Few education purchases are made in a vacuum. Most decisions require that consensus is formed by multiple stakeholders which can include anyone from Superintendent to Student. It has been my experience that consensus, also known as “evaluation,” is a sales stage unto itself. It occurs between the engagement of at least one key contact at the school or school system and lasts until verbal approval to move forward is achieved.
The higher up the org chart you are selling, the more consensus forming steps will be part of your sales process. For example, when calling on a district department head, you can expect that eventually principals and/or their lead teachers will be asked to evaluate your offering. When you take the lead in that process, you ensure no steps are skipped and you make your client a better buyer, something they will appreciate. You’ll be shocked how many educators need to stop and think, “What IS our process?”
Here are a few simple ways to take a leadership role in forming consensus:
Before you meet:
Ask questions so you understand what constitutes consensus. During qualification (before you show up for your first meeting) determine the purchasing process for that school and/or district. Ask, “Who is typically involved in the decision-making process for [services like yours] at your school/district?” and “Tell me how you typically review [tools such as yours]?” I use the word “typically” a lot to sound casual and leave the door open for them to talk about something different happening in this particular instance.
Prevent your contact from hoarding information on your solution. Your success depends on the consensus being reached. Suggest all decision-makers attend the first meeting. When you are the one requesting the meeting this isn’t as easy to ask as when they are calling you, but you can make it easier for your prospect if you create a Google or Outlook meeting invite suitable for forwarding to the other decision makers. Include key background documents, references and an agenda which will both grease the skids and make your contact look better. If the prospect is open to it, you can do the legwork of inviting the other needed decision-makers on their behalf.
If you have a contact that is resistant to including others, you should see a red flag out of the corner of your eye. You can handle that by saying you can provide the best solution to them when you understand the needs of all stakeholders involved in the process. You are happy to meet with them alone, but before presenting a proposal you feel you need to have a quick conversation with [the other decision-makers they’ve listed] as well. Continued resistance to give you access to other decision-makers probably means something’s up, such as you’re just there for competitive pricing to a solution that buyer wants to move forward with, or the implementation time frame is further off than the buyer is letting on. I never pass on these deals, but I am more cautious about how much time I invest, and how I define them in my pipeline.
During your meeting:
Define success. Early in your conversation, take time to ask what success looks like for your education category, and account for the different answers from the many different people involved in the process. Ask the key decision-maker if it would help to develop a rubric of your findings that they can use to evaluate yours and other potential solutions. I’ve never had anyone turn down this offer. By providing a fair rubric, i.e. not one that is written so narrowly that only your product could win, you will be helping the buyer make a better decision more quickly.
Drive even greater consensus. Regardless of who participates in the first sales conversation, ask again if anyone else in the district should be party to the process. It is a good sign when the first group thinks it’s time to have others take a look-see. “Are there other people that would benefit from participating in this evaluation?” If there are, try to schedule that opportunity then and there.
After your meeting:
Offer to provide a survey for evaluators. Survey Monkey is one free tool which is incredibly easy to use for this purpose. Your contact will need to supply you with the list of all the people evaluating your product. Even though you control the content of the survey, be fair to the criteria established in your needs assessment. The more important advantage is that you’ll see unedited results and comments from stakeholders you might otherwise not have access to. You can’t overcome objections you don’t hear.
Manage the next steps. While you probably have a few buying process steps that you feel put your product in the best possible position for adoption, you must also take cues from the original qualification conversation where you learned how your prospect typically evaluate products. Combine these events into an agreed upon list of “next steps,” and take the initiative on making them happen.
Forms of next steps could be holding a product demonstration, setting up a pilot, hosting a webinar, scheduling a visit to a customer site or other simpler action items. Preview your awesome customer service by supplying all the needed instructions and support for these to run smoothly. Make sure there’s a definitive time frame for each. Set a review meeting that clearly ends the evaluation process. Ask for a yes or no decision at that review. If you followed all the steps that the client spelled out early on, you should get an answer.
If you find yourself manufacturing steps just to keep an opportunity alive in your pipeline, you probably are over-investing in it. Read “Getting to NO Your Customers” to understand the importance of terminating an opportunity that is languishing in the evaluation stage.