‘Partner’ Is Not a Verb (and Other Issues With Higher-Ed Business)

‘Partner’ Is Not a Verb (and Other Issues With Higher-Ed Business)



TO: Executive Officers, Acme Education Widgets

FR: Casey Green, Campus Computing (consultant)

RE: Partner is Not a Verb and Other Key Issues for Doing Business in Higher Ed

My thanks again for the opportunity to serve as a consultant to Acme Education Widgets (AWE) as you ramp up for the launch into the higher education market this fall. We have talked candidly about both the challenges and the opportunities in higher education. I hope our conversations these past six months have proven to be useful and informative.

So October has finally arrived. As we have discussed, this month marks the beginning of the K-12 and higher-ed conference cycle. The first of these events for AEW will be the EDUCAUSE conference in Indianapolis at the end of this month. EDUCAUSE is the major annual gathering of higher-ed’s technology tribes: some 7000-plus campus and tech industry personnel will spend several days wandering through a large exhibit hall, navigating several hundred panel presentations, attending multiple corporate receptions, and engaged in countless (if quick) hallway conversations. The obvious wisdom is to stay hydrated and wear comfortable shoes

As you begin the final prep for the EDUCAUSE conference and other education industry events, I thought it might be useful to review some of the key issues we discussed about doing business and building relationships in the higher-ed market.

1. Partner is Not a Verb. In both pitch meetings and hallway conversations, the tendency of many tech providers is to say that “we want to partner with you” as a way to signal significant interest and good intent. Don’t do it!

Partner is not a verb—and it has become a meaningless term. Yes, you can tell potential education clients that you would like to work closely with them to address pressing issues and that you would welcome and appreciate their insight about how to improve what you do and provide. That’s okay. But saying “partner,” particularly for a young firm, suggests that you are trying too hard to “talk the talk” but don't know much about what can be a very long and challenging walk. You don't become partners with the wave of the digital wand. Rather, partners invest in and built trust with one another; that does not happen overnight.

2. Trust is the Coin of the Realm. Casting a large shadow over your conversations with prospective campus clients will be the question: “Why should I trust you?”

Trust really is critical in higher ed. Recommending, buying, and deploying something from either a new or established firm means that the individuals or committee that endorsed your product or service trusts you to deliver as promised—on time, on price, without qualifications, and without fail. Indeed, the failure to perform as promised can do major damage to the reputations and careers of individuals at the client campus, to campus units that were depending on your product or service, to the campus itself and, of course, to the company.

Trust is also about personal relationships. Your ed clients want to know that you will be around for a while, not gone six months after the contract is signed, to be replaced by a new person with whom they have to begin the trust-building process all over again.

3. No Logo Buddies. Campus clients generally have little interest in your “partnerships” with other tech firms. The “logo buddy” relationships highlighted on your corporate web site are generally meaningless and often not viewed as trustworthy. This also applies to the people from other “partner firms” you might pile into campus meetings to assure campus officials that “my firm and our partners” can do the job.

Campus clients want (and expect!) concierge relationships; stated more directly, they want “one throat to choke.” Saying that the subcontractor screwed up is just unacceptable. Moreover, the bad news travels quickly through the neural network that connects higher ed (see #6, below).

So if (when) you bring a partner firm to a campus project, know that your campus clients will expect you to have a kind of keiretsu relationship with that partner, believes that you and the partner have trusted one another with deep corporate secrets, and assumes that the two firms are truly aligned and integrated with one another and can, without question, provide the promised products, services, and support.

4. You Are Not Your Client. As is the often case at many firms populated by young, talented, and well-intentioned ed-entrepreneurs, the personal and educational experience of most of the institutions and people you hope will use your products and services are far removed from your own. In other words, you are not creating products and services for a version of you and the people you know, but for others who are most likely very different from you. And because you are probably not the next Steve Jobs (who listened to very few people), it is really important that you show respect for and listen to your prospective clients if you hope to be effective and successful in the higher-ed market.

5. Your Price Is Not Your Client’s Cost. In the discussion about pricing, you need to image yourself on the other side of the table, because the conversation is not so much about the purchase price but rather the implementation costs.

Whatever the price of the product or service, the implementation, training, and support costs for your new, innovative, and well-reviewed product or service may ultimately cost two to five times the actual contractual price. So while you may be excited about a $50K contact or license, your campus clients are understandably concerned that it could ultimately cost Acme College multiples of $50K to deploy and make effective use of your incredibly innovative product or service.

6. It’s a Neural Network. The higher-ed market is unlike almost any other. Yes, colleges and universities do compete aggressively against one another in sports, for research grants, and for star faculty. But on almost all other things, institutions not only collaborate, they often conspire. Being a tech provider to higher ed is akin to being a blackjack dealer in a casino where everyone at the table is not only counting cards, but also sharing their card counts.

I hope these comments prove to be useful. Yes, I know this list and our prior conversations suggest that higher ed can be (okay, is!) challenging. But higher ed really presents an interesting and exciting opportunity for AEW, and there really are rewards for great products and the well-executed effort.

Moreover, as I said to the executive group when we began this conversation six months ago, I’m convinced that AEW really can do good and will do well in the higher-ed market.

Feel free to contact me should you have questions or if I can be of additional assistance. And let’s plan for a conference call early in November, after you have had a chance to recover from the conference travel.

Best regards and happy travels,

Casey Green is the founding director of The Campus Computing Project

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