I imagine that selling to educational institutions must be a challenge. We don't make decisions quickly. It is often difficult to identify the true decision maker. The consensus and collaborative culture of academic technology means that many people have a voice and veto, but only a few can green light (and fund) any purchase decision.
Here are 6 guidelines that might assist tech companies planning to build a sales channel to the higher ed market:
1 - Small Community: The academic technology community is actually quite small. The same people tend to pop up in multiple settings. If one of us has a bad experience with a company, or even an employee from a company, then all of us will know about it very soon. Conversely, good experiences and good reputations travel quickly. Word of mouth is truly the best marketing.
2 - Long Term Relationships: The biggest mistake I see ed tech companies make is allowing high turnover among your sales teams. In the high-tech world of companies turnover is normal and expected. In higher ed, we tend to stay at our institutions for a long time, and we build relationships over decades. If your sales team is motivated by commissions then you will find your sales people will quickly jump ship to companies with bigger paychecks. Put the true believers in front of us educational customers. People who maybe come from an educational background, or are perhaps your technical folks, and who are less likely to rapidly change jobs. We want long-term relationships.
3 - Professional Organizations and Conferences: Participation in professional conferences is a must, support of our professional organizations is always noticed and appreciated.
4 - Dense Information: Give us more information. We are academics, we believe in doing our homework. Don't assume that we will not want the deep technical information - make it available. Let our sys admins and developers talk to your sys admins and developers. Provide honest comparative information across your competitors, and don't be afraid to own up to when your competitor might be doing something you admire. This is particularly important if you want us to switch from one platform to another. If we are on a platform or using a technology it must be because there is something good about it. Knowing your competitors, and being able to talk about them in a balanced manner, shows you understand the market.
5 - Transparency and Communication: I'm constantly surprised that people who work for companies that sell into the higher ed technology space are not more active participants in the ed tech conversation. We need to get away from the idea that only some people in our institutions and companies are "communicators" while others are "workers." The conversation on ed tech is too large and too diffuse for any PR department or marketing professionals to fully participate. Everyone should be tweeting, commenting on blogs, blogging, whatever….Give your people encouragement, training, and incentives to participate in the social web, and be forgiving and supportive when they say something you might not like.
6 - Conservatism: Higher ed is weird. Higher ed technology is even weirder. We like to see ourselves as innovators, but in reality we are deeply conservative. Rarely do we want to be the "first" to do anything. The first university to adopt a new technology or go with an unproven company for an essential campus service. We are, sometimes depressingly, a "me too" industry. The good news is that once you get a critical mass of higher ed buyers then the next sale is much easier. The bad news is that you need to achieve that critical mass. Therefore, if you are trying to break into the higher ed market as a new company, or an existing company with a new product, you are going to have to offer great deals to get the early adopters.
This list of 6 guidelines is based on my experience. I'd be curious about what you would add, argue with, or dismiss.
I'd also be very interested in anyone doing research on successful (and unsuccessful) practices for selling into the higher ed tech space.
Can we put some science and research behind our experiences and intuitions?
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