Dear Vendor: Knowledge Transfer = Continuity = Happier Higher Ed

Knowledge transfer and continuity in vendor:school relationships is vitally important for vendors who want to partner with Higher Education.

Dear Vendor: Knowledge Transfer = Continuity = Happier Higher Ed
Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino / Unsplash

Higher Education technology positions are traditionally more stable than their private sector counterparts. It's not unusual to find some staff who have worked in the same position or role for several years (and in some cases, decades). There's many reasons for this...general stability, traditional pension plans, state hiring/firing regulations....but rather than talk about that, I want to focus on the impact a lack of continuity has on the vendor-school relationship.

Technology vendors are constantly innovating, reorganizing, merging, laying whole divisions off, hiring, expanding, and are comparatively turning over a lot of employees. One of the most frequent turnover positions seems to be the Customer Service Manager, or CSM.

A good (and persistent) CSM is a unicorn, a white whale, a myth, a legend. But we've met some.

When you have a good CSM, all is right in the world. The sky is more blue, Flowers smell better. They really understand your school's situation, the culture, the history, and what will work from a process or technology perspective. They can fix any problem. They can right any wrong. They are the person you call to connect you with the vendor's internal phone directory for billing, support, product, operations or any other internal resource. Or you never have to be connected because they handle it all themselves. And, they know that keeping a good relationship is more than the right price on the invoice.

When you have a bad CSM, you start looking at other products, or wish you could. They rarely reach out except when it's time to renew. They forget things that are fundament to understanding. the operational approach and culture of the school. They have no quick answers. They don't connect you with expert resources. They don't seem to value the relationship. And they sure don't try to ensure the school is happy until there's a crisis or alternative is put on the table.

Transfer that knowledge

When you lose "your" CSM, the best you can hope for is that they somehow downloaded all their accumulated knowledge, and injected it, matrix-style into their replacement. And if that didn't happen, you hope they kept good notes in their internal system that their replacement will read. And if that didn't happen, then at least they'll schedule a warm hand-off meeting, where they'll introduce the new CSM, provide some context about current plates that are spinning, and then graciously bow-out of the email threads and scheduled touchpoint meetings. Unfortunately, you usually find out that you've lost your CSM when you get the all-to-common email:

"Hi, I'm Jack, your new CSM. Sam, your previous CSM is no longer working here. Can we talk about your upcoming renewal?"

Every time the CSM changes, it takes time and effort to get them up to speed on all the things they should know. Things like, don't try to sell us that addon again, because if you'd asked your predecessor, we looked at it 6 months ago and decided against it SO STOP PUSHING. Or how about don't just send over new legal terms of service and expect us to sign in a day, when your predecessor knew it would take months due to our internal legal review process.

Hire for vendor AND customer culture

Hiring replacement CSMs that fit your own vendor culture is important, but you should also consider intentionally pairing the right kind of CSM to the particular campus' situation.  If the campus is spending a relative truckload on your product, don't assign a novice/junior CSM who's never managed an account that size. That could. send a message to the school leadership that maybe the vendor doesn't value the relationship as much. If the campus needs a more technical relationship, pair them with a technical CSM for faster engagement and less passing the buck to someone else.

It can be better.

It's hard to get to know a new CSM every year or two (or more frequently in some cases), but it can be better. Take steps to ensure transitions are planned for ahead of time, and not handled ad-hoc as if it was a surprise every time. Build "institutional knowledge transfer" into your CSM teams, so that there is a shared understanding that happens frequently, and not just during transitions of personnel.

Knowledge transfer isn't just about CSM relationships either.

There have been hilarious situations where there was so much turnover at a particular vendor, that a rollout of a new feature/thing was called something like "Announcing the All New {vendor name}." On the surface, that seems's marketing-speak, and sends the message that something is awesome and shiny and new. What's funny though, is that a few years prior, that same vendor had rolled out some things, and called it....yep...."An All New {Vendor Name}."

I mean, I guess technically both times they were correct...they were "new," but come you think we wouldn't notice?

For those of us who have worked with Google for more than a decade, we've seen names change from Google Apps -> G Suite -> Google Workspace. So, it would bbe crazy if one day Google announced "The All New Google Apps" and didn't realize that they'd been down that road before.

Higher Ed likes consistency

Whereas Higher Education is rapidly changing how we deploy and change software/services due to the pandemic (and budget cuts and staffing shortages, and vendor pricing/storage/feature changes).....there's still an undercurrent of desire for stability. Higher Ed (and its faculty) like to know something is going to be around for a while before they trust it enough to use (or build into curriculum etc). So, it's important to show consistency, and a relationship with the vendor is going to be managed well, and kept strong for a long time. Higher Ed finds it more difficult to turn on a dime to another product, as opposed to a private sector CEO who could decide they are moving from Teams to Slack and it's done in a couple of weeks. There are examples in Higher Ed of things moving quickly, but that's the outlier and not the norm (for now).

Consider long term grants as well - faculty need to know that the vendor and its approach/relationship with the institution has a very good chance of sticking around for the term of the grant (which could be 5-10 years in some cases). You can't count on everything sticking around forever, but showing consistency in engagement, and knowledge-transfer through the series of CSMs can help assuage some of those fears.

We know it can't last forever.

Good CSMs can't last forever. We know that. But that just means the vendor needs to understand what made that CSM "good" for that particular school, and do their level best to ensure continuity as the next CSM comes in. The sooner they can pick up where the last one left off, the better the relationship will be (and therefore more likely to renew when the time comes).