Stop Cold Calling -- and Start Listening

It takes commitment, persistence and time for tech firms to woo potential IT higher-ed customers, Josh Kim writes.

April 12, 2017

Dear edtech sales professionals,

Please stop contacting me. If I don’t already know you, and if you call or e-mail me, I will not be happy. Your cold contacts will be ignored. Worse yet, I will think poorly of you and your company -- and I will share my opinions with my friends in higher education tech.

Anyone who works in a leadership or decision-making role in higher ed IT knows about the relentless rate of cold calls from technology sales persons.   Our e-mails are inundated with notes requesting appointments to discuss software and hardware products, or to at least point the sales person in the direction of someone who may be interested. If I don’t know the sender of the e-mail, then I will delete it without reading it. And then I’ll block the sender's address.

The worst are the relentless phone calls. If I don’t recognize the caller's number, I will not answer the phone. And voicemails from sales people are summarily deleted.

Short-term Sales Don't = Long-term Gains

What edtech companies need to realize is that cold contacting is toxic. It creates genuine ill will towards your company. Short-term gains realized by cold calls are far outweighed by a hit to a company's general reputation.

I want to be clear that I don’t blame the edtech sales persons. Almost always, they are following policies that they did not create. They have strong incentives to make lots of calls, so a spray-and-pray approach often makes sense because they are responsible for their own numbers, not the long-term reputation of their employers.   

The nature of the technology sales also means that most sales people will not be employed very long, and they have some of the shortest tenures of any tech company employees. So sales people are free to piss off most of us in exchange for short-term revenues and commissions. However, cultures and policies that maximize short-term gains, driven by lots of cold contacting, are detrimental for the long-term sustainability of any company. 

If you are an executive in charge of marketing and sales at an edtech company, it is your responsibility to create a firm policy of no cold sales contacts. Cold calling is so prevalent in the higher edtech world because it is an effective short-term strategy, and it will persist unless policies and incentives are changed. It is your job to think about long-term reputation and sustainability and not just quarterly revenues.

Long-term Approach = Big Payoff

What is a more effective alternative to cold sales contacts? Unfortunately, the answer is not one that most edtech executives or investors want to hear: it is commitment, persistence and time.  

Companies and their sales people must commit to becoming part of the higher edtech community, and to be part of the conversation about how higher ed is changing that's taking place online through Twitter and blogs and higher ed news sites. 

This conversation also needs to occur where edtech people gather, at conferences, events and symposiums. Being accepted into our edtech community requires both a willingness to listen and the ability to say something interesting. Come into the community as a professional excited about technology and education, not just as a representative of your company looking for a sale.  

Persistence means crafting a compelling story about how your company’s product or service solves a problem that we are having on our campuses, and then having the discipline to stay on message. Your company’s story needs find a way into the brains of members of the edtech community; we are swamped with messaging and our brains are full.

The only way to get in our heads is to tell your story, through conversation, in many places and over a long period of time. It is sustained and persistent engagement with the community -- not one conference presentation, one mention in a news article, one blog post or one tweet.

The last element is time. You need to work on higher ed time, which moves slowly. We think in decades, if not longer. Long sales cycles is one reason that postsecondary technology is such a challenging business. It takes forever for higher ed decision makers to get a point where they are comfortable evaluating your service or product. 

And that is just the start. Big technology decisions (and sometimes even small ones) are made by consensus at universities and colleges. Ideas need to be socialized throughout the organization, so taking the long view is necessary to play in this edtech world. 

But here is the big payoff: Once you are a vendor partner, we are likely to stick with you for a long time.  

Do you work in an edtech sales role where you engage in e-mail and phone cold calls?


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