Bob Brown

Selling through Education

June 23, 2007

Case categories include: Marketing   Operations   Sales   

By Robert Sher
When our agrarian ancestors realized that the path forward was through specialization and trade, the industrial revolution was born.  Blacksmiths, woodworkers and many more craftsmen would trade their honed skills for food, rather than grow it themselves.

Flash forward to today, and the trend toward specialization continues.  In fact, it’s so far along now that most of us don’t know most of the specialties that exist.  In the case of Teladata, LLC, even most of prospects (IT managers and facilities managers) don’t fully understand what Teladata is capable of.  They don’t get that Teladata’s expertise in a subspecialty within the world of IT infrastructure can make a massive difference in their project outcomes.  Bob Brown, CEO of Teladata, wondered, "How can we get them to become customers if they don’t really understand their own problems and needs, much less understand how we can help them?  And what good is quality as a competitive advantage if they can’t understand the benefits of such quality?"

Offer something of value
The answer came two years ago:  Educate them.  Teladata hosted its first-ever conference to attract decision makers and to give them valuable information for FREE.  Teladata, and most companies that sell technical products or services, struggle to find enough employees who both know the technical information and have the personality for sales.  That, in addition to the normal resistance most prospects have to letting a “salesperson” in the door and the potential embarrassment of revealing their lack of knowledge, makes getting a conversation started with prospects both expensive and difficult.

In comes the conference.  A much more ego-soothing word than “school” or “training,” a conference allows prospects to learn in “stealth” mode—without revealing what they know or don't know.  They arrive and go through the process in a group setting, so there is little worry about being pressed to say “yes” to some salesperson.  From Teladata's perspective, it gets face time with prospects and concentrates the education of many recipients into the same time period, making the process more efficient.  What's more, the company can corral the best speakers available – with both the deep subject matter knowledge and high communication skills – to pass along knowledge in optimal form.

Teladata saw that when they had a chance to engage deeply with a prospect, the likelihood of closing was much higher.  But finding opportunities to get in front of well-qualified prospects was not easy.  So in 2005, they put together their first ever conference, and invited some other non-competitive companies to help.  It worked well, and the process was repeated with some adjustments.

This year, Teladata has branded the conference with a name of its own, creating a feeling of impartiality (http://www.technologyconvergenceconference.com).  While the conference is completely controlled and owned by Teladata, other non-competitive companies are invited to participate as sponsors or content providers, with clearly defined costs and expectations.  The conference focus is truly education and not sales, but it positions the companies involved as thought leaders in their domain as well as good citizens, willing to help others in the field without an immediate or obvious return benefit.  But the benefit to Teladata is clear – prospects that know enough to assess technical issues properly will understand the value proposition of the high quality players.

Some keys to educational settings:
1. Offer multiple curriculum options, so attendees can choose their area of interest.
2. Deliver real knowledge that prospects need, not disguised sales pitches.  They’ll know in a heartbeat if you’re just trying to pitch them.
3. Communicate well, both in the marketing collateral you send out to attract participants, as well as get good speakers that audiences will rate highly.
4. Have a budget.  It’s not free to launch an educational event, it will cost real dollars.
5. Plan well ahead.  Events like this are complicated and take work to pull off.  There are event planners that can help, but vet them carefully.  It’s not a wedding, and don’t get carried away with “ambiance.”  Put most of your money into delivering content that will “wow” them.
6. Fund part of the costs with sponsors.  They will pay for interaction with a highly select group of attendees.
7. It takes several years for most of the benefit to be felt.  Becoming a knowledge leader doesn’t happen from one event.  It requires persistent effort through events like this as well as other communication channels.
8. Capture some of the content delivered at the conference and repurpose it to use in your business development efforts. 

Attendance at Teladata’s conference has increased each year, beginning with 60 people in 2005 and growing to over 150 this year.

With more and more specialized knowledge in the world, it’s likely you can gain a strategic advantage by helping your clients and prospects learn, perhaps through the use of educational conferences.  I can’t promise an “industrial revolution” in your industry, but I suspect you’d settle for a steady stream of new customers.

Takeaways:
• Education is a great, low-pressure means of creating value for prospects while positioning your company as a knowledge leader.
• Educational tools like conferences need to offer valuable knowledge, or else they’re just extended sales pitches.  Always provide high-level content, exciting ideas and engaging speakers.
• Think through your educational efforts so they have maximum impact.


Robert Sher is principal of CEO to CEO, specializing in assisting CEOs and business leaders as they navigate critical passages.  He is the author of The Feel of the Deal; How I Built a Business through Acquisitions.  He may be reached at Robert@ceotoceo.biz.

Company and Case Facts:

Company: Teledata, LLC
Person: Bob Brown, CEO
Alliance Member since: 1998
Business Founded: 1986
Head Count: 22
Service: Consulting services to design and implement IT infrastructure that supports data centers, networks, phone systems, AV, security and building management
Typical Customer: Multi-location, growing companies with large data centers and extensive network requirements
Written: June, 2007
Address: Teledata, LLC, 44061 Old Warm Springs Boulevard, Fremont, CA 94538-6158
E-mail: bbrown@teledata.com
Phone: 510-979-4216