hours am I also incurring other costs along the way? How long will it take to recoup those other costs? Can I get the same benefit at a cheaper cost?

This dance between cost vs. benefit occurs at every level and every department across the organization and the importance of this is amplified in the private sector. Every single person involved in accessibility should be able to answer to the specific business value they offer to their employers. This is where experience and knowledge must translate into action. This is why the accessibility consultant must be the absolute best at what they do and what they deliver must be immediately actionable. Massive reports are out, close integration with the team is in. Accessibility professionals must be leaders and agents for positive improvements by providing guidance that is immediately actionable by their customers. Not all accessibility problems are equal and the customer deserves the ability to prioritize accordingly.

The new contract between consultant and client

I’ve already touched on this a bit in the post “Accessibility consulting is broken“.The consultant must understand that they’re being paid to understand the customers’ environment and problems and that they must offer the most effective advice and service. The customer has chosen the consultant over all of their other options, because the customer believes that the consultant can help them address their accessibility problems and that addressing those accessibility problems has a value greater-than-or-equal-to the consultant’s fee. If that consultant was a developer, the customer would have long term benefit from the deliverables in the form of working code. In other words, if the customer’s software has bugs or needs new features, a developer can write code that fixes those bugs or adds those features.

What often gets delivered by a consultant is an “audit” – a long form document outlining all of the places where the customer’s current system needs to be improved in order to become accessible. I’ve worked for 4 of the biggest accessibility consulting firms and have seen the work of many others. Everyone does auditing in their own unique way. Each has varying degrees of detail and advice. All of them, of course, hope that their audit deliverables provide sufficient guidance to assist the customer in remediating their systems. But is an audit what clients really need?

What is the real value of an audit? How immediate is the return on that investment? All consultants will boast of the qualities of their audits and the skills of their reviewers, but is an audit actually what a customer needs? How valuable is that big pile of paper you get? How soon can that audit become actionable by internal development staff? More importantly: how many times was a customer sold an audit merely because that’s what they thought they needed?.

Maybe the customer got that idea from their lawyers, which is increasingly the case these days. Or maybe they got that idea because they read about accessibility audits on some blog post somewhere. Maybe they think that’s what they want because they don’t know any better. Regardless of why they got that idea, the consultant should first get a real understanding of what the customer needs before selling anything to them.

A skilled consultant will already have enough experience to know – at a high level – what most customers will need in a first engagement. In fact, a skilled consultant can tell you these things before they even look at your software that your design, QA, and development practices don’t include accessibility. A skilled consultant can tell you that even though you might have great developers on staff, they know far less about accessibility than they think they do. A skilled consultant can tell you that there are important internal challenges preventing long-term success in accessibility. (see “Ten blunt things…”). Furthermore, a skilled consultant should be able to predict, even after a cursory glance, what types of accessibility issues your system probably has. An audit would serve to merely document specific instances of those predictable issues.

The new contract between consultant and client must take into consideration the fact that the client needs and deserves a level of service that makes the greatest improvement possible in the shortest amount of time. Maybe that is an audit. Maybe not. Maybe that is training. Or maybe it is having the consultant roll up their sleeves and start writing accessible code. Chances are, the real solution is going to be a mixture of all of these. One thing’s for sure: selling the customer something they think they need vs. what they actually need is poor service. In my opinion, so is just delivering an audit.