Seven Strategies for Reaching School Decision Makers

 
By Larry Sugarman

decision maker

It's Not Easy to Gain Access to Decision Makers

Ask anyone who sells to schools and they’ll tell you that it’s never been more challenging to gain access to decision-makers. If you share this perspective, then maybe the following quote will help.

“You spend most of your time trying to figure out a way to talk to me. I spend most of my time trying to figure out how to avoid talking to you.” Dr. Chip Kimball, Superintendent of Lake Washington School District in Washington State, made this statement at a national sales meeting of education sales reps. He then proceeded to talk about how a professional sales representative could get time with him.

Seven Tips to Reach School Administrators Who Have Budget Authority

  1. “Gatekeepers”: Don’t get "by" them, get "through" them. The higher the administrative level you call on in the school district, the more apt you are to run into a "gatekeeper.” A gatekeeper is someone who protects the boss from you. Unlike our image of this person as an obstructionist, in a school district the Administrative Assistant (“Admin”) is a highly trained professional whose main job is to manage his or her boss’s schedule. The Admin also knows more about what is going on than anyone else in the district. Admins can wield as much power as the people they work for. This power can make them formidable opponents or valuable allies. When you call the decision-maker’s office, look forward to engaging the Admin in a “discovery” conversation. Use the school market research you have done before the call to create a compelling opening such as, “I noticed in the paper that the Business Roundtable has been meeting with the superintendent about the declining quality of graduates from the district. I have some ideas that I believe will help address this challenge, and wonder if you could help me understand the best way to share them.” Your job is to make the gatekeeper feel important and valued.
  2. Do your homework. School market research is easy. It isn’t the school administrator’s job to educate you about existing situation and problems. You should have the facts before you initiate contact. Most of you are selling to public schools. What’s going on there is public record, and school market research is not a mystery. When you demonstrate that you have done your homework, then you set yourself apart from an army of other sales reps who are trying to get access to the same person you are and leading off with a product pitch. Being well informed gives you a better chance of getting the access you want.

  3. Don’t leave a voice message about your company, product, or service. High-level administrators do not care about the details of your products or services. It’s hard for them to get excited about a briefing on your company. They are in a highly visible political office and have to answer to the community, local business leaders, parents, teachers, and anyone else who has an opinion or an ax to grind about education. When you get an opportunity to connect with a decision-maker, gear your opening message to those key issues that may affect his or her ability to look good to their boss or constituents. Check out what has been going on at the school board meetings and in the press and then open with those key issues and initiatives. Share perspectives you may have gained from other administrators with whom you have met. Keep the focus on them and their situation.
  4. Make the subject of your email or voicemail message important. “No one answers my emails or returns my calls.” Why should they? Ask yourself if you would respond to the message you are leaving or sending. Chances are, if you’re brutally honest with yourself, you wouldn’t. So, how do you get a response? If you are trying to make initial contact with a potential decision-maker, follow the same advice as #2 above. Ask the "Admin" for help. Invest some time finding out what is important to the person you are trying to contact. Keep your message short and to the point: “I understand there is a lot of controversy around ensuring that fourth-grade children are reading at grade level. I have some ideas that have helped other schools successfully deal with this that I would like to share with you. If you are not the right person to contact, could you please refer me to the person who is responsible for addressing this? I will call you at ten-fifteen tomorrow morning to follow up. If you won’t be available at that time, please ask your assistant to let me know when you would like me to call. Thank you.”

  5. Keep a genuine focus on the decision-maker’s situation, not yours. Perhaps the real question is, “What is your intent?” If your intent is to walk away with a sale, your interests are not aligned with those of your prospect. If your intent is to establish a relationship with them, you will be interested in them: the challenges they are facing, the things that are making it difficult to address them, and sharing ideas of things that might help resolve them. Again, keep your message focused on their situation. People buy from people they trust. And they trust people who they believe will take the time to understand their world.

  6. Be a resource. You may not believe this, but a high-level administrator’s position is a lonely one. It is hard for them to share their personal thoughts with members of the district staff since many of the staff report to them. They distrust sales people because most sales people just want something from them. Change the dynamic. Offer something as part of any message you leave, whether email, voicemail, or via a gatekeeper. Perhaps you can introduce them to a Title I director you know who is dealing with similar situations. Maybe you have a friend who is an expert in an area that might be of help to them. Share ideas from books you have read or items you have discussed with other educators or business people. Become a trusted resource who they know will always tell them the truth and provide valuable insights.

  7. Leverage your relationships. As you have always heard, sales is a relationship business. If you are able to form a relationship with one high-level administrator and are considered a trusted resource, they will help you form relationships with their colleagues. Having a personal reference as an opener is a huge advantage. A few years ago, a superintendent customer of mine invited me to join his monthly luncheon meeting with a group of his friends. I had a great time. Among other things, we talked about politics, the problems facing the state, and how they affected them. What we never talked about was my company or my product. Over the course of the next two years, the relationships formed that afternoon led to introductions to most of the superintendents in the state, and two district-wide deals.

Summary: Do Your School Market Research. Leverage Gatekeepers. Shift the Focus of Your School Sales Calls.

To review the key points here, gaining access to school decision-makers is easy once you change your focus from YOU to THEM. Research your prospective contact and the district. Approach the Administrative Assistant as a valuable and knowledgeable resource. Become a trusted and valuable resource. Enjoy your relationships. Practicing these seven strategies does not guarantee you’ll get through to everyone you want to reach as quickly as you want to reach them, but it will increase your odds that you will!

About the Author

Larry Sugarman, Sales Expert, has over 30 years of sales, sales management, and sales training experience. His company, SMART Selling Inc., offers education market specific sales training and consulting, having trained over 2,000 sales professionals to help them succeed in the K-12 and Higher Ed markets. Email Larry or or visit www.SmartSelling.net.