5 big edtech sales mistakes -- and advice for avoiding them

Josh Kim advises companies to understand institutions' needs, solve challenges, build relationships, be transparent and invest in higher-ed retention.

March 22, 2017

Colleges and universities spend billions each year on technology. An article in the consultancy Eduventures pegs the postsecondary technology spend between $20 billion and $25 billion a year.  (I assume that is a global figure.) Meanwhile, the website e.Republic estimates that U.S. public higher education institutions will spend $10.8 billion this year on information technology.

Whatever the real dollar figure of postsecondary edtech spending is (and I’d really like to nail that down), we’re talking about lots of money.  

Do you work for a company that is part of the edtech economy, selling products or services to colleges or universities? If so, you have a hard job. But the problem is not you, though -- it is higher ed. We are terrible customers because we take forever to make decisions. That's because:

  • It is not always clear who the decision maker is. 
  • There is often internal disagreement on campus about what we want and need.
  • We don’t always have a specific list of requirements. 
  • We are extremely risk-adverse. 

The list goes on and on. To make your job easier -- and your customers happier -- I offer five pieces of advice for selling to higher ed:

1. Understand our Constraints and our Needs

The biggest mistake that I see edtech companies make -- and I see this time and again -- is that they talk about their solutions rather than our challenges.  

The edtech market is crowded, competitive and fragmented. There are numerous vendors, platforms and solutions vying for the brain space of IT decision makers. The companies that get our attention are the ones that demonstrate that they understand the problems that we need to solve and the constraints that we are operating under.  

This understanding does not happen through one-way marketing; it requires robust and sustained conversations. These conversations should always start with a sincere effort to make sense of the challenges that postsecondary leaders, influencers and decision makers face.  

2. Show That you Have Solved our Challenges 

Higher-ed people like myself love to talk about innovation, risk taking and the value of failing fast, but the truth is is that we are incredibly risk-adverse. In theory we love the idea of taking chances; in reality, we hate the possibility of failure.That's why very few of us are likely to sign up with an unproven vendor or adopt a new platform or service unless our peers have already done so. Save for a few brave souls, we are a ‘follow-others’ rather than a ‘lead-others’ industry.  

The best way to scale your platform, service or product is to get a few schools to sign up, and then spend lots of energy and money making sure the followers know. This means having a sales strategy that is narrow, deep and focused.  

3. Prioritize Relationships Over Features

Higher-ed IT buyers don’t buy from companies -- we buy from people. So the postsecondary ed-tech sales cycle is long, personal and networked. It is long because of norms of collaboration, shared governance and risk-avoidance. It is personal because higher ed, as a whole, is a largely relationship-based industry. It is networked because we have strong relationships with our counterparts at other schools.

The reputations of your executives and sales team cannot be overstated. We will talk with each other across schools, not only about the quality of the platform, product or service that you have to offer, but also about the quality of your sales team.  

Likewise, rapid turnover of your sales and executive teams is particularly deadly for higher-ed relationships because it takes a long time for us to get comfortable with your people. We have so much experience with edtech companies not delivering on their promises that we are wary of any claims. (Anyone who has ever lived through an ERP, SIS or LMS selection and replacement cycle can testify to the truth of the gap between edtech company promises and campus implementation and deployment realities.) Trust and reputation are the coin of the edtech realm, and they must be built over an extended period of time.

4. Be Transparent

One area for-profit edtech companies seem to have trouble understanding is the degree to which higher ed puts a premium on transparency and information sharing. We compete fiercely with other schools, but we share with our competitors everything that we learn. 

Within higher-ed IT, national reputations are built, in large part, on our willing to assist our peers. We do this because we are mission-driven, and we believe in knowledge creation and education goals. We think that all of us need to succeed for any of us to succeed.

Smart ed-tech companies adopt these cultural norms of sharing, openness and transparency. This means talking with us about the goals and constraints of your company, and about your company's finances, including your total revenues and where your profits are invested. This also means talking openly about your product or services, including road maps, gaps and areas of needed investment.

You company has surprisingly little to gain by the introduction of some new feature or special technology. The comparative advantage that your company has is almost never in features, but around execution. We want to work with serious people who are in ed tech for the long term, and whose values are aligned with ours. Being open, honest, humble and transparent about your company's finances and its products or services will go a long way towards building credibility and trust.

5. Invest in Retaining Higher-Ed Customers

My final piece of advice should come as no surprise -- invest as much in keeping us as customers as you did in getting us to be customers. In my experience, every company says that it will do this, but few actually follow through.

That is understandable. The pressure to grow is intense. Why spend so many resources keeping existing customers when your investors want to see revenue growth?  

The reason is that you will get new customers from your existing customers. If we are unhappy, our peers will know about our unhappiness. Remember, there are not many higher-ed technology professionals. We all know each other, and we all talk to one another.  

A commitment to keeping existing customers happy means building a strategy and a budget. Your customer-retention strategy should be as robust and intense as your customer-acquisition strategy. People in your company should be incentivized to retain customers as much as they are to get new business. An absolute priority should be placed on fostering authentic relationships between the the people who work at your company and your customers.  

How can we keep this conversation going?





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