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Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Strategic Selling" in edtech: Do you know your most important buyer?

As I was preparing a marketing communications proposal for a client today, it occurred to me that both buyers and newbie sellers of K-12 educational software frequently don't recognize that the process of getting technology into schools is almost always a what is labeled in the B2B world a "complex sale". And as a result, both sides usually end up being a little (or a lot) disappointed in the end delivering on an RFP. Educators, CTOs and administrators may be frustrated and think "Why is it so difficult to get exactly what I want?" Technology vendors may wonder "Why can't I get the district superintendent to take my call so that I can show them I have what they want?" A likely reason? BOTH sides didn't realize and therefore prepare for the critical multiple roles that need to be sold to during a complex sale for a high-risk investment product such an LMS, digital curriculum or an RTI product. Here are the basics:

The framework for success
For those of you who haven't read New Strategic Selling by the respected team of Miller Heiman, this book is a MUST to understand the dynamics involved--it's especially applicable to the ed tech market. I'm grateful that this book was recommended my CEO at Middlebury Interactive Languages (super Sales Guy in a former life) who understood just how crucial this concept is--not only to help get the sale, but to acknowledge all the critical players in the process to for a successful sale to happen, and also ensure that process is scalable and repeatable. It's a proven sales system that has been deployed at huge global businesses, such as Coca-Cola, Hewlett Packard, Kimberly-Clark, and Agilent Technologies. The book gets bogged down in some places, but is skimmable--a big plus for those of us who can only grab a few chapters at a time :) Beware, the spelling is atrocious, I'm not sure how that got through.

There is not one buyer, there are four!
A key premise: complex sales (which are usually B2B), are, well, complex. You can't just walk in cold and "wow" a customer in one presentation. In order to get the attention of the most influential buyer, you need to find out WHO that person is! Seems simple, but it's not. There are actually four key buyers in a complex sale (the lines will blur in some cases because one person could serve multiple roles, or alternatively, multiple people can function as one).  

Financial buyer: gives the final green light to purchase

User buyer: actually uses the product in the end

Technical buyer: gatekeeper, ensures product validity, meets technical requirements, ensures integration capability, vets for product longevity

Coach (aka an influencer): advises who to "really" talk to, business timing, what may/may not worked in the past, inside experience on their "real needs", and is someone who has the respect of decision makers

Where most companies fail is doing the groundwork to find out who assumes these roles. Can you now see why marching straight into a superintendent's office would be ineffective? He or she would smile and likely think "This sounds great to me (the financial buyer), but I'm going to make a move without the blessing of my Curriculum Director (technical buyer) to see if it's good. And I need to talk to my CTO (gatekeeper) to see if it's compatible with our systems. And need to talk to the Title I manager (one financial buyer) to see if it can be funded." If you haven't laid that groundwork before you went in, you're toast. You could have been talking directly to teachers for months (user buyers), but even if they love your product, they may or may not have any influence on the purchase. Even if they think they do. Or, you could have done all of this preparation without a coach, who would've told you that there is an upcoming purchasing freeze that no one knows about except the finance department. D'oh!

So, what should a marketer do?
Clarify the SPECIFIC benefits that address all l of the collective buyer roles upfront (e.g. "gets grading done faster", "saves 50% of your budget allocation for professional development", improves CCSS implementation), and make sure that those points that apply to all buyers are consistently communicated upfront by your sales and RFP team.

Quantify your evidence (or support points) wherever you can.  "It's 20% faster than the average speed in the category" is clearer and more meaningful and easier to remember than the vague "it's super fast"Also keep in mind that in the education space, the financial buyer could be a school board or other group of decision makers who may require even more evidence of product validity than a single person might. This kind of communication helps your sales team build rational connections with these four roles, rather than only relationships based on a salesperson's personality, which sometimes happens.

Save the specialized information for the specialist.  For example, if a key benefit is that your product "uses 100% Linux-based programming language" it may elicit no response if you're talking to the financial buyer. Show the appropriate buyer the data that'll make them take notice once you determine their role in the process. You may even develop specialized materials for exactly this purpose--the principal doesn't need to see the technical spec sheet, right?

Be aware that the needs of each buyer may contradict each other
The user buyer may want the best-of-breed product in the market because it works, but the financial buyer may need to find the cheapest version that'll do the job to stay on budget. Have the benefits for each buyer worked out ready and available for this situation.

Win now, AND later
Working with this approach, and being armed with the appropriate information will not only help with the immediate sale, but also just as importantly help build the basis for strong, ongoing relationships with your customers. Who wouldn't want to continue to work with people who now understand exactly what they need and provide that to them--and as a result, positively impacts their organization and makes the buyers look good? In some cases, a solid working relationship can actually trump a price-based relationship for complex sales. The book calls it a "win-result", and that should be everyone's goal.