The growth of WCBS within the international schools market

Ian Hunter, Chief Commercial Officer, WCBS

WCBS is one of the world’s leading providers of information management systems for international and independent schools. The business began in the South West of England, providing information management systems to UK independent schools. We now have over 700 customers worldwide and employ almost 100 people. Today, most of our growth is within the international schools market.

The international schools market is brilliant. It has scale, potential, it is an exciting and healthy market to be in, and it looks set to double in the next ten years. It’s definitely a market worth being in for any quality education supplier.

Over a number of years, we have seen continual growth of our business in the Middle East and Far East and also within new emerging markets. We have seen particularly good growth in China.

The mistakes we’ve made

We have made mistakes along the way within the international market. We relied too heavily on word of mouth in the past, meaning that we weren’t proactive enough with our strategic marketing, and tended to go where the orders came from. As a result, we lost our market share as the market exploded and our business was too spread out; at one point we had business with 30 or so countries, each with one or two schools.

However, over more recent years we have worked strategically, making sure WCBS has a regional presence where it counts. This has involved opening regional offices and getting skilled, experienced feet on the ground, and working closely with ISC Research to access their data and highly valuable intelligence on the key market regions.

In the past, our efforts were only focused on the premium end of the international schools market, but now that we have the resources and infrastructure in place, we can work with the smaller schools and those with lower fees. These schools still need and want quality management information systems, and the necessary support and resources, and we now have the capacity to respond to them.

We now make strategic decisions not to enter specific markets, or not to enter markets yet, but we closely watch all markets and constantly re-evaluate our strategy. The international schools market is an evolving market and it is important to remain well informed and strategically flexible.

We mostly work directly with schools, although in some regions, such as China, we work with a partner to ensure the most effective communication with the schools.

The WCBS product range

Our goal is to be best of breed and so we are focusing on the products and services that we have the skills, infrastructure and know-how to deliver. This means we put all our energy, investment and manpower into our school information management systems to make them the best possible, and to adapt them for specific markets. We are not trying to provide every resource linked to an MIS; instead, we partner or offer integration with other best of breed edtech suppliers, such as those that create specialist apps.

This means that schools know WCBS supplies a reliable and secure yet flexible platform for their central database and core departments, with maximum integration options so that they can then select the software solutions they want, in order to meet their needs. Schools like this; they don’t want to be pigeon-holed. This is particularly important within the international schools market where schools vary in so many different ways.

As a result of not focusing our development on new apps, but rather on existing product improvement and enhanced services, we are able to offer schools continued added value. For example, our school portal, which enables a school to communicate efficiently and effectively to parents, has been further developed to provide a bilingual version, in English and Mandarin, for our Chinese schools. This is not simply a Google Translate option, but a fully translated and appropriately adapted Mandarin version. This has proved an important benefit for many Chinese bilingual schools in order to communicate closely with their Chinese-speaking parents and staff.

Such development demonstrates our commitment to deep localisation; focusing on our key markets and catering to their needs; This approach is also reflected in our support services. We have customer service accessible when our schools are open which means providing almost round-the-clock support.

Connecting with international schools

Every company has their own approach to their sales and marketing, but we have found that international schools respond best to face-to-face contact. Of course, it’s impossible to do that one-by-one with schools, but the many international school member organisations that exist, give their member schools chance to connect with education suppliers through an extensive range of conferences. Some of these organisations vary by region, orientation or school type and several of them have conferences for key departments including leadership, teachers, admissions and so on. These events give schools access to quality vendors, and also give suppliers like us chance to connect directly with potential and existing customers.

There are other ways that you can reach schools and the school associations are particularly valuable for this. Several of them offer a range of communication options for their supporting members including presenting advice on webinars, contributing advice to features in newsletters and magazines, sharing news of new opportunities for schools via e-news bulletins, and more, so check out the options that will be valuable for raising awareness of your brand. If you are a member of a school or trade association, most will allow you to feature their logo on your website. This is a valuable and visible way of showing schools of your commitment to the sector and of the calibre of associations that you are a part of.

There are other representative organisations, such as the China British Business Council (CBBC) which provides support for British suppliers wishing to develop their business with China. CBBC has a specialist education section. The Department of International Trade (DIT) is another valuable organisation for providing support and helping you make connections. And ISC Research data, intelligence, and the excellent support from their very knowledgeable staff, is extremely valuable too.

Be selective about the conferences that you attend. Find your niche. Work with the organisations that give you the support and networking opportunities that fit your specific needs. Target wisely and keep your focus quite narrow in order to deliver the best possible sales focus and customer support.

Developing business in China

There is significant potential in China for the international schools market, especially as the Chinese Government is opening up a number of opportunities for British suppliers, particularly in education technology.

The education market in China is massive. For example, there are over one million kindergartens in mainland China alone. It is also segmented and, because of restrictions for local children attending the traditional international schools (those accessible to expats), this is a fairly static sector. Where there is a significant amount of growth is in the Chinese bilingual schools which local children can attend. These are typically schools delivering an international curriculum as well as the Chinese curriculum in the languages of English and Mandarin.Several of these schools are planning to expand to a group of five or ten schools within the next few years so future business potential is extensive.

WCBS is in a good position within China right now. We have a reputable Mandarin version of our information management system, that works for both international schools and bilingual schools. We also have a team of people on the ground in China building relationships with the schools and providing support services. Our reputation is expanding there and it is a market we are investing much resource and support.

You can read more information about the work WCBS is doing with the Chinese bilingual schools here.

Advice for education suppliers:

  • Some things to consider for developing your business within the international schools market:
  • Identify exactly how you can support international schools before you start marketing to them.
  • Don’t lose focus and take your eye off the ball as your competition will take over. If you are going to commit to the international schools market or to a sector of the market do it, and do it well.
  • Immerse yourselves in your target regions or countries. Get to know the culture and business expectations. Be prepared to accept ways that you might consider different or unique. Understand that in some countries, such as China, your senior leaders will need to make visits and to connect directly with potential customers. This is an expectation for successful business and can hinder your progress if you do not invest in this.
  • Acknowledge that your product or service will not automatically fit a market, and be prepared to adapt.
  • Tailor your communication to suit the market. For example, the Chinese do not use email; they use WeChat instead.
  • Your support team needs to communicate effectively with your key markets and this may mean hiring competent bilingual speakers.
  • If you choose to work with a partner, get a thorough contract in place.
  • Seek informed and skilled advice before entering a new market.
  • Register your IP and trademark early.
  • Make sure you are well prepared with your marketing materials written in the language and in a way that will enable you to communicate most effectively.