Just Who is the Decision-Maker Anyhow?

Market Insight
By Charles Sosnik, Editor in Chief

It’s among the most frequently asked questions in EdBiz. How do I identify the decision-maker? How can I determine the target for my marketing and scale my sales effort if I can’t identify the decision-maker for my products?

Welcome to the education business.

Even though I’m an education guy now, I spent much of my former life in the business media, first with American City Business Journals in the late 80s, and then with trades and broadcast media. For a B2B business, identifying the decision-maker for an industry was the necessary first step to sales-success at scale. Normally that was easy to do within a specific vertical. Once you determined the decision-maker(s), you then created a marketing plan which catalyzed and supported your sales department. For professionals, this was pretty basic stuff and the same rules applied from industry to industry.

About 10 years ago, I made the wacky decision to get involved with the education sector. There were a lot of pluses. The education space is filled with passionate, committed, mission-driven people. The education business is never boring. But mostly, being in the education business affords me a chance to give back, to help children learn and prepare themselves for a better life than they might have had otherwise. Chances are, if you are reading this, you are in the education biz for similar reasons. Very few people are in education for the money. It’s about helping children and making the world a better place.

So here you are. Talk about a win-win. The more successful you are in business, the more kids you can help. And that means sales. With more than 100,000 public schools in over 13,000 districts, 35,000 private schools, over 3000 four-year colleges and 980 community colleges, you probably won’t run out of prospects anytime soon. But unless you are a very large company with established relationships and hundreds of salespeople, the size of the market can be more of a hindrance than a benefit. The primary reason why is because you can’t automate the process. If you are selling specifically to K-12 for example, identifying the decision-maker can differ from state to state, from district to district within that state, and often from school to school within a district. That said, there are some guidelines you can follow:

  1. The size of the district is often a determining factor. In a small district (up to 10,000 students), the superintendent will often be the decision-maker, even if others were involved in gathering the information. Depending on the expenditure, even midsized districts (up to 50,000 students) may require the superintendent’s approval. More often in a midsized district, there is an assistant superintendent over your area that will be the decision-maker. Often in a mid-sized system and usually in a large system, decisions are made at the director level (curriculum director, etc.).
  2. You are better off starting high and getting kicked downstairs if necessary. When in doubt, go to the highest level that may be involved. Even if the superintendent isn’t involved in the buying decision, he or she will be a valuable ally to have and you can gain insight into the overall strategy that the district is currently pursuing.
  3. Assume that there are multiple parties involved in the buying process. You’ll be right almost every time. Don’t be afraid to ask. Plainly. Asking your prospect a question like “In addition to yourself, who else is involved in the decision to purchase curriculum” can save you countless steps and can be the difference between a sale or another expensive learning experience. The lower you are in the pecking order, the more important this question becomes. Always remember to ask the “in addition to yourself” part. Even if there is only one person that can say yes, there are many who can say no. You don’t want to bruise any egos along the way.
  4. Unless you have a lot of time and money, don’t adopt a strategy of getting a free version into the hands of the end-user and hope that it will get referred up to the decision-maker. Most companies that try this ultimately fail, and often it is because of fear of selling at the district level.
  5. Whether you find success or not with a district, concentrate on the relationships. The sales cycle in the school world can be painfully slow. The relationships you make will always pay off. And once you have those relationships in place, insist on a referral. If your prospect sees enough value in having a relationship with you, they will almost always be willing to help. Just because the timing isn’t right for them, doesn’t mean that they may not know another district who could use you. If the district is already a customer, they’ll want to tell other districts about the success they are having with you. Have the superintendent (or assistant supe or director) make a personal email introduction to his or her counterpart in neighboring districts. You’ll want to make a habit of doing this. A referral from a superintendent is worth a hundred cold calls.
  6. Remember that education has many stakeholders. Even private education is a public business. That means buying decisions have community consequences. Knowing this will give you insight into the buying process. School and district officials are public figures. They rely on the approval of the communities they serve. The higher up you go, the more that influences behavior and often adoption of a product or service. Some of the most skilled politicians I have ever met were school superintendents. This is not intended as an insult, but a reality of an already challenging position.

Success in the education market will be the hardest job you’ll ever love. The bad news is that it is a world onto itself. The good news is that many of the rules you know still apply. One of the most basic, and one that I’ve rarely seen fail, is if you want to be successful, do the things that successful people do. The same things that have worked for other successful education businesses can likely work for you. One of the reasons we started this industry newsletter is because we recognized that education is experiencing change at an exponentially increasing pace. It is all driven by the consumerization of learning. Several of the gargantuan old-guard education companies didn’t recognize this fact and were not nimble enough to keep up. That has left a vacuum in the education space that can only be filled by smarter, more responsive firms. We decided to help add context to these changes and to provide you with the tools you needed, so that your success can translate into additional success for our learners.

Let us know how we’re doing. If you’d like to share some successful strategies with your peers, drop us a line and we’ll put you in the next edition. After all, we’re all in this together, and a rising tide floats all, well, you know.


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