Published on 2014/01/10
Seeing the Forest and the Trees
Vendors do more than sell products; they can provide insights and perspectives that support the growth of the institution.
As the CEO of a software company, I have the privilege of visiting our clients on a recurring basis. On one such visit, early in my career, I was let in on a secret.

Let me explain.

It was on a visit to the Stanford Center for Professional Development when the then-Executive Director Andy DiPaolo called me into his office, invited me to sit down and abruptly asked me, “Shaul, you visit schools all over the country: what are you seeing out there? What are schools doing that’s innovative and unique? What do you see coming down the line? What’s your perspective on the future?” I was dumbstruck.

At first, I thought I was being tested. Some kind of trap, perhaps? Then it dawned on me that Andy, a very well-respected and insightful individual, understood and believed my perspective was perhaps just as valuable to him as our software that ran his division. He made me realize that through my travels and interactions, I was in a somewhat unique position to analyze information on numerous units and provide a perspective that, in its totality, would be different from any one of the inputs. I realized my perspective was greater than the sum of its parts.

Here is why this makes sense.

Though it may be surprising, vendors bring more to the table than just the products or services they are selling. One of the biggest assets astute vendors bring to the table is the ability to see both the forest and the trees. Dealing with a plethora of customers provides a broad view of the industry that can’t be seen from an individual school’s vantage point. Sure, there are associations and conferences, which try to provide a holistic view of what’s going on, but is getting off campus once or twice a year to mingle with colleagues a substitution for speaking to stakeholders on a multitude of campuses, across the country, on a daily basis?

Vendors are privileged with a unique peek into the industry because they are able to see first hand what administrators and educators are struggling with or excelling at — at all levels — across a great many number of schools. Understanding each school’s individual issues is very important, but when you can overlay that on the entire industry landscape, new ideas become revolutionary. Trends become easier to see and strategic priorities become much more apparent. From this awareness comes an understanding and insight that is truly valuable. It is this knowledge that, properly harnessed, manifests itself in vendor products, services and even informal conversations, to move the industry into the future.

A vendor may sell you a product, but you’re getting short changed if that is all you are being offered. A good vendor offers a ‘ secret menu’ filled with expertise, knowledge and information that can provide the key to successfully navigating the complexities of today’s marketplace.

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Readers Comments

Lisa C 2014/01/10 at 9:34 am

One of the biggest challenges higher ed is facing right now, especially with all the competitors entering the marketplace, is that we have no real means of sharing best practices. We talk three times a year at conferences about some of the things we’re doing, but we’re really flying blind. Vendors can help us to bridge that gap and serve as strategic partners as well as device providers.

mark evan 2014/01/10 at 10:16 am

I definitely agree with Lisa and the author. If all your vendor is doing is selling you a product, you’re getting short-changed. Administrators and this industry need partners, not salesmen.

Eugene 2014/01/10 at 12:05 pm

Great piece looking at the hidden benefits of vendor partnerships. I enjoyed the anecdote about the forward-thinking administrator who asked Kuper about industry trends for ideas for his institution. A good vendor possesses unparalleled industry knowledge, and it’s worthwhile to consult with them for a different perspective on your institution’s needs.

Henrik Olsen 2014/01/10 at 1:18 pm

It’s interesting to read about partnerships from a vendor’s perspective, and I believe Kuper makes a good point about the ‘value add’ that a vendor may provide an institution in terms of industry insider knowledge and a wealth of prior experiences to draw from. Of course, institutions only really begin to benefit from this unofficial ‘service’ when they choose to include vendors in their decision making. Many still aren’t prepared to do this, choosing to relegate vendors to service delivery or other operational tasks. As Kuper says, it’s a wasted opportunity.

Charlene L 2014/01/10 at 2:47 pm

For the most part, I agree with what Kuper and other commenters are saying. But let me play devil’s advocate here: if a vendor is willing to discuss experiences with other clients with you, what’s to stop them from sharing about your institution with others? I’m aware that I’m overstating the problem; most vendors I’ve worked with are careful about protecting clients and choosing which trade secrets to share. But I could see some institutions becoming wary of vendors and using this as a reason to exclude them from longer-term planning.

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