Sales Secrets Revealed: How K-12 School Districts Make Buying Decisions

What is it about a secret that intrigues us? I think we all hunger for some hidden information whispered in our ear, especially if that knowledge gives us some special power or advantage. Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could actually, as the title of this article says, reveal a secret that would propel your K-12 sales and demystify the public school district procurement process?  Well, the reality is, some aspects of how district-level buying decisions are made for educational products and services are purposefully concealed and will require work for you to uncover them. Let me share what I know and some sage advice.

Anyone who has much experience selling to schools will tell you that today’s selling environment is growing in complexity and is more dynamic than it has ever been. There are a growing variety of schools and educational delivery systems operating within our public school districts. There is an explosion in the number of new products and services being offered, many of them from start-ups. District decision makers have limited time to filter through and evaluate what is being promoted and they are overwhelmed, so hiding is an understandable response!

How, why, and when K-12 district administrators make buying decisions depends on their needs, priorities, local politics, budget impact, the type of product or service being offered and, most importantly, relationships. There has never been a secret set of rigid rules you can apply to all situations, but there are must-dos and general guidelines you can use to approach a complex selling environment. Armed with this information and persistence you will succeed.

The need for fundamental sales management skills has never been greater at the individual rep level and at the supervisory level. Core to meeting your goals is continued investment in targeted marketing programs coupled with careful sales strategy and planning, getting a grip on RFPs, and a keen understanding of the competitive landscape from a sales process perspective.  

What should your sales process look like? My advice is to align your process as closely as possible to the stages of the purchasing process. At each stage, put yourself in the shoes of whomever you want to become your customer and try to understand his or her need for information or validation. What stages, you may ask? There are three key stages: identify, evaluate and buy. And within each there may be more than one step. 

Here are some guidelines.

As the average sale dollar value goes up, the number of methods and steps and the number of people involved in the three key stages (identify, evaluate, buy) goes up. If you are selling a low-cost, well-understood consumable product it will be a relatively simple transaction based on availability and price. If you offer a new type of cloud-based instructional or data solution, it will be quite the opposite.

It may come as a surprise that what looks like a formal evaluation process, especially when RFPs are involved, is actually driven by informal peer recommendations and professional networks. While there is nothing wrong with presenting data or evidence to validate your product claims during the evaluation stage of the buying process, the impact on the ultimate decision may be disappointing.  

For example, the government has invested in what are supposed to be unbiased product evaluations through the What Works Clearinghouse, but the ratings have been challenged and skeptical school administrators continue to rely on peer recommendations more than anything else. That’s why an essential sales strategy is having districts that pilot your product or service and are willing to provide recommendations if the pilot goes well, and relentless customer loyalty programs.

Who’s involved in making district-level buying decisions? District enrollment has more bearing on this than any other factor, and is one of those guidelines you can use to steer your marketing and sales plan.  The K-12 school market is made up of about 14,000 districts. Most of them are small enrollment districts. So, it should be no surprise that many surveys over the years consistently point to the district superintendent is the key person. After all, in small districts, the district staff may be just a few people. But, like any organization, and especially in larger districts, there are “key influencers.” Influencers are sometimes subordinates or trusted advisors, but could be any of the stakeholders, and their influence is not the same as you might experience in commercial sales. Is there a way to know this secret information?

The guideline is this: the K-12 district decision-making process is more consensual and less autocratic than you find in the business world. For that reason, it is best to find out early in the sales process who will take part in making the decision. Because K-12 school districts and the administrators who run them rely on taxpayer dollars – your money – the ins and outs of the district buying process can be revealed during the discovery phase of your sales planning process. You need to do your homework. Interview someone in the district office staff other than the superintendent – it might even be an executive assistant to find out how decisions are made. Ask if the school board will be involved, who on the district staff will be involved and how you can best work with them. It’s easy to make false assumptions about who the key influencers are by studying the district’s org chart, or by generalizing using job titles. Oft times the superintendent has trusted advisors and consultants who influence their buying decisions, and knowing who these people are and how you can engage them could make or break a deal. It’s amazing what secrets are revealed by asking the right questions!

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About the Author

Glen McCandless is president of Focus Marketing Inc., a business development firm that specializes in the educational technology market. Glen has over 25 years of experience helping companies efficiently and effectively sell and market technology products and services to K-12 and higher education buyers. For more information, please contact sts-info@agile-ed.com.

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