“Please, Sir, May I Buy Your Product Without Seeing It?” Said No One Ever.

oliver_twist_david_lean_0I’m having a hard time understanding some vendors these days. A number of them don’t seem very preoccupied with the idea of actually selling anything.

The latest drama I’m dealing with is a company that doesn’t seem to want to bother doing demos of their products. Now that a lot of AV gear has become commodity, a demo would largely be silly in some cases. The product I’m referring to, however, is an interactive product. Unless, we get a few people to try it out and come to the table with their feedback, there is little chance we are going to risk buying and installing it. Fortunately, the response to a call for a demo to a competitor was essentially, “When would you like one?”

We went through something similar a few years ago when looking to buy some interactive whiteboards. One company’s answer was to have everyone interested drive out to a school about an hour away where there was one we could try. (Needless to say, that didn’t happen.) Another company’s response was to ship us a road case the size of a small apartment – with a 70-inch interactive monitor inside. However, I do realize your mileage may vary.

Higher ed faculty expect to be catered to, especially at big-name institutions. We have a hard enough time getting a group of them together in any way on campus. We aren’t going to be able to drag them across town to see a product. Determining the direction to go with equipment and technologies becomes the big stone many of us higher ed technology managers push uphill on a daily basis.

Even if a demo can be arranged, there are some folks whose representation of their company is less than stellar. We had one projector rep show up an hour late – without calling, and without the correct lens for a 3-way shootout we had planned months in advance. Years later, we still don’t have any of his brand of projector in our classrooms.

At this point, I know a number of my higher ed friends are saying: “Demos? Reps? What are these strange things of which you speak?” I realize size and academic reputation has its privileges — as a friend of mine is fond of saying: “Dude, you’re U – C – freakin’ – LA!” Well, yes, at times that has its advantages, but I talk to plenty of higher ed tech managers at all sorts of major institutions who are almost never called on by reps, dealers, or vendors of any sort (including a few they would like to be called on by). There is a lot of market that isn’t being reached.

I think some vendors see the big-ticket orders coming out of the purchasing department and assume that contact is their ticket to the Bahamas. Yes, occasionally. Meanwhile there are multiple AV departments on campus cranking out a few thousand dollars of their own orders every month.

Telemarketers make this mistake. I’ll explain how Purchasing handles orders over $5K here, and I’ll get some literature, but no follow up. Some people don’t understand the difference between purchase and specify.

We bought equipment from one local integrator for years. Our contact gave us the same pricing he put on Purchasing’s RFQs. We bought thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment a month from him for many years. When he moved up, his replacement raised our prices significantly – a penalty for “small orders” and not using his integration services. We stopped buying from them.

Then there’s the whole idea of letting a local integrator be your “rep” in a particular region. If we don’t use that integrator, how prominent do you think we are on their radar? How quick do you think they are to reach out to us and tell us about your product?

Our original guy at that integrator was also the epitome of a vendor who really listened and tailored his efforts to what we needed and wanted. A lot of reps and vendors could really take a lesson. He took notes on what we used and didn’t use, what we liked and didn’t like. If something we might like came on the market, he’d call and let us know. If it was something we probably wouldn’t care about, he wouldn’t. It was refreshing. He was one of maybe a handful of vendors or reps I’ve worked with in my time at UCLA that didn’t have me thinking I was explaining our world all over again every time we talked. Hey, if you are doing your job right, we both make each other’s AV lives much easier.

I’m also surprised how many vendors or reps are not active online. It’s pretty easy to track down many of us via sites like LinkedIn. This whole social media thing has been growing steadily for a number of years now; I think it might actually catch on. But, whatever you do online, don’t be obnoxious. A soft sell is the best plan. One higher ed listserv was pretty much killed off by a furniture vendor who would jump in and tout his classroom furniture as “the solution” for pretty much every technology question asked. I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t mess up more sales than he generated by being so annoying. Technology managers are a fickle lot; we remember who helped us out and who was a pain in the tuckus.

I would like nothing more than to see the AV world continue to be the nice big happy family we are in many circles. I would like it to be healthy and for everyone who puts in an honest day’s work to make a decent living at it. I understand margins have changed and things like services are becoming more significant. I just think there is a whole lot of good business being passed up for lack of good business sense and basic sales skills. And if you are already sloppy and don’t have a handle on traditional business, how is branching out into new areas going to help you in the long run?

About Greg Brown

Greg is part of of the Classroom Technology Design and Maintenance group at UCLA, overseeing AV design, install and maintenance for most of the classrooms and AV-equipped spaces on campus. He is a member of InfoComm’s Technology Managers Council and a regular guest on AVNation’s monthly EdTech podcast. For more information, visit the Blogger Bios page.

5 Responses to ““Please, Sir, May I Buy Your Product Without Seeing It?” Said No One Ever.”

  1. Greg, I am really enjoying your blog topics. This one strikes home as I work on the other side of AV- manufacturing. Thanks for your input on how reps should listen to their customers and tailor offerings as it pertains to the users needs.

  2. Greg,

    It is great to see someone in your position value great service and really allow AV sales reps in to perform demonstrations and provide recommendations. Too frequently Purchasing takes the ball and lowers the net value to the end user by constantly flattening the field and not allowing contact with the person that really uses the technology. I would assume then that that value is passed on to that vendor as additional profitability and not a low bid situation for the time spent working to assist and present the latest technology. (paid for the work done) I wish there were more like you! Often, no matter how hard you work, you are measured by price alone in a world of box houses.

  3. Fantastic article Greg! I also work in the higher ed industry and you certainly hit the nail on the head with all your points.

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