Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Education Salesman

I have spent most of my working life selling education and I sure want to get out of it when I get the first chance. I do not mean I hate it - I quite love it. However, I have done it for last 15 years day in and day out, and the truth is - I am bored. Yes, I do get bored quite easily, but don't think anyone can blame me for being bored with a job after 15 years. I had my variety - worked in different countries and sold different things - IT Diplomas to Management Training to English Language Certification now. However, the point is selling education always seems to have a pattern, some sort of a formula, which gets repeated regardless of country or type of education.


Let me explain. Let's take this great myth of QUALITY in education. Every institution talks about great/unique/world-class quality of education. I am not doubting that quality plays a great role in education, and some institutions do a far better job than others. But I am a humble salesman, and from that point of view, selling quality of education is useless. I say this because the quality of education is post-experience and no one can prove to a potential buyer what is good quality and what isn't. Buyers also can't do comparison shopping or try a tester [in most cases]. So, quality of education is as good as perceived in the brand [say Harvard] or perceived in the person who is making a statement [say Me]. There are also university league tables and student perception surveys these days, and the beast called Word-of-Mouth reinvigorated by social networks and Internet forums. But, at the point of sale, quality of education, in the absence of a well-recognized brand, is voodoo, as good as the person who is proclaiming quality.


I am saying in education sales, quality = brand. This is sort of obvious, but for most people, quality = tutors [not really, because it needs a leap of faith to believe a man with grey beard or a long tail of degrees will always teach better] or quality = infrastructure [not true, infrastructure is sort of hygiene, needs to be good but does not make a difference at the top end, as the differences are negligible]. I have seen many institutions feel that they win the argument boasting about different elements, and can get away without investing in the brand.

There other key point is that education actually can not be sold. It needs to be bought, and this is why I am mentioning the importance of branding. Most educators believe in these two grossly contradictory things - that education can not / should not be marketed/branded in the usual way and that what is really important is the quality of education and students don't know the true worth of what they offer. The role of an education salesman is seen as a combination of the sly pimp on the street corner who did not care about the quality of their ware, the lazy apparatchik who takes credit for an act of nature and someone who is living on borrowed time till the truth becomes self-evident and everyone discovers the true messiah. This isn't a statement in bitterness - I have done rather well for myself selling this snake oil - but rather a notice to the uninitiated, that fresh eyes are badly in need.

The problem with education selling is that it is never clear who pays or should pay for education. It is seen as a public good - with rather long term payoffs - and often paid for or subsidized by the governments. This contrasted the average students expectation out of education - an immediate payoff in terms of a good job and secure career - and swayed the educators away from what they should be doing in the first place : focus on the financial payoff of the education they deliver. The logic seems straight-forward, at least for the higher education: that students should pay for education as they expect a payoff and the educator should deliver the outcome. [Primary education is a different beast - it has a great relevance to the society, and the government should actively promote free and great quality Primary Education for all]

So, the role for a salesman is quite cut-out. To sell education, one must reinforce the brand - and sell the outcome. The promise at the end reinforced by the trusted seal. The education salesman isn't a snake charmer, but someone who needs to be able to become at one with the learner and know the outcome they want and should be able to provide the solution that will get them there. It is actually that personal interaction which shapes and defines the promises and expectations of the education - and the salesman, as I am arguing, is an inextricable part of the value delivered.

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