What exactly do schools look for in a supplier? We asked them on your behalf. And this is what they told us.

Many state and independent schools, along with multi-academy trusts, organise suppliers centrally, with all departments encouraged to choose from the same catalogue. After all, bulk buying brings with it greater bargaining power.

That said, as we explored in one of our latest blogs, school staff enjoy more purchasing autonomy than you might think. Heads of Department or Faculty may have other methods, preferring to pick and choose their own suppliers. As long as they keep to budget restrictions, bursars and finance managers often have no problem with that.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that per-pupil funding has fallen by 8% in the last ten years. Faced with balancing the books, finance managers are increasingly likely to inspect invoices. Furthermore, they’re less and less keen on excess stock taking up precious storage space. ‘Make use of what you’ve got before asking for more cash’ is the new mantra or modus operandi, in both the state and independent sector.

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Ease, speed, efficiency, convenience

With far less in stock, schools often buy as and when they need stuff. Purchasing can often be quite last minute, hence the importance of clear lines of communication and speed of delivery.  

For this reason, they…

…Keep it local

As we wrote in our blog about school procurement, it’s often the technicians and other support staff who source services and materials as well as chasing the best deals. One Design and Technology technician explained why they favour the local timber merchants twenty minutes down the road:

“They cut to our requirements, they never get it wrong, and they know precisely what the kids need for their GCSE coursework.”

Measure twice, cut once

Schools are time-pressured places. Teachers don’t have a lot of time to deal with mistakes. Getting deliveries right is crucial. Sloppy service will cost you contracts.

Misdirected parcels are a perennial problem. One Head of Department told us, “Not a week goes by without a whole-school email being sent along the lines of “Help! Could someone claim this box of pens/glue sticks/printing paper, it’s taking up precious space in Maths/English/Reception?””

One Head of Reprographics told us that one of her suppliers repeatedly sent parcels to the junior rather than the senior school. To add insult to inconvenience, the supplier couldn’t see what the problem was when she phoned up to stress the importance of labelling deliveries clearly and correctly. They soon lost her business.

To err is human but do show you’re bothered. Say you’re sorry. Resolve issues sooner rather than later.

Excellent customer care…

…and excellent communication are key. The personal touch makes all the difference. There’s no better evidence for this than online customer testimonials.

We’d add that some websites are rather poor and ordering online from some suppliers is far from easy, intuitive or efficient.

But as one teacher told us:

“This is not a deal breaker. What I want is someone at the end of the phone, someone whose name I know, someone I’m on first name terms with. That’s what I need when I’m in a hurry.”

One Head of Department rings in her last-minute stationery orders as she marches to the school canteen to collect a sandwich to take back to her office. She told us:

“Lunch times are often the busiest time of the day. I don’t have to rifle through a thousand-page catalogue the size of a brick to find just the right glue stick. And orders are often last minute; someone has just told me there are no board pens in the stock cupboard and they need them next lesson! My suppliers know what the department likes, and I’ll usually have it by the next day.”

Like the rest of us, teachers and support staff want to deal with people they know, like and trust.

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Better the devil you know

Staff talked of the convenience of using the same order codes and being able to simply cut and paste details from previous emails. Bit like online supermarket shopping, or ordering ‘your usual’ in your local restaurant after a hard day or numbers 27 and 53 from your local takeaway.

Some staff, for the sake of time and convenience, rely on as few as three suppliers.

That’s not to say that schools aren’t interested in changing suppliers. It’s hard to believe but one interviewee said that she is open to cold calling and read all the marketing that arrives, in great quantities, in her pigeonhole. She explained:

“Some companies are brilliant; others, less so. I am happy to listen if someone has taken the time to find out my name and call me, and they seem like they’d be easy to work with in the future. Reliable suppliers, with great customer service, are surprisingly difficult to find. I am happy to hear someone make their case, as long as they don’t take up too much of my time and aren’t too pushy. Then, you’ve lost me.”

She continued:

“I also trust my best suppliers when they warn me off some companies who seem new to market but are just old companies trading under new names.”

And how can new suppliers win you over?

If the price is right

Copier paper is a good benchmark for price and overall affordability. The same Head of Reprographics said: “It is a huge expense overall.” We’d add that paper, ink and toner can account for as much as 10% of annual budget, according to some estimates online.

Final thoughts

In education, relationship marketing matters more, if anything, than in other industries. Time is a commodity and timing is everything.

To find out more about this, read our blog on The Best Times Of Year To Sell To Schools or sit back and enjoy our latest video on Marketing to Schools Effectively.

Leanne – contact2

ambleglow expert


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