The Hidden Challenge Facing Education Industry Managers

by Farimah Schuerman

Help Your Customers Manage Change

K-12 SalesAre you a senior manager of a company that develops and sells instructional solutions, especially for math and reading? If so, you've felt the pain of the recession and might wonder how you can best survive the "new normal." One way to ensure your company's success is to see the current situation from your customer's view. The factors causing school administrators to more carefully consider every purchase may run deeper than you think.

The rush to meet the guidelines for the Common Core Standards and the anxiety around meeting objectives for the related assessments is masking a much deeper and more daunting challenge for school district leadership teams: change management. 

While leaders of commercial enterprises have understood and embraced practices that guide a corporation through major changes when outside forces require it, change management has never been a part of the education culture. Today, however, school personnel at all levels are being bombarded with change. If you and your team take time to fully understand these changes and to help your customers and prospects manage change, your company will fare much better during the current down economy. Now, let's take a look at these changes and the implications. If you are interested in added perspective on this topic, I encourage you to take 15 minutes for a deeper dive with me and my business partner, Mitch Weisburgh, an interview on STS Radio with Glen McCandless.

Three Forces Driving Change and Impacting Sales to School Administrators

  • Driving Force #1: Common Core Standards Are Forcing New Processes: The shift to Common Core has required districts to take a long, hard look at which processes they can keep doing as before, and which must change. Teaching is shifting from knowledge-based to learning-based approaches, requiring students to grasp concepts, not facts, and to apply the learning to new problems. Good teachers have successfully used this approach for years, while many others have not. Companies producing instructional materials, particularly in reading and math, are already reacting to this catalyst and providing leadership.
  • Driving Force # 2: Professional Development Is Results-Oriented: The second pressure point is delivery of meaningful professional development (PD) and related evaluation. Teachers need to be prepared not only to align instruction to the Common Core Curriculum, but also to understand how to extract the best learning. This involves new classroom strategies, the use of new technologies, and mainstreaming students with special needs, just to name a few. We hear the terms "personalized learning" and "individualized instruction" which expand on the concept of differentiated instruction. I wonder how many teachers are equipped to teach this way, especially as class sizes grow larger than we've experienced before. Developers of PD have been building both product-specific and generalized tools to help teachers successfully make these changes and for administrators to better manage them.
  • Driving Force #3: Districts are Doing More with Less: A third pressure is the combination of diminished or flat school funding while expenses, particularly those related to staff benefits, are on the rise. In this time of greater accountability, leaders of our schools are required to measure all kinds of outcomes, many of which they can't easily or fully relate to specific approaches, programs, or teaching materials. At some level, there is pressure to evaluate all teachers and administrators. Diminished funding also comes at a time when there is momentum to acquire and support costly technology solutions that promise to improve learning. A firehose of new technology applications could potentially provide more reliable collection and analysis of student data. But administrators feel forced to make stressful decisions and often feel the frustration that there may be no "good" decision: as a result, they're left with just the best decision they can make under bad circumstances and with incomplete information or unbiased guidance.

Strong Company Leaders to the Rescue

So what's the point of painting this negative picture? It's not to depress you, but to remind you that in order to be successful in this environment, everyone who works for your company must understand these forces and be empathetic. Company leaders, starting with the CEO, and every employee must understand the buyer's perspective when trying to get excellent products, with game-changing possibilities, into the hands of students who need them. 

Here are examples of the type of guiding questions I suggest you consider as a leader of an organization that serves the school market:

  • How does your product (or service) make the buyer's life better? 
  • Can you articulate how your product solves a pressing problem? 
  • Does the problem your product or service addresses keep school leaders up at night?
  • What else is required, or needs to change, for educators to implement your product successfully -- and do you understand how the implementation will be managed?
  • Does your product or service replace a product that is established and gets the job done -- not as well as yours, but works?
  • How much teacher training will be required to effectively utilize your product or service, and when do you expect this training to be provided?
  • When your product is implemented, will instructional time have to be managed differently? 
  • Will using your product require that students are identified in a new or different way?

Four Steps You Can Take Today on the Pathway to Success

  1. Help Potential Customers Secure Funds
    How will educators pay for your product? While this is a basic question, the answer is not always straightforward. If grants are necessary, how will they be secured? How can you help? Does the use of your product save some other expense? Credit recovery products have used this approach, whereby, in this case, retaining students brings income to the district that can cover the expense. What strategies like this could you use to reduce perceived costs?
  2. Train and Support Your Sales Team
    It is critical that your sales team be adept at displaying empathy for school administrators who are under fire. Some ways they do this are by confirming timing and by offering alternatives for scheduling, and by being sensivite to the timing of other initiatives that are going on in the district. They need to develop a deep understandng of the district’s priorities. Administrators are pulled into committees, community meetings, and staff trainings, and they are thrashed by external forces that can affect the salesperson's ability to drive deals forward on your company's schedule.
  3. Think Through the Entire Sales Process, Including Implementation
    Understanding the principles of change management will help your company guide and support your customers through the challenges they face. When you are proposing a product adoption, think about how it will affect the district or school and take the time to plan the change with the administrators. Look at calendaring with them. If the product has instructional impact, offer support for how data might flow. Think about how teachers will need to do things differently, and figure out how best to stage those changes so they are as easy as possible. Assign support staff to monitor these changes; don't encumber the sales team with that task. That's not their role or their expertise; supporting implementations will distract them from their principal function of driving new sales. Take time to help your entire staff understand the current dynamics of change so that each one can be empathetic and supportive during any interaction with customers or prospects.
  4. Plan for the Future
    Senior managers need to recognize that the sales process moves slower under these circumstances, and you need to be cognizant of the cash-flow implications of this longer decision-making process. Unless you're offering a "must-have" product, you will need to tighten your belts and hunker down.

About the Author

Farimah Schuerman is Managing Partner at Academic Business Advisors. She specializes in the business of educational technology and has helped hundreds of education companies bring new products to market while providing guidance for sales, marketing, product development and many other pivotal areas. She is active in many education industry professional associations.