Two of the things that define the K-12 Education sales environment are its small and relatively fixed number of sales targets and the rapid pace of change impacting those targets.
As to the first characteristic, 130k schools is a vast marketplace, but if you are a rep working a 1-2,000 school territory, your realize you are coming back around to the same addresses again and again – you can’t afford to cross any of them completely off your list!
Secondly, consider the amount of change impacting education vs. business. Turnover and attrition rates of various roles in education has been measured by many studies in the range of 15-30% based on job title, as much as double the generally accepted rate of “business” turnover of 12%. Add to that, sometimes turbulent changes in accountability metrics, academic standards, community demographics, and funding – all of which are outside educational administrators’ control.
All these change factors have a bearing on whether an education customer acts on a vendor’s proposal at any given time. In fact, these admins sometimes are left guessing and preparing for what are only rumored changes in educational policy. When they guess incorrectly they are left scrambling to react to a different direction. I believe it stands to reason that in an industry with a relatively higher pace of change, buying decisions can change over time and on short notice. And that’s great news because of the first factor, the very small number of overall targets we have to work within. It’s good to know if you don’t succeed at the first pitch, you truly can try, try again.
I learned this after my second year in the B2E business. Like most reps in the days before sales automation tools were as robust as they are today, I had a running spreadsheet of the schools and districts I had met with, color-coded for the outcome. Brown was used for a lost opportunity; the universal highlighter color for a dead lead. At the end of my second year I noticed something interesting. Every single brown opportunity from my first year was gone. All of them had been updated to an open or successful opportunity at some point within the second school year. What is this madness?
In tracking sales metrics over many years, it turned out that when a school had EVER been an opportunity, even if they gave me a solid “no” at some point, they were still MORE likely to buy than a school that had never taken a meeting. That is a staggering thought. Contrary to what I had experienced in B2B sales, schools that said “no” were technically the hottest leads.
Mind your manners
Lesson one for all my reps is to never burn a bridge. It’s a poor way to do business anywhere, but you absolutely cannot afford to turn off an education customer. Leave your high-pressure sales tactics and your snarky responses to rejection at the door. End every lost sale with the most polite “thank you for considering our product” and nothing more. You need to live to fight another day.
Never cut corners on your needs analysis process
I am a broken record about how important it is to use good, open-ended questions to get a thorough understanding of an educator’s needs, funding sources and overall curriculum mix before you present your solution. If you run into a “not now” buying situation, inside knowledge of the factors that could change the climate are pay dirt.
When a “not now” is because your solution doesn’t offer the integration, alignment or setup features that your target requires, waiting for change at the customer’s end won’t help you. You need to communicate internally. Product road maps are determined by the odds of recapturing the cost of development with increased sales. Participate in that process by tracking objections and reporting back to the appropriate manager, founder or product team. Quantify opportunities that named the objection as a condition for buying.
Create a formal process to work closed opps
Touch your closed opportunities every four to six weeks. Send a white paper, company announcement, or industry article so your subject line is less self-serving than, “Checking In.” Be sure to ask for a meeting during budget season, over the summer, or at back-to-school time to test the waters. These are the times when more factors are in motion so the situation is likely different in some way that may help your cause.
And for you management readers, function as though your sales cycle is significantly longer than you can measure.
- Build a comp strategy that motivates reps to tend opportunities over longer periods of time. This could be in the form of rewarding metrics other than closed sales, a slightly higher base salary or a “draw” commission system.
- When forecasting, factor your lost opportunities as a low probability sale, but not zero. Note that what is measured is managed, and keep the opportunity win-back process alive with your sales team.
- Consider handing off lost opportunities to a specialized rep who becomes an expert in the art of farming long leads, and a fresh voice, to a prospect. A technique you can test at your B2E is having that specialist ask lost opportunities to give you an exit interview of sorts which you can leverage later. “I understand you recently met with one of our sales reps but were not able to make a purchase at this time…could I ask you a couple of market research questions?”
- Be long lead friendly in your marketing approach. Make sure your website has a lot of self-serve options including an un-gated sample of some kind, your research, client success stories, and testimonials across multiple stakeholders from student to administrator. Use content marketing (social media, blogs and newsletters) to keep your brand quietly top of mind over a long period of time.
For all of us selling B2E, the key to taking advantage of this both finite and ever-shifting landscape is treating your targets not as either “yesses” or “you’re dead to me’s,” but as “customers” or “not yet customers.” Have thick skin, a huge smile, and a short memory of defeat. No is only the beginning!