Growing The K-12 Market

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Technology in the school market has never been hotter-or more difficult. The opportunities for systems contractors to get a piece of the action are everywhere, but the game has changed, requiring a broader portfolio of products and skills from top notch firms.

The days of VCRs, TVs, overhead projectors and other "low-tech" instructional media delivery are rapidly going away, being replaced by DVDs, computers (showing everything from web pages and images to PowerPoints and spreadsheets), document cameras, smart white boards and even streaming media, all connected to video projectors and sound systems and controlled by custom graphical interfaces. While this trend has been solid in the higher education market for some time and is reaching a fevered pitch, the K-12 segment is now starting to catch on to this high-tech trend. This trickle-down effect bodes well for traditional "school communications" contractors who have carved out a living providing intercoms, TV systems, sound systems and life safety systems in the K-12 market and want to keep building upon the relationships they have worked so hard to create.

In navigating new educational technology sales opportunities while maintaining the bottom line, your solid customer relationships are vital. Now they have to expand within a given organization or school district as well as with more and more architects and engineers. If you have a relationship with the facilities department, you are going to have to get to know the IT decision-makers. If you have a relationship with a principal or teacher, you will need to be as comfortable with the superintendent and school board. If you have a good rapport with the purchasing department, you will need to be prepared to present your solutions to the community technology committee (or offer to serve on the technology committee). The fact is that school technology decisions are many times-but not always-a distributed decision process (DDP). A DDP involves the usual stakeholders you would expect in a given decision and others you never thought would be involved. A thorough understanding of the people and the roles they play in the decision process is paramount to a successful alignment with whoever holds the power.

William Flannigan said that technology itself never solved any problems; it's how we use the technology that matters. The days of selling technology for technology's sake are pretty much behind us and everyone from the maintenance people to the teachers, to the administrators and even the public expect technology to do something practical and to be of value. The classic approach to this challenge would be to craft a financial return on investment (ROI) model, but with technology obsolescing at a very heady pace, it becomes difficult to say that "you'll be getting more and spending less after x-number of months or years." The truth is they will most likely be replacing technology more often than they would like, so presenting a case beyond initial system features and functions or dollars and cents will resonate better than just talking about how bright your projector is going to look or how cheaply you can sell your system. One place to start is to recognize why we really put technology into schools (besides to make money): to teach people more effectively, faster and cheaper.

A key phrase to keep in mind, underscoring your understanding of more than just boxes and cables, is "educational curriculum," because without a curriculum, there is no means or methods for education. Becoming aware or even an authority of how curriculums are designed, funded and maintained is a strong tool for any systems integrator in the school market. Do you know how often new schoolbooks are purchased? Do you know the people who make the curriculum purchasing decisions? Do you know their budgets? If so, then you can talk intelligently to others in your sphere of influence about common concerns that touch every aspect of why your system is important in growing a "new media curriculum." While these efforts can seem daunting and even painfully disconnected from what you do everyday as a systems integrator, the results can be that you get the business and at a better margin over a competitor that doesn't talk your talk. This is the essence of adding value in a commodity world.

There's more to success in providing advanced AV for education than a smart sales approach. To add real value, you need the requisite technical skills as well. This means that, as a business owner, you now need to understand and embrace technologies outside of your normal comfort zone and continue to do so everyday. Video and data networks, as well as control systems especially can be daunting, not just from the technical side, but in the elegance (or lack thereof) of your design approach. A lot of this basic knowledge is readily available on the internet or via manufacturer or trade association training offerings, but the real value comes from your companies experience and wisdom, traits that take time to obtain over many projects. If you don't have these skills in house, you may just have to hire them in or be left out in the cold. Unless you elevate your game, be prepared to have your lunch eaten by purveyors you know and ones you never thought would steal your job or worse yet, ones you've never even heard of. They are reading this too.

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