If I never looked at a calendar, I’d know what month it was just by what phrases my B2E prospects sprinkled into their reasons to put off a purchase. I’d know it was July if I heard a lot of, “I can’t decide until my teachers see it.” I’d know it was October if I heard, “We’re waiting on our Title 1 funds,” or December if I heard, “Too much on our plate right now.” And I know it’s January this month because the dreaded, “We’re only just starting to shop around on this,” has arrived.
The school year is only halfway through here in the US, but available discretionary funds are down to the dregs. Many of our B2E customers are shopping right now, but for things they anticipate budgeting, not buying. Getting a jump on ‘16-‘17 meetings is better than no meetings at all, but you probably have a Q1 Sales Goal you’re trying to reach and it’s a bit deflating to hear prospect after prospect isn’t planning to purchase for 6-8 months. Australian customers are balancing the lull with their back-to-school rush, but since most of you need to make your sales goal in the US, let’s tackle how we might push past the mid-school year blues.
Fostering a Sense of Urgency
The timeline of a prospect’s decision at any time of year is their sense of urgency to solve the problem that purchase will address. If you are bleeding from the head, for instance, you want to get to the Emergency Room fairly quickly. At the middle of the school year, most education problems are perceived to be more like that nagging knee pain that someday you are going to get checked out. Educators are still rolling out and evaluating the solutions they put into place the past fall. Not only is the year’s budget fairly well spent, they feel “settled in” to this year’s curriculum/technology mix.
So what urgent problems do your prospects face at mid-year that you can resolve for them?
- There is a hard deadline for a new budget coming up.
- There is spring testing, the outcome of which can still be improved at this point.
- There might be students failing right now.
- There might be teacher angst right now.
- There might be upset parents right now.
These are themes which will help set the tone for a greater sense of urgency when your prospect feels they have all the time in the world to get that knee checked out. Ask questions about the problem they hope to solve with your product, and always also ask, “What is the level of this problem today?” Probe for specific, quantifiable measurements of the problem. If they fend you off by answering that this is just something teachers would like to do next year, follow up with, “And how does that make them feel that they can’t achieve this right now?” Shine the spotlight on the root cause of their problem and what it costs them TODAY. Solving a problem today has a measurable impact in terms of student, teacher, and/or parental satisfaction, and possibly even a monetary impact in terms of money wasted on a less efficient process.
Overcoming Budget Issues
If the need is quantifiable and reasonably important to solve this year that still poses a problem if the budget is already spent. One of the ways B2E’s solve that problem is with mid-year special offers. For example, if you offer a subscription service, and depending on your tolerance for discounts, you can offer “the rest of this school year free.” It’s 18 months for the price of 12. This special is effectively only a 33% discount, but it’s a huge closer for a school district. They pay now, lock in this school year’s pricing, and don’t have to allocate funds to renew it until the 17-18 budget. That’s like “forever” in budget years. I once had a principal upon hearing this offer slap his knee and exclaim, “Hot damn, that takes me through to retirement!”
Another special offer that works for mid-year is making half-year, pro-rated subscriptions available. I am normally opposed to pro-rating for a new customer, however, if they only have a small amount of money left to spend, it’s better to take it so you are place held in the ‘16-‘17 budget and have blocked the advances of everyone else they are “shopping” right now.
There is another reality of budgets which is that money gets allocated for line items but at mid-year is not yet spent. Does your product cause a savings in some already allocated, but not yet spent, budget line item? For example, let’s say you offer PD workshops in a blended learning environment. The client is already budgeting more expensive on-site PD this spring. You can offer to save them money on that committed budget, plus all the value of your superior solution. When someone tells you they are “shopping around” for next year, be sure to ask how they are addressing the problem today and what is allocated for the rest of the year but not yet spent. You might be able to woo them over with an outstanding value proposition they can’t refuse.
Reducing their risk
When engaged with a prospect who feels they are way ahead of the game by talking to many vendors, “just getting an idea of what’s out there,” you can use that long time frame to both of your advantages. They have the luxury of a nicely controlled pilot. Even if a pilot is unpaid (not ideal, read here for more) it serves to put a ring on that customer so she isn’t talking to other vendors or at least only a few. And paid pilots can add up to substantial short-term revenue, with large long-term implications so don’t automatically turn your nose up at them. The point here is that the so-called unqualified prospect is in a great position to use the longer timeline to reduce the risk of making a poor decision –the thing buyers fear most.
You’re having this “just kicking the tires” conversation and you say, “Mary, I’m so glad you’re on top of this search now, it’s just in time to conduct an effective pilot.” She’s thinking wow, I thought I was ahead of the game. “How many teachers and students are you considering conducting your pilot with?” She is thinking, wait…I was just going to research this and pick one. “Is there only one technology protocol in the district we should pilot with or multiple?” And on you go until you’ve pivoted from her just getting your product information and considering it privately to her letting you past the fortress walls to conduct a small scale pilot. This isn’t a Jedi mind trick, it’s actually a best practice for school districts, but one they often don’t do or do poorly.
Explaining how to run an effective pilot of your service is just one of the ways you can help that early stage prospect to reduce their risk in a purchase. You can also supply them with the things they are probably trying to get from “the internet” which might be unreliable sources of research and reviews. Nip that in the bud by providing third party research and reviews of your products, contact names and email addresses for references, and if possible, the opportunity for a site visit to see your product in action.
Another way to sell a pilot, is to show the prospect that by getting a small percentage of their teachers on board early, they will build a small team of on-site experts in your product who will trail blaze their full scale implementation in the fall. That reduces risk of implementation failure saving them far more time and money than the pittance they are investing in the pilot.
If you can’t get them to take a pilot because they are still narrowing down the options, offer up your Implementation Team. Most B2E’s now have some form of academic team that supports Sales. Even if your entire company consists of a selling founder and a product founder, the selling founder should offer to bring in the product guy for a sit down. “It’s just a free service you have the luxury of taking advantage because you have enough time ahead of your proposed launch to really think it through. Our Implementation Experts are not there to convince you one way or another about our specific product, but since [your product’s field] is their expertise, they can help you plan your evaluation and develop the purchase specification for the best solution for your particular mix of needs and resources.” In other words, we want to work with you so badly we’ll consult with you for free and even help you hire our competition. In reality, you are building a relationship that could lead to the Shangri-La of early stage sales – getting to help write the RFP. It’s a long shot, but some percentage of districts will take you up on this and incidentally, they’ll become the best customers you will ever have.
In closing I’ll agree with you that January doesn’t exactly rain qualified prospects, but if you shift your talk track to create a sense of urgency, meet the client more than halfway on accommodating their mid-year budget realities, and confidently show them how to reduce their risk in a purchase, you should be able to get more than your share of “just shopping around-ers” to become buyers.