Understanding how to build and successfully deploy field-based school sales channels has always been an essential skill for managers who run companies that sell to schools. Even the education marketing staff has to be keenly aware of the dos and don'ts. To be clear, field sales channels are the people you form a relationship with who are geographically focused. Typically, field sales is based on an assigned territory (state, region, or accounts) and an associated revenue goal.
Now, with budget pressures, slowing sales cycles, and industry consolidation, there is a new sense of urgency to fix the “distribution” problem. Newcomers and veterans alike are looking to slash sales costs and hoping to find short cuts. There is pain associated with the reality that there aren’t any, but there are “best practices” that will achieve your results. How do you deploy a high-impact field channel that will reliably impact revenue performance and allow you to meet your profitability goals? It's a tough question and a complex topic.
After many years of experience as a practitioner selling to schools (managing education channels, and working with my clients to deploy various field channel strategies) I have seen and been part of many misfires. There are many reasons why field sales initiatives in the K-12 market fall short of expectations. While I cannot do justice to all of them in this short article, what follows are some common and costly (yes, sinful) mistakes that are least often recognized or fully understood.
Ten Sins that Cause Field Sales Initiatives to Fail in the Education Market
An undefined sales process. Without a clearly documented, step-by-step “road map” for selling your product or service to educators, you can’t possibly hire and train salespeople efficiently or effectively. Too many companies focus on product training and think that they have such a great product that buyers will beat a path to the door. No, there is a process. The sales process must reflect the customer’s buying process. The more closely you align your field sales process with how your audience makes purchasing decisions, the more effective (and efficient) your field sales force will be. Importantly, marketing investments should be focused on removing every barrier at every stage of the buying process, with a focus on the customer, not your reps!
The channel model, and the roles and responsibilities, are not specified. Related to the matter of the sales process, the “go-to-market” architecture has to be clearly defined. Every resource and method you plan to use to manage customer relationships, from inception to account development after the sale, must be specified and the roles and responsibilities of every channel resource has to be clearly articulated and communicated to everyone involved in any step of the process. There are tools and methods that make this land mine easy to avoid. Go to the advice archives at SellingToSchools.com and read related articles on channel design for more insight.
Channel conflicts exist. Channel conflict is indicated when more than one channel resource or method is being used to accomplish the same channel process directed at the same audience. Channel overlaps can cause customer confusion and channel inefficiency. Conflicts at certain stages of the sales process, when multiple sales channels are competing for revenue, cause price erosion and sometimes a major decline in field sales. Some degree of channel overlap is desirable, but when it comes to direct competition for sales of the same product or service to the same customers, it can be a destructive situation and counterproductive to your goals to market or sell more of your products to schools.
Missing or ineffective sales tools. Part of designing an effective and efficient school sales process is to map it to the resources that allow educator-buyers to manage their decision-making process. The focus of the marketing staff is to develop the programs and tools to remove barriers that stall the buying decision. Prioritizing begins with a well-constructed sales process that has been communicated to the marketing manager (usually by the senior sales manager). If the right tools are not provided, field reps tend to “grow their own,” which means you lose control of your corporate message, identity, and brand, and cause buying decisions to be delayed or derailed.
Lack of commitment from outside sales to follow through on marketing programs. Integration of marketing and sales is a critical need, and an ongoing struggle for many organizations. The first step is to ensure that sales managers, field reps, or channel partners have a voice in marketing program development. Next, field reps, whether they work directly for your company or are third-party reps, need to be made aware of marketing plans well in advance of their being implemented. Field reps have to understand and commit to doing their part to make marketing and promotional programs successful. There should be a formal planning process and regular performance reviews to be sure that the channels and channel marketing programs deliver.
Lack of solid channel marketing programs. Education marketing programs must be designed for field sales execution, often via third parties. They need to be practical: easy to understand and quick and easy to implement. A good channel-marketing program includes materials that orient the field channel to the goals and objectives for the program, supplies samples of all materials to be used to support the program, as well as a schedule, and a clear set of “marching orders.” All field sales programs should include incentives (aka SPIFs), which reward field sales reps for follow through. Programs that incentivize activity can be more effective than those that reward revenue. Having a sign up and commitment process is best practice.
Mismatch between what the sales channels do and what you want them to do. It is critical that your field sales channel, whether it is a direct channel or indirect channel, is equipped to perform the tasks that you expect them to. Too often, suppliers to the school market hire sales reps, resellers, independent reps, or distributors and expect them to “do it all,” somewhat like franchisees. The reps in the field bear the burden of establishing brand awareness, promoting, selling, supporting, and so on. Very few, if any, field sales reps (independent reps, resellers, agents, distributors, and so forth) have the skills and resources to do more than make sales calls, and most of the selling is based on relationships, not solid sales training or sales management skills. If you say you want someone to sell (distribute) your product, be specific about what you want them to do and be sure they have the expertise and resources to get that job done. People contact me at least once a week looking for someone to “sell” their product. But when I ask for specifics, I usually find out “selling” also includes promotions, staffing conference exhibits, installation, technical support, and on and on. Often the supplier wants a third party to do all the work, accept all the risk, on their behalf, thus avoiding the required investment to support and empower sales. This is not realistic. Also, I see distribution or channel contracts that have vague language like “make best efforts to....” If you use vague language, you’ll get equally squishy results, and other surprises you may not want to get!
Paying reps too much. Suppliers often suffer for lack of understanding the cost of sales they can afford and how that relates to field sales compensation. By having a defined sales process and well-mapped-out channel model, suppliers can calculate the cost of sales appropriate to the tasks needed to get the job done. You should not pay more than is reasonable for what you are asking of your field sales channels. If you haven’t done your homework, you are at the mercy of the reps or channel partners you hire, who may demand a certain percentage or a salary or a commission that is out of sync with what is reasonable. The result is paying too much, which erodes profitability and has sunk many companies that serve the education markets. Few companies do a solid analysis of the true cost of selling their product or service to schools, and they suffer and die every day because of it.
The wrong timing, the wrong product ,or a poor fit with corporate culture. They say timing is everything, and certainly it is important to the success of a school field sales initiative. In some stages of the life cycle of a product or service, it makes more sense to have field sales coverage than others. Field sales is an expensive sales model, and you have to have a sufficiently high average sale and profit margin to support it, along with the financial strength to invest to build and support your sales channels. Often, in the later stages of the product life cycle, the margin is simply not there to support high-touch sales channels. Sometimes the business model, culture, or product does not favor working with remote field-based channels. Senior managers who feel the need for a lot of control, for example, often have expectations of third-party field channels that are unrealistic. Some products are too complex or too new to the market to support the needs of field sales reps who don’t have immediate access to corporate resources. Many companies simply do not have the required skills and resources to manage and support field sales.
You may be familiar with a TV ad from Staples, the office supply store, which shows some of life’s biggest challenges being instantly solved by pushing a big red “easy button.” Yes, we all agree it would be great if education marketing and selling to schools were that easy. It would be wonderful if there were an army of independent sales reps out there ready, willing, and able to deliver the orders we need with the push of a button and without our support. But when it comes to field sales, I’m sorry to say, there isn’t. Given just the ten reasons I’ve touched on in this article, it is clear that there is no “easy button” to deploying outside sales successfully to cover the K-12 market, whether you do it with your own field sales reps, work through resellers, engage channel agents, or hire independent reps. Suppliers looking for a quick and easy solution to selling to schools need to avoid bad channel behavior and if in doubt, seek expert advice.