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Monday, December 29, 2014

Schools and the Art of Selling - What and How Are They Selling?

As I relax on vacation during the holidays I have the rare opportunity to invest in reading articles and books that elude me during the course of busy work days and nights. One such article caught my attention and, as I read it, I couldn't help but think its message in terms of our public schools. That is, how do we present our process and products to current or potential consumers? Are we selling our ideas and prospects?

After all, education is an intangible. It's something that you can't see, feel, smell, or test drive, in the way you can sit in the comfort of a new car at the dealership, smell the distinct "new car" flavor, listen to the radio, see the dashboard console gauges, and take it for a spin before buying the car. Education is an abstract commodity purchased with a currency of hope, promise, prospect, and possibilities - all in the long term (often thirteen years) as opposed to driving off the lot in your new car and completing loan payments in five years.

Since we are "selling" ideas and hope we encounter a sales process quite different than selling something concrete that a consumer can see, feel, touch, smell, or taste. Furthermore, the consumer cannot instantly engage the product like they can with a hamburger from the fast food chain, a shirt from the store, or a car from the dealership.

Someone once contrasted this difference between the sale of a tangible product and an intangible product as follows - "It's easy to sell aspirin to someone with a headache, but it's very difficult to sell a life insurance policy to a twenty-two year old male." One meets an immediate need while the other is an invisible and long term purchase.

Now, please read the article linked below - then think about some of the differences when compared to a school:(for greater insight into the notion of the psychology of why and how people buy, read Martin Lindstrom's great book entitled, Buy-ology - How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy is Wrong).

Number 2 on the list, We've got a bag of tricks to get you to spend more,  reveals just a few of the sales techniques that grocery stores use to increase sales. I'm not suggesting schools employ deceptive practices, but rather that schools understand and accept that they are really selling intangible items like ideas and hope in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Our small district has over fifteen private, parochial, and charter schools within a fifteen mile radius of our school. We shouldn't confine our sales pitch to the single day of the year when citizens cast votes on the annual operating budget for their local school, but on a regular basis that is sustained throughout the thirteen year relationship they have with each learner (and the family, relatives, neighbors and friends of each learner in the community).

One particular element of those listed in the article involved the consciously created, research based traffic patterns developed by grocery stores (customers enter and proceed to the right of the store because most people are right-handed and that increases access to products and subsequent sales; higher priced items are located at eye level along the shelves;...). The four basic items most frequently purchased (bread, milk, eggs, and bananas) are spread out around the store to maximize your time there and the potential for customers to engage in impulse buying while progressing from bananas to milk to eggs to bread.Take a moment and consider the traffic pattern within the school where you work.

Too often, particularly at high schools, the first school artifacts visible to those entering the school are sports trophies. While these symbols are evidence of success and hard earned victories, athletics usually involve less than half of the learners in any high school. If our mission is focused on learning shouldn't we be promoting the success of our learners on an academic level. Wait, wait let me explain before you get upset and claim that sports builds character and contributes to the "whole learner." I was a three sport athlete in high school, as were my two children. All three of us also competed in sports at the collegiate level too. I understand the benefits of sports and how they reach beyond the playing field to develop skills (cooperation, communication, self-discipline,...) applicable to other endeavors. All I ask you to consider is this; when you shop for a car or a truck, the dealership does not display other products they also manufacture because the business of the dealership is to sell cars and trucks.

What does it say about our schools if the most prominent artifacts or symbols in the school are related to a small slice of the total pie? Another example; how often have you been driving around and enter a town that proudly displays a sign boasting of a state sports championship earned by the local high school. You know - welcome to our town, home of the 1992 football champions (found as you enter the town where my wife works as a teacher. Or, welcome to our town, home of the 1987-2012 state champion cross country teams (in a town where the cross country team is coached by my sister). Okay, now think back on these trips and ask yourself how many towns use large signs at their entrances to broadcast the percentage of high school graduates from the most recent class, or the number of national merit scholarships earned by graduates, or the attendance rate of the public schools in the town?????

Number 5 on the list contained in the article, We're Tracking you at every turn, shows how far behind schools are in developing profiles on consumers and identifying their interests and needs in order to provide new programs and practices in response.

Number 6 on the list, Nearly identical items may have vastly different prices,  reports how and why certain products (specialty cheeses, deli items, and nuts) are priced differently than similar or identical items elsewhere in the store. Different items, like different classes in our schools, have different overhead costs. However, we may not be presenting and explaining this information to our taxpayers.

Element number 7 on the list, We're trying to force you to spend more time with us, (so you'll spend more money with us) is in sharp contrast to the accommodations, or lack thereof, found in many public schools. Parents and other visitors often feel uninvited or have their visits sharply limited to evenings at concerts, games, or PTA meetings. Yes, I know of the prevailing security issues but how do we seek to make our schools welcoming and actually engage potential consumers and benefactors? (aren't all taxpayers benefactors, whether they vote yes on the budget ballot or not they still pay the apportioned tax rates on their properties) As a result, beyond the news we deliver in newsletters, social media, school websites, how much do parents and community members really know about the school they support with taxes?

There are other ideas to be culled from this article and prompt some brainstorming sessions among school staff members.

In summary, how are we trying to convince our potential consumers that our mission is worthy of them investing their hard earned money? What can we do to make our process and product more desirable? What marketing strategies can we develop to improve our business? Why don't we seem to extract useful information from the business world that could be converted into strategies to leverage improvement in our public schools?

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