Two weeks ago I wrote about why selling to higher ed is so difficult.
The bottom line is that we (those of us in higher ed) are terrible customers. Please accept our apologies.
This week I’d like to offer some advice.
My first piece of advice is to take everything below with a (big) grain of salt. My views on effective edtech selling have been determined by my own experiences as an edtech buyer. I only know one side of the equation. And my experience is mostly with working with edtech companies from the perspective of a small private institution. Things may look different if you are selling to a system or a large public university.
So take the advice below as one data point. Triangulate. Talk to other buyers and other sellers.
With that caveat in mind, here goes:
Recommendation #1: It’s About the Conversation
The big problem that we have is that we don’t really understand each other. Too many people in higher ed don’t get that the people who work for companies in the education sector share a similar set of motivations. Most of us -- whether we work for a school or a company -- are motivated to use our jobs as an opportunity to participate in improving education. We all want our colleges and universities to provide a higher quality education at a lower price (or at least with lower student debt). We all want our institutions of higher learning to be more stable, secure, and robust.
The reason that most of us work in the higher ed ecosystem -- whether that work takes the form of working for a university or working for a company -- is that we believe in the value and importance of higher education. We see that higher education is the best path available to create economic opportunity. We want our kids to have the best -- and hopefully affordable -- college experience possible.
The reason that higher ed people don’t really understand non-higher ed people is that we don’t spend enough time listening to each other. Many higher ed people have never worked outside of higher ed. Many higher ed people are suspicious of the idea of “running our institutions like a business” -- as this is usually code for doing more with less resources. (Or for public disinvestment in our campuses and systems.)
Higher education operates on other principles beyond what is valued in the market. We believe in our mission to educate and to create knowledge. We are therefore suspicious of people in the for-profit business world, as we fear not only that you might not share our values.
The answer to all this is to get higher ed people and people from your company talking. We need to find some way where we can all leave our affiliations at the door.
Too often, it feels as if higher ed people and people from companies are sitting at the opposite side of the table. We should be sitting on the same side, as in reality our values and our goals are mostly aligned.
We all work for our students and for the people who pay for them to attend our institutions.
When our goals and are values are not aligned, we should be clear in saying so. We need to use conversation to develop trust.
Only through trust will we understand each other - and then get down to the hard work of figuring our where we can create shared value.
Recommendation #2: It’s About People
The big thing to understand about higher ed is just how small this industry is. We all know each other. We talk to each other all the time. The work of higher ed -- and especially educational technology -- is driven by personal relationships. We attach ideas to people. Reputation is everything. We have long memories and even longer time horizons. Collegiality, plain speaking, honest dealing, and backing up words with actions are the behaviors that matter most in our world.
Anyone wishing to do business in higher ed must learn to operate within our culture. This means that people matter as much, if not more, than the companies that they work for. We don’t do business with companies. We do business with people. We don’t develop trust in companies. We develop trust in people.
There are no shortcuts for being accepted into the higher ed community. The long sales cycles and diffused decision making of higher ed buying means that long-term relationships are essential. The worst thing a company can do is to not retain their best representatives. Turnover is deadly for the maintenance of trust.
The best company representatives take a long-term approach. They know that the goal should not be an immediate sale, but in helping the college achieve its goals and address its challenges. Sometimes, the best result in not an immediate sale -- but the solidifying of a relationship that can result in a bigger partnership down the road.
This relationship between the people at schools and companies needs to persist - and be authentic -- long after the sale is made. Too often companies put all their energy into the initial sale, and then let the relationship erode. This puts the company at risk for being replaced by another platform, service, product, or vendor. Customer retention should receive as much attention as initial sales. The only way to accomplish that goal is to create the conditions in which company representatives can spend time listening and building true empathy for their clients.
Recommendation #3: It’s About the Network
The final recommendation I have for any company -- or any person -- wishing to sell anything to higher ed (but especially anything having to do with technology), is to think about higher ed as a network.
The institution is probably the wrong unit of analysis when thinking about getting on the radar screen of purchasing decision-makers. Rather, the network that the decision-maker operates under is the correct place to focus your attention.
This network will extend both outside of the institution, and inside the institution in ways that you might not expect.
Outside of the institution, decision makers spend a great deal of time in communication with our peers and colleagues. We pay strong attention to what is going on at similar schools to our own. We know our counterparts at peer institutions. We are heavily influenced by their decision making. We are exceedingly more likely to go with a different partner if our peer at another institution has had a good experience with that company.
A related point about selling to a network is understanding that networks are also internal. Technology buying decision makers also spend a great deal of time developing relationships with leaders inside our institutions. Often, purchasing decisions are not centrally made -- the platform or application or service in not an enterprise decision. Rather, a particular school or division or department will make the decision to adopt.
The people who work (and buy) at the enterprise level will know and respect the people who buy at the college/division/department level. They will listen to their experiences. Sometimes, the best way to make a big enterprise (or system level) sale is to start small. Get in the door at a school or department. Add value at a smaller scale. These small partnerships are often the best way to open for the door for a big partnership in the future.
I’m convinced that the way that schools and companies relate to each other is mostly broken. I think that we need to find a different way to help each other. I think that the old ways of sales and marketing mostly no longer work.
I think that, together, we must find a different way forward.
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