Now that cloud-based products and services have become the dominate educational technology solutions, successful implementation has moved from important to mission critical. The #1 reason why great products have failed to reach their market potential is incomplete implementation. So many promising innovations (and the companies that had pinned their fortunes on them) are history.
I’ve observed and studied the implementation challenge for many years. There is much to think about and learn. But for the purpose of this short article, I’ll make the case for more attention to the customers experience after the sale. I will draw your attention to three key reasons why superior product implementation strategy is an outstanding opportunity for competitive differentiation and, in any case, is essential to your company’s long-term health.
First, is the need for sell-through strategies. This is an important consideration that mostly applies to products and services for which school administrators are the primary decision maker. Here’s why. The emphasis of the typical K-12 sales process is to convince an administrator, the decision maker, to make a buying commitment. I call that “sell-in.” It is often the school principal or a district level administrator who is being sold on adopting something new. There is nothing wrong with that, but reliance on “sell-in” sets you up for implementation issues. If a school administrator buys something from you and is not equipped to convince intended users to adopt it (sell-through) and to provide new users with the necessary education and support, it will be a long implementation process that may ultimately fail. This became painfully obvious to me during my three-year stint as part time VP for an educational software company. We offered an amazingly effective reading intervention and the company had grown, but too slowly considering how well the software worked to help kids to read. We were good at the sell-in, but those who bought-in were not prepared to sell-through to their constituents. Implementations did not go as intended, the product was not used as much as hoped or designed, outcomes did not match promises and the business suffered.
The second reason you should focus more on implementation is renewal business. The K-12 market, while vast in terms of dollars, is actually quite small when you consider the total number of buyers. So, having a lot of repeat business has always been a critical success factor. The financial model for cloud-based, online products and services is essentially a subscription business and the renewal rate is the health metric. If the business operates properly, over time, the percent of revenue and profits of renewals from customers grows and the overall cost of sales and marketing drops. In the school market, because the cost of sales is so high as a percent of gross revenue, we need a renewal rate as close as possible to 100%. What’s more, the easier it is to get renewals, the better. When implementations don’t go well, more sales resources have to be devoted to another round of “sell-in” and even then, renewal rates often drop off because product use is not what was envisioned. Users may never have bought-in or they are not seeing the promised benefits because implementation was never what it should have been. The point is, a happy and growing user base will make or break your business.
The number three reason implementation matters is customer and user references and reference selling. When I started selling to school administrators, it didn’t take me long to figure out that having a lot of good customers – people actually using my product and benefiting from it-- would help me sell. My customers were the best channel to boost my sales and meet my quota. Many studies over the years confirm that educators trust their peers and seek advice and recommendations from other educators more than any other source when they are evaluating new products and services. They are skeptical of sales reps and product pitches that promise miraculous results and have been burned many times by products that were not really ready for prime time.
Reference selling is an art unto itself, a good topic for another article! It works at all stages of the sales process and will open closed doors, speed up the pace of product adoptions, and generate high brand value quicker than any marketing campaign. But it is easy to slip into a pattern of believing that cool product features drive referrals. Yes, having a great product with features that solve problems is a must-have. But no matter how great your product is, implementation support makes the total solution. If users don’t know how to take advantage of your product to solve their problems, if they don’t get reliable and timely support, if they don’t have a good relationship with your company staff, if they are not made to feel important, your product is incomplete. In the school market, especially, where relationships really do matter, attention to details after the sale is all important and will drive referrals, and referrals will propel the business. You will never be able to hire a more effective and efficient sales team than a group of enthusiastic educators who recommend you, your company, and your product!
In summary, there has been a hit and run mindset, that customer professional development, support and service plays second fiddle to investments to drive new business, that we can’t afford what it takes to ensure successful implementations and full product adoptions. The reality is, we need a flipped view of customer needs. If we recognize customer need and we serve the need, we will have more reliable implementations, steadier sales and increased profits. So where do you go with this? I encourage you to do an audit of your investments in sales and marketing to see what the balance is between sell-in and sell-through, between pre-sales and post sales attention to your target market. Check the key implementation health metrics, your renewal rate, referral rate and overall cost of sale. Track these often. Have specific goals for these and reward performance based on these outcomes, not just revenue from new business or the number of new customers. A renewed focus on implementation will propel your company forward and ensure that you will not be implementation road kill!