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Quint's Column: If it’s not required and ROI isn’t clear, should we do it anyway?

  • Jul 15, 2019
  • Quint Studer
Thinking man stressed computer Thinking man stressed computer
Should an organization or person do value-added things that are not required by law? You might assume that, of course, the answer is yes because it benefits the customer. But what if there is not a clear return on investment? My experience in observing and connecting to organizations is that the “required/not required” issue just isn’t that simple. Leaders in many organizations—whether they’re for-profit businesses, not-for-profits, or communities—struggle with knowing how far to go when something isn’t required.

I have faced this subject myself on more than one occasion. Perhaps due to my background as a special education teacher and/or my experience in healthcare, I have always been very attentive to making sure buildings are accessible for all individuals. So has my wife, Rishy. When she renovated some old stores in Pensacola, we made sure the entry doors had devices inside and outside that, when pushed, make them open automatically. This makes it easier for customers in general and especially for those who may struggle to open a door for a variety of reasons. 

Yet back when we built a complex in Pensacola called Southtowne, which includes apartments and retail, I noticed the retail storefronts did not have the devices we have on our Bodacious stores. When I asked why the devices were not there (as I had assumed they would be), the answer I received was, “They are not ADA-required.” At this point, because construction was complete, the cost was going to be higher to add the automatic door opener option.  

These buttons are now at each doorway. As the landlords, we still felt adding them was the right thing to do, even though they were not required. And what about the ROI? I understand and support return on investment. Most of the time, the subject relates to financial return. Are there times when things should be provided and done when a clear financial return on investment does not exist? My answer is yes. I believe there are such times. 

For example, what is the return on investment to make stores more accessible to those who may need assistance? Of course, we could say that it brings in more customers, but the shops cannot quantify this. There are times when the ROI is not evident but our experience tells us there is one. And there are times when we can’t connect exactly to an ROI, but we don’t want to stop doing something, or we may feel that it’s the right thing to do. I believe installing automatic door openers is the right thing to do, even if there is no financial ROI. 

The “only if required” idea came up on May 29, 2019, when a young girl was hit by a line-drive foul ball in Houston, leaving the batter on his knees in horror. A 2018 Indiana University study found that each year about 1,750 fans are hurt by foul balls at Major League Baseball games. This works out to about two injuries every three games. After the May 29 incident, the call went out again to extend the safety netting. The Indiana University study authors concluded, “Many foul-ball-related injuries could easily be avoided through the installation of additional safety netting.” 

Yet too often such commonsense safety measures are not taken. Most teams are tenants and pay user fees to the owner of the stadium. The answer heard when the landlord is asked to increase the netting is often, “Not ’til it is required.” 

So, when should an organization, business, or leader act even though it is not required and the financial return on investment is not so obvious? Here are some thoughts.

1. When customer, citizen, and/or employee safety is involved. 

2. When it increases basic accessibility. I understand no one will put a ramp up to the top of Mount Everest for accessibility. In many cases, however, pre-planned accessibility measures make sense and can be done less expensively than one might assume. Recently the SCAPE firm provided ways to make Bruce Beach a widely used resource in Pensacola by showing a number of cost-effective ways to create wheelchair accessibility. In some communities, if a homeowner does not have a sidewalk in their yard and this forces people into the street, the city will put in the sidewalk and add its cost to the property tax over several years. While some residents may not like this at first, they often will when they consider safety for everyone, particularly children. 

3. When it adds to the quality of life. There are certain benefits that cannot be measured, yet we instinctively know they make life better: for example, Fourth of July fireworks or bike lanes or trails. In the workplace, it may include celebrations, thank-you notes, or other perks. This week, a physician shared that for years a free lunch was provided to all workers one day a month as a thank-you. This was appreciated. Recently, ownership stopped the free lunches. The physician shared that he felt morale had taken a nosedive. Will more people quit? Will productivity go down? No one knows for sure, but we do know this: It does not take many people leaving to cost a company way more than a meal. 

4. When there is likely to be an indirect return on investment. James Lima, an expert in analyzing the return on investment on public placemaking, shares different ways to look at ROI on some things that in the past were not well defined. Does investment in a park pay off? A statue? Making a street more people-friendly? It depends. If it is a location that attracts other investments, yes. If a waterfront is opened, and people start moving there, this increases people and tax revenue. It seems like a smart investment. If a built-out neighborhood improves the park, this likely won’t add people or tax revenue. This does not mean that the improvement should not be made. However, increased tax dollars to help offset the cost may not be there. 

Another example is staff and manager development. As I have written many times, the number-one reason leaders of communities and businesses say they don’t provide or send people to training is that it is too expensive. Yes, the fact that a manager spent two days learning ways to better engage the workforce may not decrease staff turnover right away, but in the long run, it may. Is it the right thing to do regardless? Absolutely.
It is evident that when something is required or has an obvious financial return on investment, acting on it is easier. In fact, at times it must be done. But please don’t underestimate the impact of actions that may not be legally required or have an obvious financial return on investment. Doing the right thing usually pays off in some way—even if that way is just feeling good that you have done the right thing. 

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