For most marketers, the expression “the customer is king” says it all. First, understand what your customers need and then serve those needs through thoughtful strategy and strong implementation.
This is great, time-tested advice. It can also get entrepreneurs into a lot of trouble in K-12 education. Before crowning the customer as king, we need to answer a simple question: Who is the customer?
In K-12 education, the answer should be straightforward—it’s the kids—but in reality, it’s more complex. Students attend school; families care about the education their children receive; taxpayers pay for that education; and all citizens—present and future—benefit from a well-educated society. Even if we consider this question more narrowly, and understand our customers to be the purchasers of our products, we still can’t fully answer the question.
In place of “customer is king,” smart entrepreneurs should take a multi-stakeholder approach. This means putting kids at the center of any product design and marketing considerations while understanding the needs of each of the key participants in the K-12 ecosystem.
By using this approach, entrepreneurs can more clearly identify areas for differentiation, competitive advantage, and most critically, sustainable value for children.
- Users: These are typically the students, teachers, and parents who use the products and services.
- Purchasers: These are the individuals and entities who ultimately make the buying decision. For sales to government customers this generally entails a formal, and often complex, procurement process.
- Influencers: These are the various groups and individuals who have a stake in public education and wield power to influence key decisions, including purchasing.
The process doesn’t have to be complicated. The goal is to understand the following criteria for each key stakeholder.
- Qualifiers: What are the “must have” product features or benefits for this group? What features, if missing, will make a product unacceptable for this group?
- Disqualifiers: What features, if included, would make a product unacceptable for this group?
- Differentiators: What product features or benefits drive preference for this group? Two products could generate equally strong student achievement results (a “qualifier” for most stakeholders) but one could be differentiated based on ease-of-use and the amount of time it saves for teachers—winning over a key stakeholder.
By setting up recurring communication channels to gather feedback from key stakeholders and using this framework to categorize this information, entrepreneurs can quickly identify key product design and marketing considerations—including potential pushback during the sales and marketing process.
The rich and spirited dialogue around education—the good, the bad, and the ugly—is part of the democratic process. No one is king, not even the customer. Navigating this dialogue skillfully is critical for entrepreneurs and, more importantly, for the kids they serve.