Most people understand education as a domain populated by “teachers” and “students”, not “customers”. In fact, even the concept of “customer” is difficult in traditional educational settings that attempt to appear free of commercialism. This sensitivity is particularly acute within learning companies because almost always, somewhere in the company, it is usually believed that the product or service is being created for the student. The juxtaposition of “student” and “customer” is especially troublesome.
Yet education isn’t like a retail establishment or a mall. If a customer is the person who actually opens their wallet to pay you, or who owns the final decision to cut you a cheque for payment, such people are often difficult to identify and track down in educational systems. They are very seldom the student. This simple revelation triggers a set of complex considerations that are largely unique to the education marketplace. Failure to understand them is one of the frustrations that often leads to the failure of ventures here.
The student=customer problem is generally resolved by students never seeing price tags. In both K-12 and corporate systems almost all purchasing is done by the institution or corporation, usually by people who will never even meet the students. Sometimes it is the instructor that makes the buying decisions, but most often it is somebody much further away from the classroom.
In K-12, for example, these decisions might be made at the school level, by a principal or learning materials specialist, but school systems tend to leverage their buying power and pedagogical directions across larger numbers of schools. Decisions are typically made by a district and/or a state/province by people or committees specifically assigned to achieve this leverage. More rarely, the customer is even someone on a national or multinational stage. A simple generalization is that the larger the price tag, the further the buying decision is from the classroom. Teachers generally have extremely small budgets, so if you're trying to sell something worth many thousands of dollars it will be unusual for your customer to be a teacher or principal.
And the situation may be constantly changing. Over time, most school systems tend to ride a pendulum swinging between highly-centralized purchasing (advantages of buying power and uniformity) and de-centralized purchasing (advantages in addressing local needs). Quite literally you could have a decision that was in a teacher's hands one year escalate to a national bureaucrat the next. Some product decisions might be local and others remote. For example, the decision about a textbook resource being made by the teacher one year might be replaced by a region-wide decision for an online resource the next, while the professional development or training related to the implementation of that resource remains a local decision. No two regions will make the decisions in the same way, or at the same phase of the pendulum cycle. An essential part of the customer-identification process is recognizing these levels and cycles.
Successful learning companies invest lots of money in people who remain in touch with the system and can always identify the customer. The K-12 system is unusually complex with respect to purchasing, but even in post-secondary and adult learning, where it might appear that the student is buying, their decision is traditionally only to purchase a program and/or an academic brand. The actual components of the program - the textbooks, learning materials, etc. - are usually decided by the instructor in consultation with the institution.
As another example, consider the tension on a university campus where the traditional autonomy of individual departmental or faculty curriculum committees in determining learning resources (that potentially could lead to many different platforms and management systems) is challenged by the institution's need for consistency and interoperability.
Every learning venture must clearly differentiate distinct strategies for reaching the "customer", the "end user", and the "learner" of their products or services. The customers open their wallets, the end-users open the package, and the learners open their minds. For example, suppose you've developed some brilliant content with rock-solid pedagogy and thoroughly engaging interactive design. You're enormously proud of this accomplishment and know it will make an amazing difference to the quality of the learning experience for the students. When you develop your marketing materials there's no point in emphasizing content and design if your customer is a district or state official whose only interests will be price and accountability. For them, you describe how your product will economically deliver better results in standardized testing scenarios. If you get that right, they might buy it.
When you package this great product there's no point in talking about standardized testing or interactive design if the end user is a teacher whose only interest is to find something to make teaching easier. For them you describe all the support features and the simplicity of implementation. If you get that right, they might open the package.
And when you design the learning interface for the product there's no point in describing the testing and teaching support systems when the learner's only interest is to be finished. For them you find the fastest way to get them engaged. If you get that right, they might open their minds. Sometimes, when you're very, very lucky, the customer, end-user and learner for your product are all the same person. Far too many ventures don't have that luck, don't consider these implications, and fail - despite having that brilliant product.
A further interesting complexity, with the emergence of MOOCs, is the provision to large sets of self-motivated, global students of totally free world-class learning materials and systems. This disruptive transformation of the marketplace is forcing all of the players to rethink their roles, and their ability to survive.
Teachers, Technologists and Administrators
Especially true for learning technology ventures, the customer is not always one person. Again using K-12 as an example, most school districts have traditionally made their technology purchasing decisions in an entirely different place, and with different people, than their curriculum purchasing decisions. Depending on the complexity of the product and the technological sophistication of the school system, a learning technology purchase could involve sets of people who don't even interact on a day-to-day basis, each having largely distinct cultures, processes, budgets and decision cycles within the system. The learning technology venture then has to determine if the best strategy is to convene all the key people for a joint purchasing decision or to "sell" to one of them well enough that they will champion a decision with their colleagues. This is another example why customer identification and engagement has been such a human-intensive activity for successful companies within educational systems.
If the customer is somebody who opens their wallet to allow a venture to exist, then most ventures will have different categories of customer at different times. For example, by this definition any investor in your venture is a "customer". This is true whether these "investing customers" are venture capitalists, angels, government agencies, school principals, institutional vice presidents, or friends. The primary investing customer could even be yourself. Every source of financial or in-kind contribution to your success should be accounted and treated as a true customer, meaning that they have an expectation of receiving some product, value or return related to their investment. Explicitly identifying all of your "paying" and "investing" customers, accurately understanding their separate expectations, and professionally communicating and delivering against those expectations, is known as "fulfillment". Clearly fulfillment is more than handing over a product and pocketing some cash.
In education, as in other sectors, a useful strategy for a start-up venture is to first acquire a hybrid purchaser/investor, often referred to as a "lead customer". This is a purchaser with a distinctly identified need (a "pain point") for your innovative product or service, who is willing to work with you to prove your concept. Their 'investment' is the risk they take in working with you; their benefit is getting a solution to the problem at little or no cost. Your benefit is having a happy first customer to help attract others.
In the next section you will see why we have Face 3 (below) of the "Cube", our framework for describing ventures. When you identify your paying customer as somebody far removed from the learner then you typically have a very small number of customers and very large price tags. This defines a very precise set of strategies with respect to marketing and sales. When you identify the customer as the learner or the teacher then you typically have a very large number of customers and very small price tags. This defines a completely different set of strategies with respect to marketing and sales, and therefore a completely different venture.
We'll explore this further in the activities that follow.