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Getting Up Close and Personal to Build Customer Trust

Softlink’s Kylie Higgins goes to great lengths to consult with clients, often driving more than 10,000 kilometers per year to visit them, including to regional and remote areas of Australia

This is part of a series on Acquired Knowledge that profiles outstanding sales and marketing leaders. Volaris Group believes that many small to mid-sized software companies can benefit by investing more in sales and marketing and taking a long-term view on nurturing customer relationships.

At least four times a year, Kylie Higgins flies out of her hometown of Brisbane to begin a multi-day driving trek where she will visit some of the most remote parts of Australia. Washed-out dirt roads and hours of solitude between towns are common as she makes her way to see close to 20 clients and prospective clients over the course of seven days.

“It’s not unusual for me to fly to the nearest regional town, then travel 1,000 to 1,200 kilometers in a week,” says Higgins, an education consultant and business development representative for Softlink Education. She’s one member of a two-person sales team that split the 7.6 million square kilometers of Australian territory between them.

Softlink’s Kylie Higgins collects many memories while on the road, and she is continually updating her knowledge of clients' challenges while making customer visits. Left: Posing with Gubulla Munda (or “the big green snake”) in Ayr, Queensland. Right: A school in Cairns offers one of Higgins’ favorite views of Queensland. (Photo credit: Kylie Higgins)

Volaris Group's best practices reinforce why it is important for Softlink Education to deeply understand our customers’ day-to-day challenges. We take feedback from the schools to further inform our product development.

-Kylie Higgins, Sales & Business Development Representative, Softlink Education

Library software levels the education playing field

Softlink Education’s software, Oliver, creates an interactive library environment to allow even the smallest schools in the country to integrate their physical resources with a large collection of digital resources, including e-books, audiobooks, and catalogs that can exponentially expand their resources. 

Above: Hannaford State School is a one-class school in a rural setting. Their website says it has an enrolment of 12 students. (Photo credit: Kylie Higgins)

“The beauty of going to these remote schools is we can bring a tech-savvy platform to them, where they go from having only their little resource room to suddenly having access to 70,000 books at their fingertips,” says Higgins.

Softlink Education's online library platform has the potential to level the playing field for more than four million students across Australia’s six states and two territories, regardless of the population or location of the school. Globally, Softlink Education counts more than 800,000 students who use the Oliver platform, but the needs of each school can vary. The software company works with each client to make sure the software can address its unique situation.

“Of the more than 250 schools we migrated onto the Oliver platform in the last 12 months, half have fewer than 300 students, and more than a fifth are what we call micro-schools with under 100 students,” says Higgins. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Softlink also provides its Oliver library system to all government schools in New South Wales, which has more than 2,000 schools in its system, making it the largest school system in Australia.

“From a sales perspective, it’s interesting to go from a one-room school in regional Queensland to an urban school that has everything at their fingertips. The smallest school could have a handful of students, where they hold physical education, music, and library activities all in the same classroom, while the larger school might own a 30,000-dollar coffee machine in every staff room.”

A hands-on approach to sales

In New South Wales, the decision to launch the Softlink's Oliver library management software platform across its 2,200 schools was made at the state level by the Department of Education. But Higgins says that’s not always the case. She estimates that about half of the decisions that affect schools are made by a consortium or department, while the other half consist of more granular decisions made at the school level.

“For most of our schools, the decision to acquire technology is made at the individual school level, in a very decentralized way,” says Higgins. “At these small schools, it may be just the local principal and maybe a business development manager or teacher's aide at the school who are making purchasing decisions.”

No matter what Higgins encounters while traveling around Australia, she is always greeted by a friendly face when arriving to visit her school clients. (Photo credit: Kylie Higgins)

The diverse needs of the clientele demand a highly personalized approach to sales.

“We’re very hands-on,” says Higgins. “There’s a lot of travel required in my role, more than any job I’ve had before, including to remote sites in regional Australia, which might mean visiting a school with only five students.”

“When I get there, they’ve got cake and Tim Tams waiting because they know I’ve driven three hours to see them, that I’ve crossed the vast cane fields or cattle country to get to them.”

On-site visits develop an understanding of the client's niche

Higgins says the time investment dedicated to on-site visits is essential to getting new clients on board. With such diverse prospects, she needs to see with her own eyes how individual libraries operate, so that she can successfully articulate the benefits of the software to them.

The personal visits are about getting to the 'why.' Without going on-site to understand how schools run their libraries, we can’t explain the crux of the software to them.

-Kylie Higgins, Sales & Business Development Representative, Softlink Education

“Once we’re there, we can understand how they work in the library, who works in the space, and then I can focus on the components of our system that will help them,” says Higgins.

A small school that’s under-resourced may be more interested in the automatically generated late notices for books checked out of the library, for example. And they’re generally excited that the technology is available to them at all, she shares.

“In some of these country schools, they’ve got a platform they’ve been using for twenty years that looks like a grey-screened computer with basic dropdown,” explains Higgins. “It’s a big leap for them to adopt the new software, but within an hour of my explanation, they’re more comfortable to migrate and ready to go.”

On the other hand, securing subscriptions for the Oliver platform from larger schools, such as a large customer in Sydney, may demand lengthier technical demonstrations. In those scenarios, Higgins is more likely to meet with a variety of decision-makers, including the school’s information and communications technology (ICT) team, Dean of Digital Learning and Innovation, four teacher aides, and the teacher librarians.

“I’ll bring our brilliant technical trainer, Russell, with me from Softlink for these visits, because the length and breadth of what could be a day-long presentation can go deep into the back end, into the nuts and bolts of the system.”

A focus on strong relationships builds brand trust

Fear is a common emotion for prospects faced with the decision to adopt new technology, Higgins says. As a sales representative, it’s her job to alleviate that doubt.

“If you visit, you’re more likely to discover that the reason they’ve said no for the last few years is the fear of change,” she says. 

She empathizes with the librarians who may not be digital natives and who may be nervous to adopt technology, or simply not have the time to learn a new digital system. 

“Some smaller schools only have a staffed library for a few hours per week,” Higgins says. “The reason there’s a lot of hospitality at these smaller schools—the cups of tea, offers to stay in their spare bedrooms —is because they really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to visit.”

Putting those schools at the center of her focus, understanding the challenges at each school, and explaining how the software will help them can make the business case for adopting Softlink Education's Oliver platform.

Left: “Hervey Bay Schools are all about the turtles in the region,” says Higgins. Right: The rock garden at Kairi State School, an elementary school with fewer than 90 students. (Photo credit: Kylie Higgins)

“A big part of my role on these visits is reassurance,” adds Higgins. “I think it’s important to be available. I’m always ‘happy’ to help, ‘happy’ to get to the bottom of things, and find answers for them.

“That builds trust,” she says. “It shows that you want to build the relationship, and that you’re doing what you said you would do. The site visits are a big part of that.”

Creating a feedback loop for product enhancements

Higgins says Softlink Education benefits from on-site visits in another way: often, excellent suggestions for product development can come from client visits conducted by Softlink representatives or trainers.

We’re not the ones using the software on a daily basis. The best people to tell us how to improve are not only our customers, but also our prospects.

-Kylie Higgins, Sales & Business Development Representative, Softlink Education

Higgins visits schools that aren’t yet on the Softlink platform, Oliver, which gives her unique insight into their technology journey to date.

“In those meetings, they’re able to tell you about their current system, what works for them and what doesn’t,” she says. “Those crumbs of information are important. We take them and feed them back to the product development team.”

Engaging customers in the development journey enhances the product, ensures its relevancy, and reinforces brand loyalty.

“The best part is that our customers feel involved with our product,” says Higgins. “They feel good knowing their ideas were implemented, so it enhances our relationship with them.”

Read more about the sales function at vertical market companies at Volaris: