The education sector offers high rewards for the channel. But, as Lawrence Latif reveals, it's important to have done your homework before entering the classroom...

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Educational institutions provide an interesting mix of high volume sales and specialist purchases. This mix can be very rewarding for the channel as a whole.

Whether it be schools, colleges or universities, the IT budget afforded to these institutions makes the channel stand up and take note. A number of manufacturers specialise in the education sector and, thanks to robust distribution and reseller relationships, manage to get themselves heard.

Being a supplier of an educational institution means often being a member of an elite club. Most large institutions have a select number of suppliers who have met certain criteria.

Therefore most retailers should see any account in the education sector as a valuable win, one that ensures long term business. So when new products enter the channel it’s important that it gets noticed by the right people.

Promethean, a UK company which specialises in interactive whiteboards are an example of a company which relies heavily on the educational sector. In recent years, interactive whiteboards have become a staple of classrooms due to their innovative way of embracing computers and the human hand.

The system can be used not to write words onto the screen but operate programs. The true hands-on feel it provides is a much better learning experience for children and adults. Paul Berry, director of UK business, Promethean confirms that the majority of their sales is in the education sector.

Monarch is another example of a education orientated business, providing institutions with bespoke solutions to meet their seating and storage needs. Monarch’s units are geared towards classrooms but not isolating the commercial sector, they stock and build units for businesses too. Having been in business for 25 years, it’s clear that Monarch are hitting the sweetspot.

While education institutions are gaining autonomy in spending, they remain conservative buyers, choosing mature technology which eases integration and reliability worries, a view confirmed by Berry. It’s important to remember that even small schools have over 200 pupils and one of the biggest worries for any support department is fragile products which can’t stand up to the harsh, abusive school environment.

In universities the problem is exaggerated by the huge number of pupils. For institutions pricing may not be the primary differentiator as Marvin Douglas, IT furniture sales manager at Monarch explains: “Many educational clients will continue to purchase even if many others in the market confess to offering vastly reduced pricing.”

As the education sector doesn’t have access to a bottomless pit of money, purchasers are looking for value for money. As Douglas explains, that doesn’t mean cheap products.

“Educational clients first and foremost require value for money. However this doesn’t mean cheaply made products as they don’t have time to deal with product issues when teaching demands are tasking up so much of their time.”

Channel members need to understand the institutions take a long term view on purchases and the relationships associated with that purchase. So instead of getting a product out to market first, more attention should be placed on getting a good product out to market. Berry outlines how Promethean makes sure their products are ready for their users.

“Significant test programs are carried out pre-release on all products including software.”

Daryl Clarke, managing director at Matrix Display Systems iterates this view: “Matrix leads the way with new cutting edge products but only once they have been tried and tested. We deal only with established reputable companies and ensure the service and warranty offerings provide the right level of response and cover.”

Getting your channel right can reap rewards but unlike consumer markets, news about products is often spread through unconventional means, as Berry explains. “In the education sector information spreads quicker through word of mouth – good and bad – because teachers are more of a community and tend to use forums and blogs. Teachers will also readily contribute ideas to improve products whereas the commercial market expect us to lead product development more.”

Distributors play a vital role in helping resellers cater for education. Cary Gibbs, business development manager for education at Computers Unlimited explains how they help resellers: “We sell discounted software for education which allows the end user to validate their educational status themselves through our Online Validation Programme.

“This massively helps retailers sell software into the education market as they do not need to carry out pre-sales validation.” Gibbs says that currently Adobe and Quark are partners in this programme. Such programmes offer excellent hooks for manufacturers and retailers to build relationships with new customers.

Every market sector has unique needs and Clarke explains the lengths Matrix goes to attract business from all of them. “Matrix has a dedicated sales team for each specific market area, our service team cover all sectors but have different response levels and SLA agreements depending on the requirements of the market sector.”

This understanding that there is no single solution to every market sector is key in building relationships with institutions. This is good news for smaller resellers who rely on local reputation.

The key to the education sector is reputation. Educational institutions are in the business of learning and not repairing equipment. Schools typically provide some of the harshest environments computer products operate in and therefore purchase decisions are based on past performance of suppliers and manufacturers.

There are few sectors where the bond between manufacturer, distributor and reseller are tested more rigorously. Education establishments expect a lot from the channel and quite rightly so as the rewards for all are high. Configuring your channel for education is a combination of listening to users and providing a high quality service. It’s as easy as A-B-C.­­

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