Selling your things to schools–advice on how to get it right in the long-term

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Doug Woods, an education blogger, trainer and consultant from the UK, recently offered some great advice to ICT companies in his blog post “Selling your things to schools“. Although Doug’s advice was specifically for the UK, a large portion of it is directly relevant to Australia.

So here’s Doug’s top ten bits of advice for selling things to schools, with a bit of light editing and some added thoughts from me in italics:

  1. Make sure your product or service is relevant.
    The main purpose of schools is to educate pupils, so make sure your product is educational or can be used in teaching or learning. There is also a good amount of administration that goes on in schools, you might feel your product or service fits more with this. That’s great but first please make sure that your product doesn’t create more administrative work for staff but fits in with current administrative needs and, ideally, makes the tasks easier.
    Over the years, I’ve seen so many things that supposedly reduce the workload for teachers – and which never actually mean that a teacher can go home earlier or have less work to do in the evenings. So teachers are understandably dubious of the idea of saving time – and are much more interested in things that help them do more in the same time.
  2. Understand the role of technology in schools.
    Be wary of the belief that the role of computers in schools is to ease the burden of admin for teachers so that they have more time for teaching; this is a lie. At no time have computers resulted in less work for teachers and many teachers are fearful that they create more work.
    This is especially true when there’s change – normally there’s an increased workload whilst change is happening, so setting expectations about that makes people much happier.
  3. Get to know your customers.
    I would have thought that this would be central for all salesmen but what do I know! You are not really selling to ‘schools’ you are selling to a person, get to know that person and their job. Take the time and effort to listen and understand them an what they are trying to do but, and this has to be a careful balance, do not waste their time.
    I’ve often found that education customers are really happy to share their knowledge and experience – and there are plenty of opportunities, such as conferences and TeachMeets when you can learn from them.
  4. Build a reputation and a track record.
    If you do not have a track record of supporting and understanding education, how can you expect your customers to take you seriously.
    This is tricky – if you’re just starting out in the education market, how do you convince your first customer to buy your product? Often, it means you have to start small and grow – get a few teachers using it for free, or a couple of reference schools – and then use that to build your reputation and references.
  5. Offer something for nothing.
    ‘Education’, unlike other ‘markets’, is not going to use your product or service to help it make money, nor is educational computing about saving money. So there is little financial motive for schools to adopt your ‘thing’. This is perhaps the biggest difference between education and other areas such as business or commerce and it is one which will trip up many companies trying to sell into education. Schools like to try products before they buy them, which is not unreasonable, especially as it is unlikely to be the user or person you sell to who will benefit but, hopefully, the pupils they teach. So always be prepared to offer trial periods and consider the ‘freemium’ models which offer a certain level of functionality at no cost and improved features with a price.
    Doug has hit the nail on the head here – one way to compare the models is to work out what it would cost you to sell to a school – and then compare that to the opportunity that can come from a ‘freemium’ model, or getting established with a small product which is free, and then when you have a reputation, being able to charge for further products.
  6. Ask yourself who your customers really are.
    Schools are mainly buildings, they don’t buy anything so trying to sell to them is a waste of time. So ask yourself who is your thing for? It could be for teachers, it could be for admin staff or maybe it’s for the pupils. In which case try to tailor your promotional material and your marketing efforts for the right people. Obviously, if your product is for pupils, then schools will not view you favourably if you try to market to them through the school but kids aren’t always at school so try to market to them (or their parents) at home or elsewhere where kids hang out (do they still use that phrase?)
    And remember that the business model for selling to 6,000 school leaders is very different from selling to 60,000 teachers or 600,000 parents or 6,000,000 students. It’s not just the size of the sale you make, but also the size of the selling involved.
  7. Don’t Cold Call.
    You can try but, to be honest, it is likely to be a very frustrating experience. Teachers are very busy people and usually haven’t got time to talk to you on the phone. [Principals] and Heads of Departments may have a bit more time for you but first, you’ll have to get through the receptionist, who’s probably been told not to allow any cold callers through! Email may be a bit better but don’t expect a reply immediately! So if you can’t cold call, you have to find other ways to market your products; be imaginative, attend educational events, look to support or sponsor events, maybe arrange your own events (and see 8 below)
    The reality of this is that the most obvious person to sell to – Principal, IT Manager, Head of Maths etc – is also obvious to your competitors, so they’ll often be bombarded by all the suppliers, whilst others may get no attention.
  8. Show your face and your logo.
    Get yourself known within education circles, attend education events, network with staff or even try running your own events for education. There really is little to beat networking and getting to know potential customers by face. Don’t always be selling, though, remember you’re there to get to know people and make contacts.
    There are suppliers that pop-up for a few years in education, and then rush off to another market when they see a shinier opportunity. But most schools are in it for the long-haul, and will look for suppliers that they are sure are still going to be interested in them in a few years time.
  9. You do have a website don’t you?
    It is expected that anyone and everyone will have a website nowadays, and a Facebook page and a Twitter account. In fact, some people will visit a company’s website for evidence that the company is genuine, is active and for background information. So do make sure your site is up to date and that as much information as a customer may need is available via the site and via your Facebook page and also make sure that you are active on Twitter (e.g. make sure any Twitter enquiries are answered promptly).
    On top of Doug’s advice, I’d also recommend checking that your website is up-to-date. You’d be surprised how often I find that the key product that’s being sold to schools isn’t actually mentioned on a company website!
  10. Hey, where are you going?
    Don’t sell a ‘thing’ then move on with the money in your pocket. Nobody likes this, including schools. Keep promoting your products and services to your new customers, let them know ways of using your thing and the ways other people are using it. Make the school feel valued for having bought into your thing and often they will promote it for you!
    If you want to sell to schools in high volume, based on having a low price, that’s fine for a while. But it’s not going to keep you in the market forever, because there’s always somebody who’ll come along at a lower price – and all those price-sensitive customers who’ve switched to you will just switch to them next. So make sure that you’re helping your customers get the most from their investment in your products and services.

If you’re a school reading this list, I’m pretty sure that if your suppliers actually did all the things on the list, that you’d be a pretty happy customer too, happy to use them and happy to recommend them to others!

Now that I’ve read it again, and commented on each point, then I realise that I’m going to have to improve my game too!

For more insightful comment I’d recommend adding Doug Woods’ blog to your reading list


Doug Woods blog

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