Two Years of Upheaval in the Market Has Changed the Talent That Companies Need to Bring On Board
*Permission to repost the original blog (originally published September 15th, 2022) provided by EdWeek.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought lasting changes to the ways that many K-12 districts operate and in how they interact with the companies they’re buying from.
Over the past three years, many introductory meetings have moved to Zoom, in- person networking opportunities have been irregular occurrences, and districts have changed their expectations for how they integrate technology into their instruction and daily operations.
At the same time, opportunities for education companies abound.
The pandemic has changed the work of sales teams in some respects. But it’s also made clear the importance of sticking with fundamentals.
Many school districts are flush with federal pandemic relief funding and have been actively seeking out products that could help them adjust to teaching in remote or hybrid settings, or looking ahead — to address pandemic-related learning loss.
Building and managing successful sales teams in such a fast-changing environment isn’t easy, but it is possible, according to experts in the field.
EdWeek Market Brief’s Michelle Caffrey spoke with leaders of sales teams and advisers to them about best practices for those teams to follow in the wake of the pandemic. Here are some of their suggestions:
1. Relationships Are Important. But a Strong Process Wins Out
There’s no question that being able to build and maintain relationships with district decision-makers is an important skill to have as a sales professional.
But being able to stick to a sales process that will hold up, particularly as districts go through a period of major personnel churn, is the key to consistent success, said Matt Gambino, founder of Propel Skills Development, which advises ed-tech companies on sales strategy and messaging.
Without those fundamentals in place, it may be easy to improvise and have meetings that feel good, he said, “but before you know it, six months has gone by, you’ve had some really nice meetings, and nothing’s gone anywhere.”
“It’s critically important to look at the steps of selling as just that — a set of procedural steps.”
A process could be as simple as sticking to a plan for a series of scheduled meetings and follow-ups that reduces the need for any improvisation, he said.
The first meeting may just be for introductions and to get to know the district and challenges they may be facing.
The second meeting or follow-up could then be used to discuss their needs in greater depth and how a product would help address them.
“That predictability and repeatability of process is so, so important in our industry,” Gambino said.
It may be tempting to hire or promote salespeople who have a packed rolodex. But it’s often more important to find people who have the skills to enter and build new contacts in a territory without one, said Lisa Sacchetti, CEO of The Renaissance Network. Those skills are essential because the pandemic has brought about big changes in the leadership of some school systems, making it much more difficult to simply rely on the names and locations of district contacts you already know.
“One of the trends we’re seeing is hiring people who are able to build a new territory even without relationships,” she said.
To find those kinds of candidates, Sacchetti said, don’t overlook introverts or those who don’t have an outgoing personality.
“Some of the best sales leaders and sales talent are introverts because they’re process-oriented,” she said. “It’s not about schmoozing. Schmoozing has nothing to do with sales. That’s a big misconception.”
2. Hire for Your Education Company’s Size and Needs
One mistake that Michael Lyons, managing director and founder of Vista Point Advisors, has seen smaller companies make is hiring a head of sales from a much larger organization. VistaPoint advises tech companies, including ed-tech companies, on the mergers and acquisitions process and positioning businesses to prepare for it.
The executive may come from a well-known company in the industry, but that often means they’re accustomed to having a larger budget to work with and having a heftier marketing team behind them.
“They’re not really as good at the blocking-and-tackling it takes to drive a small field organization, like understanding how to drive [demonstrations,] how to get more appointments and how to manage all the metrics of a sales funnel,” Lyons said.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, he said, as more sales have shifted to taking place through non-traditional, online interactions. Leaders coming from more established, legacy players may find it harder to adapt their playbooks to that new environment for the long-term, he said, especially when they may have less resources to lean on.
“If you hire that wrong first [leader for your sales team,] it can be disastrous,” Lyons said. “You waste a lot of money, and you can never really get that momentum because they’re just used to operating in a much different environment.”
3. Recognize the Distinct Skills Former Educators Can Bring to Sales
Many educators are exploring career shifts in the wake of the pandemic and the stresses that have come with it, and some of them are looking to join education companies.
At the same time, many education companies have shifted to allowing remote work, and that has opened up the pool of potential candidates to include teachers from across the country.
The two trends combined has made hiring educators easier.
“One of the trends we’re seeing is hiring people who are able to build a new territory even without relationships”
– Lisa Sacchetti, CEO, The Renaissance Network
Having sales team members with classroom experience has always been an asset to education companies, said Taylor Doe, senior vice president of sales at Panorama Education. Doe is a former teacher herself and sees parallels between the skills that make great educators and the skills that make great sales professionals, like listening more than you speak and using data to understand and solve problems.
Those skills are even more important now, she said, as districts are dealing with pandemic-related challenges that teachers understand well, such as learning loss.
“When you’re trying to figure out how a student is developing reading skills, you’re looking at data and thinking, ‘Maybe this support could help.’ Sales is really the same thing,” Doe said. “It’s thinking about ‘How does Panorama or other products help move this district closer to this goal they’re aiming for?’”
Justin Beck, senior vice president of North American sales for Instructure, said that over the past six months, their recruiting team has seen a three-fold increase in educators applying for roles in the organization, including in sales.
He’s found that hiring educators from the classroom is increasingly helpful as sales conversations now focus more often on how districts’ needs have changed because of the pandemic, rather than specific product features. Teachers are adept at navigating those conversations, Beck said.
“We’ve had to put our listening ears on a whole lot more the last year compared to previous years,” he said, adding that prior conversations were often more about explaining a product’s technical capabilities to a district. “This is where educators actually fit in so well because what are they great at? Engaging with their students, engaging with the community, and rallying around specific outcomes.”
4. Continue to Invest in Professional Development
Whenever Instructure brings on a new sales team member — whether they have a background in education or not — Beck said they go through an internal professional development course to teach them the art and science of selling to school districts.
“We have a really strong, dedicated team that marches every new seller in the organization through a very structured process,” Beck said.
Because of COVID, that process now looks different. It was initially designed to be fully in-person and focused on helping new sales professionals understand the education space, districts’ needs, and how Instructure’s products can help address districts’ pain points.
But now, Instructure uses its own instruction and assessment tools to adapt the process to be fully remote and to include information about how the pandemic has changed districts’ needs and operations.
By adjusting the process, the company was able to bypass the in-person scheduling issues that often lengthened the program and reduce it to just two months. The shorter, updated training program now means new hires can hit the ground running two months earlier than they would have been able to before.
“[The pandemic] forced us as an organization to think about how we onboard people more rapidly in a virtual environment,” he said.
5. Use Data Wisely As You Set Benchmarks
As vice president of sales at Learning Without Tears, Debbie Secrist often looks for team members who are comfortable with reading, analyzing, and applying data to the sales process.
Being data-savvy is especially important as the districts they work with are increasingly relying on data as well, she said.
Smart sales teams need to be as sophisticated in their analysis of data as their district clients are.
“Our customers are looking at data constantly and making curriculum and instruction decisions for their students,” she said. The company’s job “is not very different than that.”
Context is critical when evaluating internal sales data and setting sales goals as well, Secrist said.
If a state is doing an adoption of reading materials, for example, sales leaders determine goals based on that state’s expected spending and the company’s current and projected market share.
But in cases where market opportunities aren’t as clear, goals may need to shift, and it’s important to evaluate sales team members based on the bigger picture, she said.
“Sometimes it’s about aligning the goals with the opportunity in any given year,” she said. “You have to take a longer view of how well they’re performing because the snapshot sometimes was too small to make a real determination.”
6. Plan For Long-Term Partnerships Beyond the Stimulus Era
K-12 education companies know the influx of federal pandemic relief funds will wane in the coming years, and their sales teams need to plan for it.
Lyons, from Vista Point Advisors, said he’s already heard of sales cycles slowing as districts work to assess which of the software products they bought during the pandemic are working, which aren’t, and which they’d like to continue using even after relief funds end.
To sell a new product to a district in this new environment, he recommends taking a more subtle, long-term approach to getting the attention of school districts, like
“It’s not cold calls, it’s not emails, it’s producing content that they’ll see, but it’s not as in-their face,” he said. “It’s about nurturing their interest in the product, rather than necessarily knocking down their door.”
Once they do show interest, a more formal sales process can start, but it’s more important than ever to “have conversations at the right time,” he said.
Doe, from Panorama, said those conversations need to include gaining an understanding of the districts’ long-term plans to ensure they will still be customers even after the pandemic relief funds are spent.
The goal is to make sure Panorama is thinking “early and often in our conversations with districts, ‘How can we offer flexibility and scope of services,’” to make sure “we can be the kind of long-haul partner that we want to be.’”
Image credit Getty.
Michelle Caffrey is a staff writer for EdWeek Market Brief
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