By Joe Hernick
The education IT landscape is vibrant and profitable. Unfortunately, most sales pitches earn a “C” at best. Here are a half-dozen suggestions that will improve your reach with potential customers in the education vertical. These are focused on my space, the K-12 market, but they are broadly appropriate to junior college, higher ed and other nonprofits as well.
Mistake 1: Push old stock or a spiff-based solution. Off-brand Chromebooks? Pallets of minimal-spec i3 Lenovo laptops? I can tell when you have personal incentive to move stock. If you’re hoping to dump inventory on me to earn a vendor spiff, at least meet me halfway. Find out what my needs are. I might perk up if you make it worth my while. Maybe I could use a few hundred disposable Chromebooks to fill in my 40 percent breakage rate from last year. I just might need 1,200 really cheap Windows tablets to get me through a two-year hole in my deployment plan.
Frankly, if the product is a little bit worn at the edges but still functional, be honest. I might bite if the price is right and it mostly fits my needs. My budget will benefit from your overstock, you’ll get your bonus, everybody wins. But try to put lipstick on substandard gear and I’ll know, and remember.
Mistake 2: Don’t do any research. At all. My purchase cycle has a long tail — recognize that I’m tied to my org/town/district/state budget cycle. You voted down that latest school spending increase? I’m not buying this year.
Invest a bit of time to identify and position all the schools on your sales list. Categorize us into public, private, charter and for-profit buckets. Note the ages served at each school, and if it is standalone or part of a district or other governing organization. Understanding these differences before you call will allow you to frame your pitch. Trying to sell a common-core solution to a New England boarding school won’t get you very far, nor will pitching 1×1 solutions to an affluent BYOD district. Remember that school purchases will also likely be bound to an imposed, or self-imposed, technology plan that limits platform or infrastructure options.
Mistake 3: Act like I have nothing else to do but follow tech trends. Remember, I’m an overworked school administrator with very little in the way of tech-industry attention. I’m likely frustrated that few of my fellow IT administrators understand what I do for a living. But I want to do well by my teachers and students, so I’ll be happy to talk about where I’ve been and where I want to go with technology in my school. This isn’t a date — I’ll be impressed, not creeped out, if you cyberstalk me before our first chat and show that you understand the basics of my IT environment.
I’ll also look to knowledgeable solutions providers for advice when they’ve earned my trust. A good rule of thumb is that I’ll have strong knowledge in a few key areas: I might have been a network tech, Unix admin or PBX specialist early in my career. Thanks to the nature of schools, I’ve probably grown into an IT generalist with a decent broad skills base. Keep in mind that, depending on the size of my shop and staffing circumstance, I’ll likely have knowledge or talent gaps. If my career path started in a middle-school math classroom, I may have more gaps than I care to admit, so support and guidance from you could lead to a mutually beneficial long-term partnership.
Mistake 4: Lead with ‘I’m your Microsoft/Cisco/Avaya rep.’ Especially if you’re not, actually, my new rep. This happens more than you would expect. If you’re a VAR, please just say you’re a VAR and you’ll earn my respect. If you leave a cold-call voice mail or email falsely claiming to be my new <insert vendor> contact, you’ll join the homeschool textbook reps on my block list.
Your strength as a VAR is offering a choice of solutions — “adding value” is in your title. Help me by offering a suite of solutions from multiple vendors that no singular in-house rep can provide, and I’ll look forward to your call. Heck, I might even call you when I need to talk through a problem.
Mistake 5: Ignore the school calendar. Don’t call August-September or May-June. Just don’t. It might be stress-induced perception bias, but sales calls always seem to spike at start of school and end of year. Those are the worst possible times to connect with school IT managers. My start of year is full of joy and chaos as empty halls fill with students, projector bulbs blow on the first day of class and all those unreported problems that cropped up throughout the summer come to light.
The end of the school year comes with a rush of faculty and administrative support tickets as final exams, grades, comments, audits and reports come due. You have a pitch? Please hit me mid-October through Thanksgiving as I’m finalizing preliminary budgets or in early spring as I’m prioritizing my summer orders and my whole team is in good spirits. I’ll be much more likely to return a call when my stress level is low and I’m in planning versus fire-fighting mode.
Mistake 6: Fail to understand my user base. Please recognize that I’m looking for age- and division-appropriate tech. Kindergartners and their teachers have different needs from middle-school classrooms or AP classes. Following up on numbers two and three, take some time to understand my end users. If I’m running an independent, pre-K through 6th grade campus, my needs will be different from a STEM magnet high school.
I’ve seen vendors try to push “kid friendly” toy keyboards to 9-12, offshore remote coding classes to an elementary school, $3,000 robots to a Montessori pre-school, and an endless variety of age-inappropriate pitches over time. Trust me, the makers of these calls become punch lines when school IT folks gather at conferences, almost as popular as faculty support stories. Save everyone’s time, do a bit of pre-research and avoid spamming offers that are not age or environment appropriate.
I recognize that none of these suggestions is revelatory, but the majority of cold calls run afoul of at least two points. I don’t return those calls. In fact, I usually hit “delete” halfway through the pitch. Please remember that I’m looking to find good partners to help me through my year, and next year, and the year after. Everyone is price-driven, but most school admins really value a trustworthy long-term relationship. I’m willing to forgive a small price delta on 100 printers if I’m 100 percent convinced I’ll get strong post-sales support. I’ll consider your new interactive white boards if I know that my teachers can get task-specific phone help, saving my team from level-one “how to” questions.
Help me see the value added by you and your company, and you’ll be on the way to making a sale.
Joe Hernick has spent more than 25 years in IT, working for Fortune 100, tech startups, higher ed, 9-12 boarding schools and K-12 environments. Joe writes and consults about EdTech and is currently an administrator and teacher at one of the largest independent schools in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @hernick_.