Edtech Startups, the Secret to B2B Sales is Authenticity
In a startup, every member of the team is a salesperson. Everyone.
Despite never holding the official title of “sales representative”, we've worked closely to engineer sales and renewals as members of delivery teams.
As members of the delivery team, we’re the middle-people in an edtech company. We interface with sales, jumping-in to create a seamless customer onboarding experience and engineer the account renewal. We interface with product, gathering all the customer feedback and ensuring iterations reflect customer desires. And of course, we interface with customers, providing training and support to optimize adoption rates and impact. We also conduct research, gathering and analyzing data to produce case studies for the marketing team.
Suffice to say, a strong delivery team is essential to the success of a great edtech business.
During our time in delivery, we learned a few things that we’d like to share with edtech startups beginning their sales journeys.
What you already know
It’s no secret that one of the most challenging aspects of the K12 edtech industry is it’s B2B sales cycle, especially for companies with traditional licensing models.
It’s tough because even if your timing and pricing are right, you still need buy-in from end-users, influencers, and decision-makers. This is because, in education, a purchase is a very careful act. The right purchase can do a tremendous amount of good for students, teachers, administrators, and parents. But the wrong purchase can have the exact opposite effect – it can upset a community.
In an attempt to shortcut the sales cycle, some salespeople try to go around stakeholders and directly to the decision-maker, applying pressure or incentives to curtail the procurement process. With limited input and buy-in from stakeholders, these deals jeopardize post-sale activities (including the renewal). This short-term thinking doesn’t just destroy accounts and personal reputations, it also hurts the team and the brand. It's also not a repeatable sales strategy or a best-practice among school and district leaders.
Ultimately, the more stakeholders you have onboard, the better the sale will go, the better the implementation will go, the more likely users are to truly adopt the product, and the more likely the customer is to renew.
We hope we’ve made a strong enough case for stakeholder buy-in. We also doubt we had to work that hard to convince you. After all, the real question is how can edtech startups get that buy-in.
Customer intelligence is the key to buy-in.
It’s not enough to think stakeholders all share the same end goal – “what is best for student learning”. While this may be true, how each stakeholder evaluates your product differs based on their specific mandate, needs, concerns, and interests:
END-USERS (teachers and students) care more about ease-of-use, engagement, and curriculum fit.
INFLUENCERS, like curriculum directors, evaluate a product on the basis of pedagogical rigor and curriculum alignment.
IT DIRECTORS care about the technical implementation plan, the LMS and SIS integration, and data privacy.
ADMINISTRATORS, care about all of the above and analytics. They rely on their colleagues to make sound evaluations and recommendations. Administrators also evaluate on the basis of pricing, referrals from other administrators (59%), and of course, on the basis of pilots (62%), and rigorous research (49%).
When you create your sales assets: scripts, sales decks, FAQ sheets, rebuttals, competition tables, impact data, etc. keep your different stakeholders in mind. When the time comes to actually pitch, be sure to have the right information on hand for the particular stakeholder. Hold their attention by giving them the information that is of value to them and then, stop talking and start listening.
Here are a few more tips that will come in handy as you embark on your B2B sales journey.
Build authentic relationships.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: make friends with your customers. If you’re in edtech because you want to help students learn, then you have something in common with your customers (and if you don’t, then this is not the right job for you). Use your genuine interest and care to explore needs and solve problems together.
Your product is not the solution to every problem in education – yeah, we said it. So, be knowledgeable of what’s out there and recommend solutions that you’re not selling if they are what the customer needs. Essentially, develop a trusted relationship on the basis of your interest, knowledge of education, and desire to help in any way you can.
Spend a lot of time with your product. Get to know it well.
Do as the kids do with their video games – watch others play with it.
The best way to do a good job selling your product is if you know it inside and out. If you can easily show others how to use it for their purposes, you’ll never waste an opportunity to demo. If you really understand the use cases of teachers – their objectives, motivations, and the contexts they work in, then you will be able to offer compelling answers to their questions.
Know your customer stories and get good at telling them.
Stakeholders want to hear about the experiences others have had with your product and your team. If you’ve visited customers, observed trainings, and read feedback reports, then you’ll be able to speak from an authentic place when you share stories of student and teacher success.
It’s also important to share authentic shortcomings.
Be sure to document your team and your product's shortcomings as you uncover them. Instead of trying to spin a less than stellar case study, publish it when when you've improved your product in light of the findings. Nothing could be more endearing to a customer than transparently showcasing your rigorous iteration process.
Which brings us to our next piece of advice.
When a customer asks you the dreaded question, disappoint them gracefully.
When a customer asks you that question, the one you don’t have the answer to, at least not the answer they want, this is your moment to shine. This is a pivotal sales moment. How you answer this question will tell them what kind of salesperson you are and it will tell you whether they are a candidate to use and adopt your product.
Most salespeople dread this moment, but the truth is the sooner you get to it, the sooner you’ll really qualify this lead.
You see, you don’t have the answer they want to hear for one of three reasons:
1) You haven’t developed the product feature or collected the evidence they want yet. This is a great opportunity to show them that you listen. So, acknowledge their need. Let them know where it lies in your roadmap. They may even want to be a part of the process. You could not ask for a better opportunity to learn and to iterate your product based on valuable input.
2) You have no intention of developing the feature or gathering the evidence they require. In this case, you should simply say so. But the conversation doesn’t have to end there. You should let them know why that is the case. Are you’re focusing on a more limited offering? Have you not built a business case for their need yet? Or do you tend to integrate or partner with other products and companies that provide this? Whatever the reason, come clean. You’ll want to share this finding with your product manager later. And for now, an honest response will allow you to build trust with your potential customer.
3) They want your product to be something it isn’t. In this case, you’re just barking up the wrong tree. But before you give up, make sure you and your lead are not suffering from a terminology mix-up. Take a solutions selling approach and interrogate their context and their problems. I say this because today the edtech terminology can be difficult to keep up with. Terms like LMS, SIS, content, apps, etc. are not strictly defined and there are many products that surpass the bounds (ie. the feature set) of the traditional meanings of these terms. Don’t let language get in the way of being able to solve someone’s problem. Always, talk it through.
All in all, telling a lead something they don’t want hear in a really open and honest way is a great way to build trust, trust that will come in handy today, tomorrow, or later on down the road.
Your impact data tells the strongest story.
Finally, the one and only thing that can make a salesperson’s job easy: evidence of the effectiveness of your product. If you have any pull as to how money is spent, I implore you, skip the expensive marketing videos and spend your money on research.
Conduct pilots, correlative studies, comparative studies, and control trials. Develop partnership with universities, take on graduate interns and allow them to use your product as the subject of their work. These are incredibly worthwhile endeavours. Not only for sales efforts but for the development of a product worth selling.
Then, once you’ve got all that evidence, figure out how to tell the most compelling story about it. The reason this is so important is that once the primitve age of edtech is over, and all companies are actually required to collect and share evidence of the impact of their products in order to sell, we’ll find that many products offer statistically similar impacts. We’ve yet to hear of many earth-shattering, groundbreaking technologies that merit the often made promise of “transforming learning”.
Don’t be just a salesperson. Be a knowledgeable, caring advocate for your product inside and outside of the company. Inside, push for evidence and meaningful partnerships that will equip you with compelling stories to tell potential customers (and the world!). Outside, build authentic relationships based on trust and care. If you can do this successfully, I promise you’ll have a willing audience.