What talking to higher-ed vendors can teach us about selling
Peter Hirst, UNICON Board Chair 2018-2019
How many times have you attended an industry conference and had to mentally steel yourself for the onslaught of sales pitches, both formal and casual? As decision makers representing large institutions, we all are often in situations where someone is trying to sell us something. Sometimes we are receptive to these messages, sometimes not—but the volume and frequency of being “sold to” can be overwhelming.
On February 1st, I participated in a conference panel for an audience of education-technology professionals, who were there in part to learn how to sell to people like us. Held at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center over the course of two days, the 7th annual LearnLaunch Across Boundaries Conference brought together “a community interested in driving innovation to transform learning and increase achievement using digital technologies.” As someone with a keen interest in and some knowledge of ed tech, I was intrigued by the invitation to address an audience of would-be vendors. The experience proved to be delightful in some unexpected ways.
Conference panels can often seem like sales pitches masquerading as knowledge sharing. This particular panel was therefore quite a role reversal: how to sell products and services to higher education. The other panelists predominantly offered their perspectives on successful selling strategies and tactics. By contrast, I was there representing the “buy” side or what it’s like to be sitting inside a university and dealing with all these different people who are trying to sell things to you.
My advice to the audience started with perhaps more candor than anyone had expected in this context. I told the people in the audience, many of whom were from startups or small entrepreneurial firms, that despite the feeling that we never seem to answer their sales emails or calls, in fact we do need them. In business schools, one idea we teach in our innovation programs is the importance of large players being able to work with outside organizations as sources of innovation and new ways of creating value for customers. I also revealed that people in higher education might often be afraid of these potential vendors and partners in a way—of commercial entities trying to monetize and profit from our data or the education experience itself. We also might feel threatened because, in some cases, vendors are offering solutions that will put people out of work permanently or change their work in ways that they may not be comfortable with. Context is important.
Yet, the point I emphasized the most at the LearnLaunch conference was something that’s been central to many of our conversations and discussions here at UNICON, including the focus of my previous Chair Letter. And that is the topic of collaboration. For us at MIT Sloan Executive Education, as, I am sure, for many of your schools, the most successful and mutually rewarding “vendor” experiences have been with companies that have found a way to engage with us in a way that feels like a collaboration, not a sales pitch. They have figured out who is doing something interesting and relevant and they’ve approached us with a message of: “What you’re doing looks interesting; how can we help?” Even if the help they can provide is a technology or a solution that they sell. When vendors work with us in this way, they not only make money for their companies, but also create meaningful—and lasting—relationships with us, their customers. The same is true for us on our own “buy” side of the equation. If we start looking at vendors as collaborators, we—and more importantly, our customers—stand to gain from these relationships. So, next time someone approaches you with a sales pitch, it might just be worth your time to take a few of those calls to explore the potential for collaboration.
It wasn’t surprising to us that everyone in the audience for this particular panel seemed thrilled to know that something like UNICON exists. This joy might have been encouraged by my remarks that a great way to get to work with us in academia is by getting business through referrals. I pointed out, however, that while tapping into a professional association may seem like a fantastic business development strategy, one must proceed with caution because we also talk to each other and share experiences, good and not so good alike! This, after all, is part of the value of being a member of UNICON—the fact that we often do introduce each other to new partners, technologies, and solutions, and have that collaborative and mutually supportive mindset.
On that note, please keep an eye out for a forthcoming UNICON research report about different paths we take in our industry when partnering with outside vendors to scale our capabilities. I am sure we will have more stories, experiences, and referrals to share in a few short weeks at the 2019 UNICON Directors Conference hosted by Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO. If you are going, safe travels and see you soon!
Peter Hirst, UNICON Board Chair 2018-2019