Consulting Beats Selling in the K-12 MarketBy John Hazard | Print
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K-12 school districts offer plenty of sales opportunities for VARs that understand their unique finances and special needs.In his 12 years of selling IT to schools, Vic Levinson has watched his business get very complicated.
Elementary schools, he says, now possess IT infrastructures as sophisticated as the largest enterprise businesses; security threats, both cyber and physical, have grown more menacing; and administrators with tight budgets have become savvy and discriminate technology shoppers.
"It's a whole new sales process," said Levinson, president of Prime Telecommunications Inc., a network VAR dealing primarily with K-12 school districts, based in Skokie, Ill.
In short, to make the sale to educational institutions, according to Levinson and others in the market, a VAR must become a consultant, offering not just IT solutions, but answers to questions about safety, funding and navigating public approval.
To equip its 300 resellers in the sector with the knowledge and background to fill that role, the Westcon Group, an IT distributor, has established an ongoing seminar series on the subject.
Sessions will be held regionally and will focus on region-specific topics, such as local IT needs, attitudes toward IT spending, state and federal compliance and available grants.
"If you can go into a proposal meeting knowing that a school district needs to open up three classrooms or that there is a federal grant that will cover most of the project, suddenly you're not a salesman anymore; you're a consultant," said Ron Shepps, Westcon's vertical markets manager.
"By bringing them the chance to improve their ability to serve their customers, who are teachers, students and parents, and have it paid for, you've created a best-of-all-worlds situation for them that will help you pick up that business."
But in spite of, and even because of, the complexity of the process, the opportunities for VARs serving schools are promising, said Shawn McCarthy, a government and education analyst at the research firm IDC.
Schools, including colleges, are expected to spend $13.4 billion this year on IT (the average district spends $358,423 on IT), according to IDC's 2005-2009 forecast for the market. IDC expects the market to increase in a slow but steady fashion, 2.8 percent annually, through the end of the decade, spurred by federal spending in the arena and a school building boom, McCarthy said.
Most of the spending is concentrated in coastal areas and big statesCalifornia, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois among otherswhile most of the growth potential is in southern states, McCarthy said.
Much of that spending is driven by the simple fact that communities are building, expanding and refurbishing school buildings at an astounding rate1,800 new schools and 5,000 major renovations per year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
"We're in a building boom," Westcon's Shepps said. "And it's time to move on to the next stage, which is outfitting those schools."
Laptops and wireless networks offer promise as schools try to make the most out of limited spaces, McCarthy and Shepps said.
Westcon officials see the greatest growth as coming from security features, against both cyber-threats and physical threats, such as fires and crime.
"People want one thing above all when they put their children on the bus in the morning," Shepps said. "They want them to come home in one piece, and school districts are under enormous public pressure to ensure that."
Providing that safety can be as mundane as putting telephones in the teacher's hand or as sophisticated as providing wireless units identifying open windows and doors, he said.
Levinson said he sees a tremendous opportunity for network security.
"The systems at some schools," Levinson said, "are as sophisticated or more so than at a lot of big businesses, and they're storing more and more sensitive data like credit card information."
Driving much of the growth in IT spending is the support of state and federal governments that have made funding, such as the federal eRate program, available to improve IT infrastructures in schools.
Knowing how to navigate the various bureaucracies can make a project more attractive, Levinson said. "The easier you make it for them the easier you make it for yourself," he said. "It pays to do your homework. God gave me two eyes, and two ears and a mouth. It all depends on how I use them."
"Sometimes that means knowing when to bring in someone else," Levinson said. "Being a consultant now means not only knowing how to work with the client, but working with the others they need and you need to get the job done."