Published on 2014/01/13
Exploring the Negative Reputation of Service Providers
Institutional leaders are more interested in entering long-term strategic partnerships with service providers than with a one-time purchase of a product or service.

Being responsible for the virtual classroom environment for a wholly online institution brings its own set of challenges when working with vendors and service providers. Taking calls and responding to emails from new companies seeking to sell their technologies, wares and services is never the highlight of my day. Meeting new service providers, especially educational technology vendors, brings on the same uncomfortable feeling as shopping for furniture or a new car. A few companies understand higher education, know what their products need to do and have done their homework before approaching my institution. I like working with these partners.

Vendors, especially those in the educational technology sector, need more experience and insight into higher education. Far too often, I have seen technology designed for primary and secondary education or corporate and government training presented and marketed as ready solutions for higher education. I have sat through demonstrations of middle school social studies and high school mathematics tools and had to ask if they offered more age and academic level appropriate material. I have had demonstrations of software tools from the private sector that lacked even a single example that would apply to an educational setting other than the campus bookstore.

Educational technology vendors also need to keep up with legal requirements for online material and services. I am still surprised by how many sales representatives do not know if their products fully meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Other vendors offer ‘innovative’ technology that still relies on Adobe Flash. It is unfortunate because so many students now use mobile devices that cannot display content built in Flash.

Vendors and service providers can make it easier for academic administrators if they conduct a little research before getting to their sales pitch. This may apply more to online programs and institutions than those on-ground. Our virtual classrooms do not need whiteboards, desks or comfortable chairs. Our virtual labs do not require computer workstations, beakers or safety equipment.

As a consumer, I am looking for a relationship with my vendors and service providers, not a one-time sale like at the furniture store or car lot. Building a partnering relationship takes work on both sides. Vendors can start by understanding more about their prospective customers, the higher education industry and their needs. It will end up saving both of us a lot of precious time.

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Readers Comments

Curtis Keller 2014/01/13 at 9:02 am

Yes! I agree wholeheartedly with this piece. I am responsible for vendor services at my mid-sized institution and I’ve had similar experiences with would-be vendors who clearly misunderstood our business. Higher education is a unique industry in that most institutions are not profit driven. In addition, we serve a wider variety of people than most other service businesses. Our students range from low-income individuals who are the first in their family to attend a postsecondary institution to international students who may not use English as their first language. Thus, any products or services we purchase have to be able to address a diversity of needs. Finally, we are accountable to a number of external partners, including the federal and state governments if we’re public institutions, which means we are also bound by many pieces of legislation. The situation Schilke describes about how our technology needs to meet accessibility requirements is a good example. Vendors interested in selling their services or products should be aware of the context we operate in before approaching us.

Yvonne Laperriere 2014/01/13 at 4:23 pm

I think it’s too much to expect vendors to be altruistic and look after student success before they consider profits. Simply put, businesses exist for the sole purpose of making money. What we might do instead is ask institutions to be more careful about the types of partnerships they enter into, and to include safeguards for students into their contracts with vendors.

Richard Gentle 2014/01/20 at 4:30 pm

I have also witnessed educational organisations agreeing to contracts that are too long and do not have flexibility for future-proofing. This, together with contractors who may run into financial difficulty, has also led educational establishments to be prevented from re-tendering because they are locked into their earlier contract agreement. Educational procurement must ensure that what appears to be a good deal to get a project up and running, must not take precedence over safeguards for exit for both parties and not just the service provider!

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