by John Gardner
Is Selling In The Schoolhouse Really That Unique?
I have over 30 years of sales experience, but there would be lots of places I would be very uncomfortable or unequipped to call on. I don’t have proper security clearance to visit military or government facilities.
My business partner, who worked in a high-security military-servicing facility, once called me because he had forgotten a brief case he needed. When I asked how I would find his office, his response was, “You will never see my office. You won’t get past the guard house, not to mention the outer rings of this building. I will give your name to the gate guard. Follow his instructions.”
I would not be comfortable calling regularly on police departments.
I made a fundraising sales presentation once to a PAL (Police Athletic League) Board, and was the only one in the room not wearing a uniform or a gun. When I tried to crack some humor, as the local contender, by saying that, “You all know where I live.” – nobody laughed.
I have no idea what the good or bad times are to approach someone at a large department store, and would be intimidated (I think) making medical or pharmaceutical sales. I can’t talk car parts with auto dealers or mechanics.
But I DO understand the education business. I’ve taught IN schools and called ON schools for decades. Education sales is unique, or at least semi-specialized in terms of practices and expectations.
Unique Working Environment
Not everyone can succeed in sales, but of those who can, there are additional hurdles for those who want to sell in the schoolhouse. Some are haunted by their poor behavior or academically challenged high school experience and thus intimidated by the idea of walking into a school and talking to teachers like the ones who used to send them to the principal’s office. Walking into a principal’s office could stimulate history-based hyper-something. And a fear of speaking in public can be heightened when that public is mostly teenagers.
Professional Atmosphere and Academics
All teachers have at least a Bachelor’s Degree. Administrators and half the faculty will have a Master’s. Secretaries and Treasurers have been formally trained. The main secretary at the local high school probably has a business degree and/or is a certified accountant. The nurse is certified, if not registered. Within the school corporation, staff are referred to as “Classified” (custodians, cooks, aides, bus drivers, etc) and “Certified” (faculty). Communication that goes to all is often headed: “Faculty and Staff” or “Certified and Classified” staff.
Educationally Correct Communication
As you write email, design promotional materials and craft proposals, consider that you’re dealing with teachers, who are not impressed with poor grammar and bad spelling. Keep correspondence short and to the point. Educators have lots to read, so hook them early or lose them quickly.
Formal – until told otherwise
Don’t use first names without permission. My superintendent always calls me “Mr.”, so I dare not call or communicate with him on a first name basis. My principals use both with me, but I ONLY use “Mr/Mrs” with them. Teachers will likely be okay with you calling them by first name, but NOT in front of students. The three music teachers in my school are on a first name basis when the door is closed, but always use “Mr” in open areas where students are around. Teachers will probably introduce you to students as “Mr/Mrs/Ms”.
If you interact with students, follow the lead of the teachers around them to decide how students should address you. When I was in a choir room and a student called me by my first name, the teacher interrupted and told the student, “his first name is Mr.”. Assume formal until instructed otherwise. Listen carefully to your introduction. That is your name. If you are introducing yourself to students, go formal first.
Polite and Appropriate
Do what your mama taught you. Sir and ma’am are good, especially with administrators. Avoid slang. ‘Yes’ is better than ‘yeah’. Talk about students, not kids. Be careful if mentioning someone’s appearance, especially a student’s. Teens are hyper-sensitive about how they and others think they look. “Hot” is inappropriate for student or teacher. I grew up hearing phrases like, “You dress in the dark?”, but that could be the result of wearing the only clothes available. Trying to compliment a student’s look can get you labeled “creepy”. Until you know them, just don’t talk about appearance. There is often a back story that you don’t know.
It is sad that you can’t even assume things like “mom and dad” or “parents”. In my classes I have guardians who are single moms, single dads, grandparents and foster parents. I have students from non-English (or barely) speaking parents, some with deceased parents. Until you know who you are talking to and his/her home situation, speak generally or generically.
You will encounter students with piercings, tattoos, wild hair colors and shocking clothing choices. You are likely to encounter guys dressed like girls or girls like guys. Don’t ask why the tattoo, or if the piercing hurts, or anything. Avoid the drama.
Don’t give your opinion on couples, because you’ll see all kinds. Don’t assume that pretty girl has a boyfriend. You have to earn your way into those types of conversations and that is a difficult task to accomplish quickly. Some never let you in, but don’t go in uninvited.
Avoid politics. An educator may be polite enough not to interrupt, but you can unintentionally forfeit business by offending someone with a political joke or comment about a position or candidate.
Remembering that all educators are college graduates, avoid an uninvited comment about a college team. In my building, you’ll find passionate supporters (and haters) of Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Kentucky and Michigan. If you walk into my office wearing the school logo of the team that just beat my team, ummmm. Yeah. Don’t do that.
Classrooms, schools and staff are increasingly multi-cultural.
When a freshman band student came to me complaining about an upper classperson’s performance-related critical comment, I told her that, unless the upperclassperson was excessive or out of line, that she needed to listen to what they were saying.
The next thing I knew I was in the office student-charged with ‘racism’.
Be careful what you say.
Studies are showing that poverty has as much impact on school and student success as race. Education Week, in an article by Sarah D. Sparks, claims that “school poverty – more than race – affects students’ college-going”. City-Data.com reports that the local poverty rate is 15.7%, which means that 62 high school seniors would struggle with $70 yearbooks, $400 class rings or professionally photographed senior picture packages. Salespeople talking to students should not use words like “only” when describing cost.
Our marching band shoes cost $36, and we have several freshmen each year who will go through our boxes of “used” shoes to find a pair.
“Green” is huge. If you can package what you’re selling in an environmentally friendly way, you increase your success potential. Put your fundraising orders in ‘recycled’ or ‘biodegradable’ plastic. Or instead of using virgin boxes, take back the boxes you delivered in and reuse them somewhere else. What historically looked ugly or cheap now makes you look environmentally conscious. Green Child Magazine lists “10 Eco-Friendly Fundraisers”. Josten’s (class rings and graduation supplies) promotes “sustainable products”.
Teachers and administrators discipline students for bad language and won’t tolerate it from you either. Have you heard of zero tolerance? You might get to apologize if you have a language slip with a teacher or administrator, but if you cross that line with or in front of students, you are done and out of there.
Smoking, Drinking, Drugs, Weapons, Fighting, Bullying
Zero tolerance. In an age when elementary students are suspended for holding a gun-shaped pop tart, or shooting by pointed finger, or when a student taking an aspirin (or a teacher dispensing one) can face disciplinary action, you should consider the school as a sterile environment vice-wise.
Smoking. In most business or industry, even if you cannot smoke at the work station or in the office, there is a break room where you can, or you can step outside during a break. Not so at schools. In most cases, the entire campus is smoke-free for everyone at all times. If you smoke in your car on the way to an appointment, consider what your clothes will smell like when you get there.
Drinking. Teachers can’t leave for lunch and get a glass of wine with their lunch. Detection would likely mean termination. Don’t come in smelling of or under alcohol influence.
He owned a small, family-operated music instrument store in the town just 10 miles away from where I taught. I drove past that show on my way home from work, so it was convenient for both vendor and customer. There were rumors of the owner’s drinking problem, but I had not seen or experienced it and he had always done right by my program, so I remained loyal longer than many….. until the day he staggered into my band room and propped himself up against the door for stability. I asked him to leave and informed the principal, who promptly banned him from the campus.
Sad, because the replacement store was inconveniently 40 miles away. The local shop went out of business because my school’s decision became the norm.
Drugs. A teacher cannot give an aspirin to a student with a headache and students, unless nurse-approved, cannot carry medication with them. On band trips, we have designated parents carrying inhalers and signed parental permission. Students who have regular medication to take during the day (and an alarming number of them do), go to the nurse’s office to take it.
Weapons, Fighting, Bullying. A weapon would result in automatic expulsion (kicked out for at least the semester). Fighting and bullying would follow the normal discipline policy. Even with a license and the Second Amendment, it is illegal to have a firearm on school property. For a teacher, that means it can’t even stay in the car. That would go for you too.
Protective and Perception
Handshakes and high five’s are okay but otherwise, DON’T TOUCH. A photographer positioning a student for a picture is okay, but a speaker interacting with a group of students grabbing or hugging is not. Many students are extremely sensitive to any touch, and teachers are generally very hesitant, even after getting to know the student. As a guest in the building, you have not earned that permission.
Schools are mandated, expected and trusted to protect students. Don’t transport students without permission.
A 16-yr old student failed to get on the school bus. Shortly after parents realized it, there were administrators, custodians and teachers literally running to different areas and potential hiding places around the school and campus.
After unsuccessful searches by local law enforcement, an all-call for help went out to the community. Hundreds of students, parents and community members, every administrator and even the superintendent met in that Walmart parking lot to be divided into teams to focus on different parts of the city.
The student was found safe.
Sales trainers are all about emphasizing the importance of getting the sale on the spot. Handle the objections and go for the close (jugular). But there are few times the person you are contacting has authority to make a final decision. Most decisions in the school house involve a group or require approval. If you gather your information correctly, you will know who to meet and greet and when to unload your presentation.
Loyalty can work for you eventually, but until you earn it, respect it. Never bad mouth a competitor. If you do a good job of earning business from people who like and trust you, you will be able to keep their business by taking good care of them. As you encounter prospects firmly connected to a competitor, be polite, positive and respectfully persistent. Things change. Be the one they come to in that eventuality.
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