The Most Valuable Thing I Learned in Chile

It’s not often that a single presentation has a significant impact in how you do business, but the discussion on sales in Latin America by Nicolas Elizarraga, did just that.

He said that when he started selling information technology to corporations he started out by calling dozens of successful sales people and asked their advice. Each person, he asked if they had 15 minutes for a Skype call or a cup of coffee.

Here is the TL; DR version – you need to know how people make decisions to purchase and use technology and it occurred to me that I had very little idea about our schools in Chile decide to use technology, so I addressed that. He said that we assume because a product or service solves a problem that people will buy it, but that’s not necessarily true.

Based on his conversations, he recommends that you


– What they have tried before in (educational technology) and problems they have had.

– “Which criteria might be met by a vendor for you to feel comfortable?” “Have you found any like that?”

– Describe the steps this company needs to take to make a decision like this? DON’T ask someone “is this your decision?”  Not only are you less likely to offend someone , but it allows you to track the process. If they tell you that first it goes to a committee and then the committee recommendations are reviewed by the district office, you can find out if your proposal is making progress toward being funded or not.

Listening to him, I realized there are some things I assume about schools and districts that maybe are not the most important. Also, there may be things they say they want like reports and data but our usage statistics show they don’t access all that often.

One point he made was that urgencies are the most common drivers. Latin American companies usually coexist with most of their problems and opportunities. They have too many problems to address them all. This struck me as true for many of the schools we work with in the U.S. as well. Yes, math achievement is a problem for them, but so are absenteeism, drug abuse, substandard facilities, limited English proficiency of students, reading achievement, lack of technology, staff turnover. That’s one reason our games address a host of issues at once.

Types of Needs

Think because people need your project they will buy it – or even use it for free? Think again. According to Elizarraga there are multiple types of needs.

WE MUST DO IT – Headquarters or the district office forced us. It’s not an issue of price. Or, it may be that the operation will be interrupted – we need to print our course schedule so students can sign up for classes, so we’re going to hire someone to do it. Maybe it’s part of their overall strategy dictated from above. The superintendent decided we need to use XXX Math Curriculum and so we all bought this product. (That doesn’t mean we’re going to use it but that’s a whole blog post in itself.)

WORTH ANALYSIS – there is a need and your product clearly has a value for the customer. It will save them more in money, including staff time, than it will cost. This doesn’t mean they will do it. Why not? Isn’t that a little crazy? Surely, once you point out the value to them, they will buy and use it, right? Keep reading.

Why people don’t buy your technology even when it will help their schools

To understand this seemingly illogical behavior on the part of schools, check for potential barriers. Find out if they have tried  to solve this problem before, like installing educational technology that was incompatible with their hardware. In my experience, most public schools buy the cheapest hardware they possibly can and the result is that any application for students has to be able to run with limited memory, low bandwidth and an operating system that’s at least one version behind whatever is current.

“Thanks for the information. You have an awesome product.” Why do people say this and then they don’t buy it? Are they just a bunch of liars? Just being polite?  Part of it is probably courtesy, but it is likely that your product falls in the nice-to-have category. There is not enough data to show it will work, so, although it is an interesting concept, the school is going to take a pass and focus on solutions that have more backup to show they might work. Most start-ups start in this position and getting into schools to get the data that your product works is a struggle. It’s like health care. Everyone wants new medical devices to be tested, just not on them!

Latin American companies don’t like to take risks.

I have heard this over and over, from a lot of Latin Americans, including those in this meeting. Buyers in U.S. companies and schools aren’t particularly noted for risk-taking either but every single person I have met with experience in both markets swears that Latin American buyers are more risk averse.

While low-performing schools in the U.S. are sometimes willing to adopt innovative technologies to try to improve their achievement because “they have less to lose”, I’ve been told the attitude here is the exact opposite, they are already struggling and what if this idea makes things worse? I run into this idea in the U.S., too, and I have to say it makes me crazy. My attitude is that you will never improve if you keep doing things the same way and if your students are years below grade level you should try something different.

Is it the money?

Maybe they just don’t have the money. Give them a price range and ask if that is within their budget. I really don’t understand why people can’t tell you their prices flat out. You can get all of our games  and supplemental services for all of your students for a whole year for a cost of around $2 – $3 per student, that includes assessment, data and teacher resources as well.

IT’S ALWAYS TOO EXPENSIVE to Latin American decision makers, no matter what the budget you give them, according to Elizarraga and they’ll ask for a discount. He says discount is not always the best solution. If they really don’t have the budget, maybe you can do the payment plan. If they still want to explore ways to finance it, they believe in your product.  If they don’t believe in it, they won’t buy it with a 40% discount.

Dropped some knowledge, now what?

So, as I said, this session was an eye-opener because it made me ask myself what do I really know about how schools in Chile, what their most pressing needs are and how they might use technology to address those. The answer was very little.

One thing I do know is that the answers you get from people at the top are often not the same as the answers you get from teachers in the classroom. So, I scheduled some meetings to ask Chilean teachers about their challenges. My responses to their answers could be summarized as:

“Holy #$% ! You have HOW MANY kids in your classroom?”

Check back for my next post on what I learned.

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