Developing long-term customer relationships

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In recent years, rapid advances in technology have led to the growing importance of information and communications technologies (ICT). Information and communications technologies have provided the means for people and organisations to develop better ways of communicating with each other and working more efficiently. The sectors of the economy which have used ICT extensively have grown more rapidly than others. However, it should also be noted that these sectors have had higher skill requirements for individuals, i.e. employees must be able to understand and work with ICT at a very high level.

The economic impact of technology and the speed of technological change have posed many new challenges for the Government and its policies towards education. In its White Paper, ‘Excellence in Schools’, the Government pledged that ICT would play a pivotal role in education at all levels. The Government’s priority and commitment to ICT has been reflected through a drive to build a National Grid for Learning (NGfL). This aims to help schools link together, share resources and generate an educational cohesion, helping all schools to improve the opportunities they provide for young people to experience and use new technologies as part of their learning.

Providing the opportunity for learning with information and communications technologies is not something which either teachers or schools can develop on their own. Software and hardware need to be developed by suppliers who understand educational requirements and can meet the specialist needs of young people across many different areas of the curriculum. One organisation which has worked closely with teachers, schools and Government to deliver ICT is RM plc.

This case study focuses on relationship marketing, i.e. when an organisation works closely with its customers to develop products and services which serve their specific needs. It examines how RM, as the leading supplier of IT software, services and systems to UK educational establishments, has developed hardware, software, training and support for primary schools by working in partnership with education.

RM has had more than twenty years’ experience in the educational IT market. The company developed its first micro-computer, the RML 380Z, in 1977. Supplying these systems to pioneering local authorities signalled the beginning of a partnership of supplying and developing products designed to meet the changing needs of the curriculum.

During the 1980s, the educational market moved towards the industry standard PC platform. RM changed accordingly, developing industry standard products customised for the rigours of classroom use. Today, working in partnership with education, RM has been involved in many pilot and experimental programmes, such as the introduction and evaluation of integrated learning systems. RM has also worked with leading partners, such as Microsoft® and Intel®, to ensure that it is bringing leading-edge, enhanced world standard products to education.

Primary schools have highly specialised educational needs and requirements. For several years teachers have been under increased pressure to ensure that pupils receive their curriculum entitlement of ICT. Recent proposals for the National Grid for Learning set out increased demands for primary schools, with the Government vision that:

  • every school should have access to modern computers
  • every school should be connected to the Internet
  • excellent software should be available for pupils and teachers alike
  • ICT will have an impact on standards (particularly of literacy and numeracy)
  • every teacher should feel confident and competent to use ICT in their teaching
  • the annual level of school spend on ICT is expected to increase substantially.

The relationship between RM and its primary school customers is interdependent. Research and other activities, such as seminars and partnership days, training, support and consultancy services, help to inform RM and teachers of how educational ICT needs and requirements can be best met. Following this research, RM recognised that, on its own, an industry standard piece of technology such as a PC would not provide the right sort of learning environment for either teachers or pupils.

Further market analysis of the educational requirements of the primary sector identified a number of special characteristics. For example, most primary schools have:

  • limited technical knowledge about ICT products
  • no internal support mechanism for ICT products
  • very little free time to make complex decisions about the purchase of ICT products
  • a limited understanding of where ICT can fit into the learning process
  • completely different uses to most ICT purchasers because computers and software are used by young children.

Other features of primary schools, underlined by the research, were that different schools and teachers were using completely different approaches to achieve their ICT development plans and that many teachers believed their particular school had little money for ICT. The challenge for RM, therefore, was to develop products which were appropriate for the primary sector, by working closely with customers and providing solutions to their needs and requirements.

Building the supplier/customer relationship

Organisations need to balance their own objectives against the needs of their customers. RM’s objective is to achieve the number one position, in terms of market share, in all of its strategic markets. In order to do this, RM needed to develop a partnership with teachers and education experts, listen to their views and provide reliable, educationally-focused products. The starting point was to identify the expectations of the primary sector, i.e. find out:

  • what customers wanted
  • where their priorities lay
  • how RM could provide the best solution to their requirements.

Research carried out by RM identified four groups of stakeholders (people who are affected by the purchasing decision):

  • The Head Teacher - with funding delegated to individual schools, each Head has the responsibility for ensuring that their school makes good decisions.
  • Classroom Teachers - day-to-day decisions about the use of information technology equipment are taken by teachers. The successful use of ICT within the school depends on the commitment and enthusiasm of classroom teachers.
  • Pupils - the users of ICT within the school are children. Products not only have to focus on their educational needs but must also meet the rigours of a busy classroom environment.
  • Local Education Authorities - provide advisory services for schools and help those responsible for making decisions to make the best judgements.

Other stakeholders who may use the equipment include office staff, parents and other groups in the local community with which the school may develop links.

The research by RM showed that for any product to do well in the primary sector, it would have to create a market proposition that would appeal to all of these stakeholders and, at the same time, deliver the core benefits of ICT education.

The RM Window Box represents a series of values

which RM targets at each of its customer groups (i.e. it is a branded proposition). The name ‘Window Box’ was chosen to balance the computer meaning of ‘Windows’ with approachability and softness. It implies user-friendliness and that the product comprises a range of resources for teachers to use in the classroom.

The RM Window Box comprises a PC with an integrated way of using the product to deliver IT across the primary curriculum. On a standard Microsoft® Windows® PC, the user has freedom to customise or personalise the desktop by changing the background, icons and many other features. Although this is useful for a standard user, it would present problems within a classroom.

Imagine the teacher’s dilemma when a young pupil throws important items into the Recycle Bin! RM took this into account by developing the RM ClassMate user interface on the RM Window Box which removes this problem. The package also comes with learning software which addresses the needs of the National Curriculum, as well as a training voucher, entitling the purchaser to a starter training session.

Over recent years, the RM Window Box has been refined to make the user interface even more child-friendly (and child-proof) and to map the software provided even more closely to educational needs and requirements. Today there are a number of RM Window Box products in a further segmented market, designed to match customer needs more closely. These products include RM Infant Window Box and RM Internet Window Box.

Consultation with those involved in education

The development of the RM Window Box closely involved various education stakeholder groups through processes of research, trialling and consultation. For example, the latest offspring from the range - the SchoolShare Network - went through significant user testing before release with RM bringing in various groups of prospective users to go through ‘out-of-box’ trials. They were given the product as it was intended to be delivered to schools and video-taped as they set it up.

The product dimensions

One key element in developing an ongoing relationship with teachers has been the composition of the communications mix.

  • Regular mailshots are designed to provide teachers with advice and solutions to any problems they may have.
  • Working with customers also means involving them in the ICT debate. This year, more than 7,000 representatives from primary schools have attended seminars and partnership days to provide an interchange of views.
  • After-school events have involved many teachers with staff training and development sessions.
  • Former teachers with an educational background and a knowledge of educational issues have been employed on telephone support hotlines so that their wider understanding can be used to help users meet classroom needs with RM products.

When schools make purchases which are likely to affect the quality of learning outcomes for years to come, it is important that they do not experience cognitive dissonance, i.e. guilt that they have made the wrong decision.

Developing a range of product dimensions to support the product’s use within the classroom reduces dissonance by providing purchasers with support and reassurance. By broadening the dimensions of the purchase, RM can also synthesise much of its own research, feedback from teachers and experience of classroom practice with other education professionals.

It was recognised that schools needed to involve the wider groups of stakeholders in the purchase of the RM Window Box. Teachers required good advice to be able to combine the demands of budgets, parents, governors and extra training for staff.

A key step in achieving this was the formation of the RM Window Box Partnership. RM’s Window Box Partnership runs in association with Local Education Authorities and Independent Training Centres. It is a nationwide network which provides local support and advice for primary school

teachers using IT in the classroom. LEAs who sign up as Window Box Partners are able to provide a number of services to schools in their areas such as:

  • pre-sales experience - LEAs are supplied with products which advisors can demonstrate and discuss with teachers.
  • post-sales training - every RM Window Box arrives with a training voucher which can be ‘spent’ with the LEA, with RM reimbursing the authority.
  • continuing support – LEAs develop Window Box skills and experience that allow them to support schools.

RM Window Box Partners meet regularly to learn about new developments and, crucially, to work alongside RM. These meetings serve as professional development for the LEA personnel, give them an opportunity to meet peers from across the country and help contribute to the further development of the RM Window Box.

With this approach, schools receive the training they require, as well as the focused support and advice they need. LEAs are equipped to provide support for schools and receive the funding they require and RM is able to support the RM Window Box in a way which targets the needs of teachers.

RM achieved its objective of taking the number one position in the primary schools sector. This position has been achieved, not simply through the development of a good product, the RM Window Box, but also through the development of products with customers and not simply for them.

This partnership has been based on a relationship designed to revolutionise teaching and learning through the integration of ICT within schools.