The other day, there was a news story about how 76% of city-dwelling Canadians would be willing to pay road tolls if it went towards new roads and bridges. This was as opposed to 56% being in favour if the tolls were going towards repairing and maintaining existing infrastructure.

Well, duh. If given a choice between a) paying extra for what you’ve already got or b) paying extra for something new and of value to you, it seems like a fairly obvious outcome.

In my line of business, we manage some very large and complex marketing programs for our clients. Over the years, these programs grow and evolve to the point where the systems and processes that underpin them can start to crumble. Deadlines can slip, quality can lapse. Like those bridges and tunnels in Montreal, it’s critical to upgrade before someone gets smacked with a concrete slab.

Trouble is, the work of automating manual processes, streamlining workflows, integrating disconnected systems and implementing new technology are going to cost money. Evidently, some of this is the cost of doing business. But if you’ve priced out enterprise-grade marketing software lately –not to mention the migration costs– you’ll know it’s a tough pill to swallow for most agencies and marketing service providers.

So how about passing some of the cost along to your client base? Doesn’t all of this stuff ultimately benefit them?

Sure it does, but it’s like very much like the road toll survey found. Do you think your clients will happily pay extra just so you can keep running their programs for them while preventing them from driving off a collapsing bridge into the river? There’s a basic assumption on your client’s part that you will take care of them and keep that sort of bad thing from happening. That’s what they pay you for already.

The trick is to provide tangible value as you perform these upgrades. A new client requirement or wish must be met as part of your upgrade so the cost can be equitably distributed. Can your needed upgrade shorten turnaround times? Can it reduce costs the client currently covers in other areas? Does it help your client sell more stuff? Does it improve their day-to-day experience? Don’t bother passing backend system improvement costs along to your clients unless you can measurably prove a benefit in these or other areas. Unless, of course, you’ve done a really good job of managing their expectations about the increasing cost of  just not screwing up.

There’s a bit of an art to building the business case for technology and process investment in a marketing agency setting. I’ll be writing about this in subsequent posts. But one thing you should know is that it won’t always be easy to make the case based the delivery of  immediate value. Much of the time it’s dependent on how the investment will support long-term goals as part of your technology roadmap. So make sure you actually have a roadmap to a destination everyone wants to get to so you can show how your big costly engine swap is going to help get you all there.