For most marketers, the expression “the customer is king” says it all. First understand what your customers need and then serve those needs through thoughtful strategy and strong implementation.
This is great, time-tested advice. It can also get entrepreneurs into a lot of trouble in K-12 education. Before crowning the customer as king, we need to answer a simple question: Who is the customer?
In K-12 education, the answer should be straightforward—it’s the kids—but in reality it’s more complex. Students attend school; families care about the education their children receive; taxpayers pay for that education; and all citizens—present and future—benefit from a well-educated society. Even if we consider this question more narrowly, and understand our customers to be the purchasers of our products, we still can’t fully answer the question. Policymakers set the “rules” that shape the incentives and constraints of purchasers—and those rules change all the time. Furthermore, for institutional sales—think about large districts or state RFPs—individuals move in and out of government roles and formal authority is often shared across multiple groups.
In this kind of multi-stakeholder environment, a laser-focus on “the customer”—a best practice in most industries—can prove to be a startup’s undoing. This is unfortunate, as it reduces the innovation our education system desperately needs. Understanding exactly what any one stakeholder needs—even, unfortunately, kids and families—won’t translate to sustainable and high-impact products without navigating the overall K-12 ecosystem.
Numerous stakeholders, even those who are not involved in the procurement process, can still wield formidable influence over product purchasing and design. Consider the following examples:
- edTPA: The implementation of edTPA, a performance assessment intended to be used for teacher licensure and certification has been delayed repeatedly in New York state due to criticism from teacher candidates who are concerned by the $300 price tag, teacher education faculty who feel they should evaluate their students directly, and privacy advocates who are concerned about the use of video showing students. The result of this pushback has been a delay by the New York Regents (as of the summer of 2016), for the fourth time in four years, to delay the requirement that teacher candidates pass edTPA.
- AP U.S. History: When the College Board introduced a 2014 revision of the AP U.S. History guidelines, it came under fire from many conservatives who believed the guidelines inaccurately reflected some aspects of America’s past. Opposition emerged at the federal and state level, including a resolution by the Republican National Committee calling on Congress to withhold federal funding from the College Board. Ultimately the College Board revised the guidelines to address these criticisms—issuing new guidelines for 2015.
These types of challenges are not always avoidable (and the concerns of stakeholders are often sensible and well-intentioned), but they can be anticipated. In place of “customer is king,” smart entrepreneurs should take a multi-stakeholder approach. This means putting kids at the center of any product design and marketing considerations while understanding the needs of each of the key participants in the K-12 ecosystem. By using this approach, entrepreneurs can more clearly identify areas for differentiation, competitive advantage, and most critically, sustainable value for children. Broadly, K-12 entrepreneurs should develop marketing strategies for the following, three types of stakeholders.
- Users: These are typically the students, teachers, and parents who use the products and services.
- Purchasers: These are the individuals and entities who ultimately make the buying decision. For sales to government customers this generally entails a formal, and often complex, procurement process.
- Influencers: These are the various groups and individuals who have a stake in public education and wield power to influence key decisions, including purchasing.
The process doesn’t have to be complicated. The goal is to understand the following criteria for each key stakeholder.
- Qualifiers: What are the “must have” product features or benefits for this group? What features, if missing, will make a product unacceptable for this group?
- Disqualifiers: What features, if included, would make a product unacceptable for this group?
- Differentiators: What product features or benefits drive preference for this group? Two products could generate equally strong student achievement results (a “qualifier” for most stakeholders) but one could be differentiated based on ease-of-use and the amount of time it saves for teachers—winning over a key stakeholder.
By setting up recurring communication channels to gather feedback from key stakeholders and using this framework to categorize this information, entrepreneurs can quickly identify key product design and marketing considerations—including potential pushback during the sales and marketing process.
Education is, and should be, a public good. By employing a simple process for multi-stakeholder marketing, entrepreneurs can better understand how their products fit within the broader policy debates that surround education. More importantly, they can make smart decisions about where and how to navigate those debates—even when that means intentionally pushing the envelope and potentially making some stakeholders uncomfortable.
The rich and spirited dialogue around education—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is part of the democratic process. No one is king, not even the customer. Navigating this dialogue skillfully is critical for entrepreneurs and, more importantly, for the kids they serve.