Kris Kirk

Kris Kirk has been working for nearly six years to sell technology training to teachers, and it looks like her persistence is about to pay off.

In 1997, Kirk, president of Mentors Consulting & Training, a firm that offers computer training to a wide range of professionals, including physicians, accountants and executives, saw a need for similar instruction for teachers.

Not simply training on how to use computers, Mentors’ instruction is designed to show teachers how to use technology to enhance their students’ learning.

Says Kirk: “It’s having the light go on — ‘Oh, now I understand how I can use this for my social studies or my sciences’ or whatever their specialty is.”

Beginning in 2000, Mentors conducted a pilot program for teachers at a local school district. The pilot, concluded last year, trained about 400 educators.

This year, Mentors secured status from the state as a provider of training for teachers, who are required to accrue continuing professional education credits to retain their teaching certification. While its approach has been to sell training to school districts, Kirk has found that their tiny technology training budgets have made the effort difficult.

Mentors is now approaching teachers directly via e-mail marketing to take its courses as a way to fulfill their professional education obligation.

This month, Mentors will kick off training for teachers throughout the Pittsburgh region at computer facilities in four school districts.

For Kirk, the size of the market — 130,000 teachers in Pennsylvania alone — and a belief that she could overcome the barriers have been enough to keep the effort going.

Says Kirk: “If you have a gut feeling, especially if you look at the numbers and you realize that if you can hang in there and give it some of your time and try to make money in other places, it can work.”

Kirk spoke with Smart Business about her company and her marketing strategy.

How is what you are offering teachers different from what’s been available from Mentors Consulting and Training in the past?

Our program now is very much customized toward teachers. We had been training in schools since 1995, but it was not customized to teachers.

There were classes they could take, and often they would ask what the software was, what it did. They weren’t familiar with it, so we had an inkling there was a large need there.

When we started looking at the market … it’s not one that we could ignore.

What are the challenges in selling to this market?

The fact that they simply do not spend money on it. The studies coming out now have confirmed that schools spend 3 or 4 percent on staff development in the area of technology, and businesses easily spend upwards of 15 percent. So, that’s the biggest challenge, that they simply do not invest in their teachers for staff development; there’s no money there.

But (there is) a challenge in business, too, to go into physician services, for example, to go and survey and figure out how doctors are using technology, how they want to use it, that’s a similar challenge.

How do teachers respond to this approach to using technology?

We found most of the teachers were very excited, they were very appreciative of having a good, high quality program that we were able to bring to them at low cost because it was funded by the foundations. Once that light bulb goes on, they’re very excited, they get encouraged to use it in the classroom.

I think it has a lot to do with how the kids react, too, to the use of technology in the classroom. A really good teacher — and there are lots of them out there — they’ll do whatever it takes to get their (students) to learn; I’ve seen that over the last four years, and technology helps that.

When technology is used, there’s higher attendance, there’s more excitement, the learning’s increased. Only recently are studies coming out and saying that, but teachers who start implementing it see it almost right away.

How have you altered your marketing approach?

In the past we’ve been trying to work with the administration of the schools, and we still do that, but this is offered directly to the teachers and marketed to them, and they can pay a low cost for it. I think we’ll just increase our audience.

We work with the administrations and they disburse the information to the teachers about the program. Then we go directly to the teachers, and most of that is done online, so our cost isn’t increasing.

One thing we’ve found that’s been clear in our targeting of schools is that the teachers are our market, they are the ones that need the most help, and they are the ones that get most excited when they go through the program.

How do you reach your target audience?

We’ve generated e-mail lists, we have a very large database just from years of collecting the information. And then we’ve collected e-mail lists from different sources, intermediate units, and I’ve had a couple of people in-house go out looking for e-mail lists.

Pursuing this kind of market can often be difficult because of the bureaucracies and politics involved.

How did you sustain the effort over the long run?

I’m the extreme optimist, I guess, because there have been times when many people told me that I was crazy for staying with it because, you know, it won’t go anywhere, you have government, you have unions, politics, you have bureaucracies.

Yes, we do have all of that. That’s why we’re taking several approaches to try and figure out the best way to get in and stay in. But it is extreme optimism. How to reach: Mentors Consulting & Training,