The K-12 public school market is highly competitive and getting more so. So many companies and organizations are all vying for the attention of busy school administrators. Decision makers who run our nation’s schools are very cautious about investing in products or services, especially from newcomers, and are highly skilled at tuning out sales communications. Risk-averse buyers and a sometimes mysterious purchasing process combine to create a minefield, a real challenge and risk for everyone hiring and preparing sales people for the job.
Finding veteran sales people who understand the ins and outs of the education market, who have built lasting relationships, and have experience engaging with administrators isn’t easy. The demand has always outstripped the supply. But hiring and then training less-seasoned or brand new reps to avoid missteps can be tough as well. Case in point, according to an April 2017 study and analysis from McKinsey and Company half the sales people hired to sell educational technology products over the past three years failed to make the grade. So, it makes sense to try and steer clear of hazards that contribute to this statistic.
If you’re entering the market for the first time with a new product or if your company is growing and you want to hire the best sales talent, what hazards in the landscape do you need to know about? What are the do’s and don’ts and landmines that sales managers and sales reps need to avoid?
Top of the list is the hiring debate which sometimes becomes a trap. There has been ongoing discussion in our industry about what is the most desirable background and experience for K-12 sales reps. There is a view that former educators are have inside information and the credibility to sell to schools and will be viewed as peers by fellow educators. I remind you that there are many qualifications you need to consider and evaluate about a candidate beyond their work experience. Their personality, interests, self-management skills, sales attitude, and motivation are all critical factors, too. I’ve worked with former educators who were very successful moving into commercial sales. I have also worked with sales professionals who’ve come into the K-12 industry with no education experience and they’ve done extremely well. I’ve also seen failures in both categories.
Ultimately, a lot of what makes a sales person successful depends on what your company is selling. For example, if you’re selling school buses, computer hardware or sophisticated data-management software to schools, someone with a background and sales experience with those types of products who hasn’t worked in education can be successful because the infrastructure and back office functions of a school are similar to commercial operations. For example, if you’re calling on the CIO of a school district and that CIO has come from a commercial background and is running a sophisticated technology enterprise as a school district, and you come in with no background in technology, the CIO may question your ability, knowledge and credibility. If you offer a curricular product, that’s a different scenario. You could look, for example, to educational publishers as a source of sales talent, or to former educators.
Once hired, new sales reps must do their homework … no pun intended. Homework has always been part of our school experience, and selling to schools is no different. Without knowing the lay of the land, sales reps are at higher risk of failure. What and how much they need to know about the priorities of the people who run the schools and districts they need to engage with depends on what you are offering. Clearly, the amount and type of homework you do for an instructional product for classrooms is very different from a high-end software solution that’s going to be used to run an entire district. The size of the transaction has a lot to do with it as well. But regardless of what you’re selling or what it costs, I think the most important thing reps should do to avoid getting hurt is to (before making any contacts) investigate how decisions are made in the organization, who’s going to be involved, and who ultimately will make the decision. The most crucial thing to find out is when decisions happen. There are general guidelines, but each district has its own culture, procedures and priorities and sales reps need to know them before every picking up the phone or sending an email.
One of those general guidelines that can becomes a hidden danger for a new K-12 sales rep is the timing of the purchasing process in the school market, particularly if you are offering an instructional solution. If you get out of step with the academic calendar and the fiscal budget cycle, you can miss an entire buying season! The K-12 buying cycle, the fiscal year and the time it takes administrators to evaluate new products and make decisions is below the surface, part of the K-12 landscape we can’t change. Reps get frustrated and managers get frustrated that it usually takes longer than expected for educators to make decisions and it is rare for them to have real urgency to adopt anything new. There are exceptions, of course, especially for a wide range of consumable products that are highly transactional. But for curricular products or most software solutions, timing of sales activities must be mapped to the unforgiving buying cycle.
Salespeople also need to be prepared to deal with the most common questions and objections that come up when they do get the opportunity to make the pitch. The most common booby trap is “What does it cost?” If there’s one thing that people ask me about, it’s how to navigate that question because it is guaranteed to come up, possibly before any substantive conversation takes place. This can set sales reps off guard. If not prepared with a good answer, they could lose a leg. Almost any answer precipitates the response, “We don’t have that kind of money, or “We don’t have it in our budget.” Everyone needs to be prepared to respond to the price question in a comfortable, confident way that doesn’t shut down the sales process.
Another question that will likely come up is, “Who else is using this?” Very few educators are willing to be a guinea pig for a new product or service, no matter how great you think it is. They want to know that others like them are using it and having success. A common mistake that can cause a minor explosion and blackout is to provide an administrator with a reference from a customer who is in a different geographic region or setting or has a student population with different needs or sometimes where the political views aren’t aligned. Make sure you have references, case studies and research from diverse schools and geographies so that you can confidently share successes that match your new prospect’s needs closely.
If sales reps are coming into the K-12 market fresh out of school, it’s their first job, or if they’ve been a sales rep in the commercial sector and don’t understand the way things work in the school market, these are a few examples of the minefield of obstacles and cautionary notes about the slow-moving decision cycle. New reps should not be surprised when, unlike in a for-profit business, someone who ultimately says “Yes” seems elusive. Be assured, over the three decades that I have worked in the K-12 market, I have come to the conclusion that there is purposeful mystery about the decision-making process because in a public situation where taxpayer money and exposure to the school board and potential for challenges, nobody wants to be personally held accountable for a making a bad decision. Skilled school leaders, hopefully like the sales people who call on them, have learned how to avoid landmines!