Our 4 Do’s and Don’ts for Companies Selling to Schools
Combined, we have worked in schools for nearly 40 years. In that time, we have been on the receiving end of the sales process for many products and services. We have heard pitches that we expected, and have also suffered through pitches that somehow snuck past our filters. Software, guest speakers, singing groups, hardware, professional development programs, online courses, observation tools, data solutions—we’ve received pitches aimed at solving almost every educational problem, real or perceived.
We don’t mean to make light of such pitches. They are essential to the survival of companies, and they are neither glamorous nor easy to execute. But more often than not, they are the verbal equivalent of someone presenting us with a rapidly moving treadmill and asking us to hop on and start running. Company reps think they are providing a useful onramp. Yet when potential customers jump on it, often times they are immediately knocked off.
Schools are demanding environments where leaders work intently to align the interests and perspectives of numerous constituency groups. Selling into that environment requires, at the very least, choosing the right communication channel, using it in a careful, clear and consistent manner, and working to align your understanding and purpose with the understanding and purpose of your audience.
In other words, what sellers in the educational industry often fail to realize is that selling is teaching—especially when selling to educators.
As a quick sidenote, and in our opinion, it’s okay for companies to sell goods and services to schools. When there is growth in a market, more investment and innovation follows. We genuinely believe it is possible to do well by doing good.
We also know, however, that there are organizations that look at schools and only see dollar signs. Companies that prey on the vulnerabilities of schools and districts are neither good for the market nor for education. In fact, such conduct becomes morally suspect when considering that the “end users” of educational products and services are young people who often have little agency in what products and services are purchased and used.
If you care about helping schools and forming deep, lasting relationships with the clients you serve, then we hope the following guardrails will be useful for your work.
1. Getting Attention: Email Outreach
DO use email as a non-intrusive method of reaching out to school officials. Phone calls (and walk-in appearances) interrupt busy days. The success of your email outreach often depends on the inbox management habits of the recipients (or their assistants).
Be in the mindset that your email campaign will be received properly by those who have their inboxes in order and are probably better leads anyways. (In our experience, people who have the processes and systems to keep their inbound communication channels clean often have the solid foundational understanding of how technological systems work in schools, even if they are not technologists themselves.) Send enough information to convey the idea of your product or service, and then provide options for setting up time to talk or continuing the dialogue via email until a call is appropriate.
If your product or service depends on a phone call to communicate its value, you will likely not survive the recipient’s attention filters.
DON’T overly automate your email processes. Overly automated emails send a clear, negative message to each recipient, telling him or her that he or she is one of many people being messaged by someone who is, most likely, basing success on yield percentages.
Educators intuit that the best way to teach is to make their work personal and to treat each student as an individual. Treating educators as if they are a generalized mass or market will instantly alienate most of them. There are some services that do a commendable job at “personalizing” email outreach campaigns, but one error (for example, an incorrectly established merge field) or lack of care (sending the same exact message to people who work closely together and like to compare notes) can immediately call into question your authenticity. Few sales intentions can survive such inauspicious beginnings.
2. First Contact: Scheduled phone call
DO spend more time listening than talking. Demonstrate that you are listening by continually confirming your understanding of the school’s interests and needs. Use the call to demonstrate and deepen your understanding of the school’s particular mission.
Force yourself to see each school as a unique entity, trying to accomplish unique things for a specific set of people. For example, some schools will be focused on rethinking assessment. Some schools may be challenged with diverse learning needs in their population. Other schools will have a social justice mission. Knowing what a school values is the key entry point for a sales conversation. Use research to support the importance of your product or service; it should either be framed as an important entity for people to look into more deeply, or something closely connected to relevant research.
DON’T talk over or through your participants. If they could have simply listened to an audio recording or watched a webinar to gain the information you are sharing, why bother setting up a call?
Also, certain kinds of assertiveness will be off-putting to educators. Do not use statistics or narrow case studies to justify a school’s rationale for considering your product. Every school, like every learner, is different. Generalized solutions will not be compelling. However, you can talk about how a solution worked in one context to inspire curiosity and interest—but not to convince or persuade.
3. Momentum: Face-to-Face Presentation (in-person or video call)
DO sell by teaching. Successful teachers start by understanding what their students know about a subject. From the, they present a variety of ways for students to engage with materials in order to master the topic. They check in continuously, offering feedback to allow for learners to make adjustments. If there is a test, it is used to intensify students’ focus (via studying) and to assess both the teachers’ instructional effectiveness and the extent to which a student truly grasps a concept.
If you’re selling a hammer, for example, teach your customers how to use it. Help them to see themselves teaching differently, more effectively, because of it. Help them become passionate about the tool so that they make your sales pitch for you to the school’s decision makers.
DON’T make everyone carve out time from their days and coordinate their schedules to be at a specific time and place, only to have them believe what was experienced could have been handled via a phone call, or worse, an email. Participants invited to the presentation should be actually and actively called to participate.
Today’s teachers try to avoid asking their students to sit and listen for 30 or 40 straight minutes. If you ask them to do the same for your presentation, then you are merely reflecting bad teaching practice, and many teachers will note this when you leave the room.
4. Sale Closed: Onboarding
DO understand the way that work happens in school. The person leading the technical implementation may not be the best person to show how it can be used effectively. Work with the school’s leaders of professional development initiatives to brainstorm the best ways to educate the people who are going to use the product or service. Find a way to adapt to systems that are already in place and already work.
By this point, you should be fluent in the school’s mission, as well. Reflecting it back to the school’s leaders is an effective way to serve the school not as a salesperson but as a true partner.
DON’T assume that all schools are the same. A one-size-fits all approach will not help a school implement the technology or foster buy-in. Some schools move very slowly so as not to cause disruption among an entrenched faculty. Some schools are of the “move fast and break things” variety. Some schools are top-down in nature. Others want all changes to be worked through committees and collaborative practices.
It’s best to know, at the very least, how quickly (or slowly) successful changes tend to happen and to what extent collaboration and input need to be built into the proceedings. You might ask the school’s leaders about a large-scale change they have recently implemented. How long did it take? Did it pass through committees? What communications efforts supported it?
Renewing and Expanding Business: Customer Success
Just because you’ve closed the deal doesn’t mean the work is forever finished. Depending on your product or service, your contract period will be annual or multi-year and the renewal and negotiation dialogue is just as important as, if not more important than, the initial sale. To create a lifetime customer:
DO provide honest updates on usage, feedback, and other engagement measures. Send updates regularly to key stakeholders in such a way that they can easily share them with others.
DON’T wait until the contract is almost up for renewal to start a new conversation. If school leaders have been receiving updates from you regularly, they will already know whether or not they want to renew or use again your business or service.