This week, with the anticipated U.S. Senate approval of the Every Student Succeeds Act, Ed Tech strategists can hopefully lay to rest what I have come to think of as the Just Kidding Era. National standards – just kidding. Teacher Evaluations – just kidding. PARCC, SBAC, Vouchers, Increased Privacy Laws – never mind! For the past five years, the Feds pushed and the states dug in their heels. ESSA signals that this game is over and incidentally, the states have won. You, like me, may have had a moment of panic in your first read of the bill. Where’s the mandate? What are educators going to be commonly committed to now? What direction does this bill give us to build and market and sell around? Upon taking a deep breath and realized this is actually very good news for our industry. I even think it could ring in the next golden age for B2E reps.
I say the “next” golden age because I think we’d all agree that B2E experienced almost a decade of unbridled ed tech expansion under No Child Left Behind. NCLB, while incapacitated these past five years, will only officially go off life support when ESSA passes. Goodnight, sweet money-spinning prince. If you didn’t have the opportunity to sell to schools in the Aughties (2000-2009), I feel for you as it was a true seller’s market. The clear cut and limited scope of NCLB’s educational accountability meant making sales was a simple matter of demonstrating solid evidence that your product could help raise test scores. Sales VP’s could actually create valid forecasts back then. Marketing strategies could be developed 2, 3, maybe even 4 quarters in advance. Say what you want about whether or not it was a good educational strategy, it was an amazing environment to sell in. As all my quota-carrying readers know, those glory days ended the moment the word “Waiver” first entered the B2E lexicon.
Like some sort of confused pawn in a twisted custody battle, the Feds and local agencies have had us ping ponging back and forth between initiatives they would announce and roll back. I have the utmost sympathy for educators attempting to do their jobs as the target floated around, but only those who walk in our shoes know our share of that agony. Publishers and education technologists were told in countless prospect conversations that what they wanted to buy was “x” but when we invested and toiled and schlepped that precise solution back to them, they responded with “wait and see mode.” Even careful and conscientious ed tech companies have gone under or significantly downsized because of the political whirling dervish that caused our products and marketing strategies to be obsolete almost upon launch. Imagine a world where all that is over. Building products for customers that know what they want, and who are ready to take on some pent up, progressive and purely altruistic educational challenges sounds much more like the business we signed up for.
The freedom for states to implement their own education policy under ESSA can provide as much direction as a national mandate and with far less drama. ESSA, for all its lack of direction may therefore actually make it safe for us to go back in the water. It may take a couple of years to roll out their individual education identities, but I anticipate fast progress now that the DOE’s aren’t disingenuously chasing federal contests and being forced to battle their teachers at every turn. We should emerge with plenty of exciting initiatives to challenge our product development talents, as well as the much needed end of purchase paralysis.
So how should B2Es prepare to take advantage of the new ed tech climate? Here are some keys that will help you succeed under ESSA:
- Localize. State policy will be acutely near and dear to LEA’s hearts. Taxonomies and requirements will vary by state again, and to ignore them is to sell apples to people who want oranges. If you don’t have a content management system capable of supporting localization, move on that NOW. If you don’t have any field representation, find a way to add these ears on the ground in key markets.
- Specialize. Focus on fewer states where you’ve got either a loyal customer base, a key policy fit, or logistical advantage to provide the most live implementation support. Better to dominate fewer markets than be an also-ran across the country.
- Upgrade your sales force. Part of the reason I see a golden era ahead is that when control is distributed across LEA’s, schools and even classrooms, it should follow that B2E’s have that many more opportunities to find willing disciples for change. It’s going to take the most pedigreed and well-trained sales force you’ve ever assembled to carry out your revolution with authenticity, so start thinking about how to structure a team with chops.
- Listen. The last five years have taught us to not believe what our customers say. It’s not totally their fault. Educators will always tell you what they believe to be true, but the problem is that their landscape has been neither crystal clear nor stable. The coming year will see more sustainable and simpler initiatives from states, as well as freedom for districts to create their own goals. When you hear something from a prospect next year, you can presume it is credible. Something the past five years have taught us not to do. Managers and execs this goes for you too: routinely debrief your Sales and Support Teams.
- Modify your “Tell Me’s.” Listening to a prospect’s answers is only as good as the question asked, so it’s time to adjust yours to fit the new era. A past concern may have been “Tell me how your district is helping teachers unpack the new standards,” but tomorrow it might be better to ask, “Tell me what it’s like for your teachers to prepare for the 2016-17 school year?” Or, “Tell me what would make this school year a success for you?” Think as broad as you possibly can and you may hear some incredibly interesting shifts ahead that help you position your product as a key resource. Read more about Tell Me’s in this past post.
I for one am excited to see a return to local control. States will be smart enough to keep the best of the policies they shouldered under NCLB and Duncan, but they are so much closer to the classroom we should see more realistic objectives and hence a more cooperative posture from our clients. That spells the end of purchase paralysis, and that’s a big responsibility to you reps out there. In a less restricted climate, there won’t be “out of our hands” excuses to put off a purchase. Your persistence to get meetings, your acumen in demonstrating how your solution will bring customers the change they desire, and your Jedi-like ability to calm their fears of change will drive sales. In other words, hustle is the new name of the game. That we can individually control, so bring on ESSA and let’s get selling again!