Selling to Colleges and Universities

Selling to Colleges and Universities

By April Hirsch / Published September 2019

Photo by iStockphoto.com/kingjon

Who’d have thought of that? If it’s a college or university doing the buying, they have.

With some 4,300 colleges and universities in the United States, higher education would seem a viable sector for those selling equipment and services. Is it?

Yes. The caveat: Selling products or services by responding to a request for a bid can be extremely time consuming and vexing. Perhaps it’s the abundance of academicians serving on committees—including purchasing—but the prescriptive nature of the requests for bids can amaze. More about all that in the second section.

State legislatures generate the guidelines, if not the rules, for purchases by public colleges and universities. However, there are many private institutions that establish their own rules.

One member of our industry anchored in a college town told us candidly that K–12 institutions are much easier to sell to than colleges and universities. That’s because it’s easier to make contact with a decision maker. Getting to a decision maker at a college or university can be very difficult.

Of course, what’s true in one location can be quite different in another. Some college towns are small enough so that there is a high likelihood contractors and distributors will meet members of the college administration and faculty at recreational, church, and civic events.

Some members of our industry may even teach occasionally at colleges or be invited to lecture. Being available to business or related courses for an occasional lecture can be an excellent way to get to know people on the campus.

Bill Sommers, president of Pressure Systems Industries in Phoenix, AZ, might put the idea of being available for speaking engagements in what he calls the “ideas to instigate additional services” beyond equipment. “Our only opportunity has been over the years selling and servicing washers for the grounds maintenance department and once in a while to the mechanical maintenance,” he says. “This is just standard business for us.”

Being able to make more sales to the sector is something that interests Sommers. He uses the term “instigate,” and it’s a good one. Making campus contacts and talking about equipment and services that can be provided is a good way to get into the memory bank of campus individuals.

The informed individual may one day be sitting in a committee meeting where a colleague says, “I wonder whom we should ask about how to clean the algae off the exterior of the faculty club.” The informed individual can then respond with the name of a company and an owner to approach.

Also keep in mind that selling to colleges and universities may take place via an indirect route. Years ago, Sommers rented a portable steam cleaner, a Malsbary, to a contractor doing a construction project at a university. The construction team had a problem with some of its equipment, and that led to “a sloppy mess” that needed to be cleaned.

The takeaway from the story is that there are many ways to sell to colleges and universities—some direct and some indirect. R.J. Bowers Distributors in Rockford, IL, has experience with both, explains Paul W. Conkling, who is in sales at the company.

Are colleges and universities more likely to solicit bids or contact prospective vendors directly, or is it a combination of the two? “It seems with pressure washers they will contact us directly and with floor care solicit bids,” says Conkling.

Adapting to the way the purchase is being made is one component of making a sale. Another component is understanding that the competition may differ according to the type of sale.

For his company, there is one type of sale that is more difficult to make, says Conkling. “The main pressure is in the floor care product line. The universities are in ‘buying groups’ that get very low costing, causing us to appear uncompetitive.”

Understanding the buying protocols of colleges and universities takes time. Making contacts with purchasing agents, committees, and administrators can help in the learning process.

Yet unless the college or university is making a no-bid purchase of equipment, many contractors and distributors will think twice about getting involved in a transaction with an institution of higher learning. If they haven’t thought twice after hearing the reservations about the sector from colleagues in the industry, they may pause (and reflect) after reading what follows.

Daunting and Doable

On December 13, 2017, the University of Florida opened its invitation to bid for an “annual contract for pressure washing services for garage parking services” (https://procurement.ufl.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/ITB18CS-103_Annual-Contract-for-Pressure-Washing-Services-for-Garage-Surfaces-FINAL-1.pdf). Only 12 pages in length (pdf format), it is by far the shortest bid instruction we reviewed.

Potential respondents to the UF invitation to bid had the option (not mandatory) of attending a pre-bid conference. It was the only place where questions could be aired verbally. Otherwise, questions had to be written. All responses to questions from all prospective bidders were answered via addenda available to all bidders.

Thirteen garages were to be covered by the bid award. A bidder was asked to give a separate price for each location and then, the total price. Before getting to that juncture, a vendor would have to be certain that he or she was qualified to bid by reviewing the non-technical specifications (32 enumerated) related to qualifications (licensed, references, related relevant experience) and conflict of interest. Expectations for meeting OSHA regulations are short and to the point, noting it is the responsibility of the bidder to know and meet all applicable regulations.

Non-technical specifications also include an entry on “sustainability preferences”—using products and tools that minimize environmental impacts. And there are the requirements for insurance—general liability, automobile liability, and workers’ compensation. There’s also the reminder that the university can withhold payment or make deductions to payment while it awaits reimbursement for any loss or damage to property caused by the contractor’s negligence.

The specifications include, too, those related to adhering to the tobacco-free policy at the university. One of the most interesting specifications under the police department requirements (number 30) is that “contract employees must be fully clothed at all times”—as good an indicator as any that campus-based officials really have thought of everything.

The scope of the work is described in just two pages. Here the contractor already using best practices for the industry will be fully prepared to meet the expectations of appropriate concrete cleaners, barricades and signage, surface scrubbers, trash removal, oil spot treatments (prior to washing), and a system of wastewater collection and disposal.

It’s daunting, but it’s doable. A contractor must decide whether the profit from services rendered (if the award is won) is sufficient to compensate for the initial investment of time in preparing the bid. And if the bid is not awarded, can the cost for time be absorbed?

Some bid invitations include a carrot, such as if the awardee completes year one of the contract successfully, there will be the option to renew for additional one-year periods (usually two). Look only at the year one return on investment of time because much changes every 12 months in college and university budgets.

Also be wary of a hidden stick. An award may be divided among contractors. In the end, it’s possible to be given an award and not get any work. How? Bid to clean 10 garages, for example. Then, a college or university offers a bidder an award to clean only one of them. The economy of scale (moving in necessary equipment, team members, working at night, etc.) simply does not fit the contractor’s bottom line, and the contractor must walk away from the job.

With so much detail in invitations to bid generated by colleges and universities, nothing should surprise the intrepid members of our industry who do bid. Nebraska has a statutory right to audit contractors at its institutions of higher education. In an invitation to bid on providing services to pressure wash the football stadium, Virginia Tech offers the awardee the option of cooperative procurement.

In an invitation to bid to perform window cleaning services, Pima Community College (Arizona) asks for detailed explanations of how project costs are determined. It also requests specifics about how the college will be billed. There may be a choice for the contractor. Perhaps the bidder can bill for actual expenses, time, and materials (with a not-to-exceed cap) or ask for a flat fee.

Not surprising, but worth noting: Expect any bid invitation from a college or university to require the bidder to attest/certify there has been no collusion, fraud, undue influence, or any other nefarious connection established in an effort to win the bid. If a bidder does not understand the ramifications of what’s being signed, he or she should seek legal advice.

The precision with which colleges and universities detail the scope of work and requirements for bidders should give some assurance that anyone entering the process is doing so on a level playing field. That’s a good reason to consider taking a look at opportunities to sell to colleges and universities. 

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