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Tips For Earning Business With Schools

Get EducatedIt’s not beneath Steve Flaughers to stalk his sales prospects in the education market. Yes, stalk. As in scour their Facebook and LinkedIn pages, find out any personal information he can about them and then masterfully weave it into conversation.

In one case, Flaughers learned a prospect at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) had been in a fraternity in college. Seems like pretty basic info, right? And yet it gave Flaughers a real opportunity. “I was in a fraternity,” says Flaughers, owner of 3rd Degree Marketing (asi/490897), based in Akron, OH. His FGCU contact, it turns out, was also a college cheerleader. So was Flaughers. “Talk about a double whammy,” he says.

Suddenly, a first business meeting had the potential for chatter that was about a lot more than just promotional products. That was three years ago. Now, Flaughers says, the two men are tight friends, not just business contacts, with Flaughers volunteering at FGCU’s alumni events even though he’s not an alum.

Room for Referrals
What his experience with FGCU illustrates, Flaughers insists, is the collegial atmosphere among educational clients – particularly those in higher education. And that makes it a rich market to mine. Distributors who work with educators – from preschool through college – say that one of the sector’s greatest strengths is that a single point of entry can offer a wealth of additional business, mostly by referrals alone.

“The good part is departments talk,” says Brad Akers, president and owner of Chicago-based distributor Tip-Top Branding (asi/344851). “At many universities there’s some harmony between the different departments, so there’s an ability to get in there and become a centralized source.”

Buying among schools, year in and year out, also tends to be consistent. Regardless of the economy, schools rarely nix their ad specialty needs from one year to the next, distributors say. Why? As college enrollment is rising nationwide (from 15.3 million in 2000 to 20 million in 2010, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics), universities are looking for more ways to increase their visibility among prospective students.

Education “is always a growing market as long as the population is growing,” says Glen McCandless, founder and president of Focus Marketing and manager of SellingTo Schools.com. But that doesn’t mean growth is always rapid, McCandless adds. Growth generally parallels GDP, he says, a number that might hover near 3%. Still, he believes some growth each year is a hallmark of the industry.

The Relationship Factor
To leverage that growth, insiders say, relationships are key. “Personal relationships play a greater role when selling to the higher education marketplace,” says Bill Dillon, executive vice president of NACUBO, the National Association of College and University Business Officers, based in Washington, D.C. College oversight boards rarely have a say in what campus buyers purchase, and the flexibility to buy on-the-spot is a benefit of college purchasers, he adds.

That means once relationships are solidified with distributors, they’re rarely broken. But at the same time, Dillon says, it also means that educators unhappy with their vendors can mine their college contacts for new sources. “You have these peer institutions competing head to head for students,” Dillon says. “Yet when business officers from those schools get together, they’re more than happy to share any idea about how they work.” That includes one college officer asking another about which promotional product distributor he or she thinks is best, he says.

Flaughers points out that once a college contact picks a distributor, the school is unlikely to let that vendor go. At the John C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University in Huntington, WV, Flaughers’ contact is so loyal that “she tells me when other people try to set up a meeting with her,” says Flaughers, who has also used his role as the former mascot of Kent State University to make inroads at his alma mater. Today, 60% of his business comes from colleges and universities.

Barb Burcham agrees that loyalty, despite economic ups and downs, persists. “The colleges I have are pretty much my people,” says Burcham, owner and president of Advertising Specialties & More Ltd. (asi/113357), a distributorship based in Norman, OK. “I just feel like they wouldn’t leave me for ten cents less on a product.”

Finding New Opportunities
Still, says Dillon, eventually most college contacts retire, change positions or otherwise move on. For distributors looking to gain new or additional business, that’s a prime opportunity to swoop in and pitch a buying department that was previously locked up by a competitor. When “a dean has been at a school for ten years and all of a sudden a new dean comes in,” Dillon says, “that’s a tremendous opportunity to start building new relationships.” Publications, such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, post job listings and new hires at schools nationwide, he adds.

For the most part, distributors say cold calls do little to gain entry with schools. Even on the elementary school level, where PTA board members and teachers are more approachable with a simple phone call and introduction, it always helps to find a connection to leverage, says Burcham.

McCandless agrees, with one caveat: “The easiest way to get in is where you have a personal contact,” he says, though companies can also make inroads by selling products at educational events, such as trade shows.

For Burcham’s part, she leveraged her friends and neighbors to gain entry into local middle and high schools in her area. Obtaining a PTA list for a few schools in her area also helped her forge a more personal connection with the schools she was pitching by working through involved parents.

To persuade new contacts to buy, Burcham appealed to educators’ cost-conscious budgets by offering a 100% guarantee on her products. “If it’s printed incorrectly,” Burcham says, “you keep the product and you don’t pay.” That helped open doors, she says, and in 20 years only three orders have contained errors.

Out with the Old
When it comes to buying products, schools everywhere want more perceived value for their money, distributors say. Pens and pencils are long-gone staples. Instead, schools, particularly universities, are nothing if not current – or at least today’s colleges seem to fashion themselves that way, says Sherry Kennedy, president of A-Z Specialties (asi/490860), a distributor based in Dallas. The bottom line: College buyers want products that will reflect a progressive educational attitude.

So when one college recently requested a unique gift for prospective and transferring students, administrators wanted an item that would indicate the school’s educational advancements. The college ultimately went with Kennedy’s suggestion of a USB drive in the shape of the school’s mascot. Each drive contained specific information about the school’s admissions process, academic programs, specific classes and other information. The initial order was for 500 USB drives – a test run just to see how popular the custom sticks might be. They were scooped up faster than the school predicted, and Kennedy quickly placed an order for another 500.

Appealing to his tech-loving audience, Flaughers created a mobile application for FGCU just to increase interest in the school. But the app also did something for Flaughers. “Now I sell them a bunch of stuff to hand out to get people to go to the mobile app,” Flaughers says. By being able to create mobile and ad specialty sales tools, Flaughers can be a “one-source supplier” for the college. Higher-education buyers, in particular, are very savvy about products, Flaughers says, and often “slap you in the face with industry terms and knowledge” in a way that other buyers don’t.

In fact, technology, specifically social media, is a key element to his sales process when targeting schools. “I use Facebook as a quick jab,” Flaughers says. “Not so much to take orders, but a ‘hey, did you see that Kent State game last night?’ Even though I didn’t sell them anything, by making that comment online I kept my name in front of them.”

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