One of the tougher but most crucial pieces of information you need to pull out of a sales conversation is how the client’s purchasing process works. Reps have a hard time getting this information from prospects because it feels presumptuous to start a sales conversation with several pointed questions about how the purchasing process will work for this sale. Therefore many first meetings end without the subject coming up, and yet the opportunity is created in the pipeline, handicapped with a close probability and even a possible date of close, all without really knowing if it’s realistic. Is it any wonder why many sales don’t close when we think they should?
Schools and districts seem like they all operate fairly similarly but it’s a mistake to assume their purchasing processes are identical. Yes, their financial structures and most job titles are the same, but each district has different organizational dynamics and purchase policies, and each purchase can draw from different funding buckets – all of which have their own distinct purchasing rules. That sounds daunting, but it’s more daunting if it’s a mystery to you. You don’t want to find out the rules of the game after you’ve already had that opportunity in your pipeline for 90 days or longer. Best to find out up front.
I’ve used a technique over the years to make asking about the purchasing process less awkward. I think a fair early stage question is to ask about other products a school/school system is using. So I like to start going down the purchasing road like this:
Rep: Tell me about some of the tools you use for x? [You are asking for NON-COMPETITIVE products here, i.e. if you sell Science, ask about Math.]
Client: Well, we use ABC, and then DEF and GHI.
Rep: Oh great, how long have you been using DEF? [Ask about the product closest to your product in format and price point.]
Client: About two years.
Rep: Nice. And how do the kids/teachers like it?
Client: Great, it’s really helped do blah, blah and blah.
Rep: Was that something you purchased here in your department or was it a district purchase? [ding, ding, ding!]
Client: Actually the IT Dept. made the purchase. We make recommendations but they vet all products of that type, etc.
Rep: Interesting, so tell me more about who would be involved in a purchase of a product like [your product]. If you find it to be something you like, what would be the next step?
And now you are off to the races in getting the critical information you need without putting your cart before the horse. The key is to find out how other things are purchased, and then confirm if your product would follow a similar path. If you keep extrapolating on this conversation, you should be able to tease out the names/positions of decision makers, the process of consensus-building, the timeline, and funding types in use.
All this information helps you to measure the milestones necessary to close the sale, and help the client make them happen. Additionally, engaging in this conversation will result in the prospect themselves giving more than a passing thought to it. Defining the process out loud reminds them the steps they need to get crackin’ on if they intend to follow through with your product. If your conversation goes well, at the end of the meeting you can prompt them with a little list of next steps.