Easily the most awkward part of sales is qualifying prospects. I would rather have people slam the phone in my ear all day than ask a mid-level coordinator I’ve travelled five hours to meet with, “So…do you have sole purchase authority over this decision?” Of course she doesn’t and she will feel super guilty about wasting my time for the rest of the meeting if I even ask. But get this, if you ask that same question to a superintendent they’ll also say no.
Spoiler Alert: No one in education has the sole authority to buy, the sole budget to buy, or sole control of the timeline. Key word, sole. Almost any stakeholder can be an influencer for any given scenario. Now you’re wondering if any conversation is valuable, why worry about qualifying at all?
While awkward, qualifying will help you make the most of an interaction. You can use qualifying tactics to navigate the purchasing maze at a district, or convert even low level conversations into real opportunities. Here are some slightly less awkward ways to go about it.
Rule 1 – Determine which funds can be used to purchase, and the process for deciding how they are spent.
As established already, only rarely does one person control a purchase decision in education. The higher the impact and price of your solution, the higher up the decision will necessarily be made, but even then, consensus must be reached with many, many stakeholders. A good place to figure out “who” is to begin with “which,” as in funds. Simply stated, follow the money.
Here are some educator-friendly ways to ask:
- “How do you usually fund solutions for [this issue]?” You are listening for purchasing work flow and funding types.
- “How does [this issue] affect different student populations?” You are listening for ear-marked categorical funds.
- At a district: “If a building principal wanted to approach [this issue], what funds would she be able to tap?” You are listening for cues about funds that might be out there in the district’s ecosphere.
- At a school: “If the district wanted to approach [this issue], what funds would they typically source?” You are listening to cues about who and what might be in motion at the district level.
Now you have a few notes about which funds would be the target monies for your solution and it is a much politer and easily answered question to find out “and who has to approve expenditures of those funds?” or “tell me about the process involved with those funds.” It’s less stark than “Are you the decision-maker around here?” Just keep following up with these “help me understand” questions until you have a good understanding of all the stakeholders that are going to need to be won over.
Rule 2 – Determine when and where your solution will be implemented.
Not to sound absurd but…change requires change. Pressure testing the prospect’s understanding and ability to pull off the change needed to become your customer will separate the wheat from the chaff in your pipeline.
Qualifying around implementation specifics doesn’t only show you how serious the prospect is, it will very actively help the buyer buy your product. If a school can’t come up with at least one very specific implementation plan, such as “in Math centers,” they aren’t going to be a successful customer.
“I can see you like the framework of our solution. Where and when might students be able to access it?”
“Do you see this as a whole group solution or an intervention for your students?”
“Which teachers would most like this resource?”
“What curriculum would your teachers like our resource correlated to?”
These examples are hard to write without a product in mind, but your product or service no doubt will lend itself to some very specific implementation questions that you’ll want to explore. If you can get a prospect talking implementation or even better, an implementation calendar, you can inch up your confidence rating that they will follow through on a sale.
Rule 3 — Determine whether there will be an RFP process and what your competition is.
In other words…even if I’m talking to a decision-maker, and they like it, am I wasting my time here? Education sales can feel really deflating at times because even when you think you’re doing well, you can walk away without a sale. That’s because sometimes there are mystery factors involved that you forgot to ask about early on. Maybe they think you’re too big, too small, not based in their state or haven’t filed the correct paperwork with their procurement office. Ask around these items and you’ll find out if you truly can with the business.
“Are you planning to release an RFP?” Don’t beat around the bush – just ask about it and if the answer is yes, get all the details you can about timing and who will review proposals. Follow up by offering your company’s detailed product description. If they love you, you’ll see it in the RFP language.
“What competitive solutions have you thought about to solve [this issue]?” Listen to hear if those are realistic competitors or very different from you. A one-off or two is fine but a whole group of not-even-close competitors is a bad sign. Discuss how different you are and make sure they want what you do.
“What are some of the most important things to you about the vendors you like to work with?” You are listening whether they describe a company like yours in size, location, core competencies. This is a cue for a district to tell you why you are not going to be seriously considered so it’s a great qualifying question. If you hear any danger signs, naturally you’re going to follow up by selling your company as a fit as best as you can.
“How comfortable would the district be not making a decision this year?” If one of the competitors is the status quo, you have a real problem. Start probing on the costs of not deciding which is generally listed in terms of missed objectives.
These are probably all questions that are going to be more important if you sell at the district level, and the hidden trap doors under each one of these is an argument in itself for small companies to begin selling at the school level. Buildings don’t have nearly as many restrictions. But, if you are selling at the site or building level, you could still get ambushed by a district procurement policy that pops up in the 9th hour. Ask early on if there is any process you need to follow to become an approved vendor.
Phew! It sounds like a lot of work to do qualifying. I will make a final pitch vs. the alternative. Getting this down to business in your sales meetings may cause some discomfort across the table and result in more early no’s. A light manner and conversational tone around all these topics will help, but early no’s are nothing to be afraid of. The game is to continuously match up with the right buyers for you. A no frees you up to get in front of the right people faster.