Steve Bannister, Commercial Director, Collab Group

Getting to Grips with Sales in the Education Market.

The Adult education market is facing a perfect storm of change.

Training providers and colleges used to hold the purse-strings for apprenticeships, but since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy employers now have direct control over apprenticeship funding.

This change could represent a huge opportunity for training providers, but the sad thing is that while many providers have great solutions to offer up to the UK skills market their sales team are often ill-equipped to secure strategic relationships and partnerships with employers.

Training providers need to raise their sales game.

Sales reps working for FE Colleges need to be best in class if they want to compete for business and not have private sector providers eat their lunch.

Today’s sales reps need to be able to challenge, inform, educate and weave a compelling narrative of the value delivered by apprenticeships.

Instead of sending poorly trained sales reps out into the field to “push” a limited portfolio of apprenticeships and training onto employers, providers must be responsive and compete for business. This requires a step change in sales capability.

A Sobering story

Not long ago I was chatting to the head of sales of a sizeable college. I was trying to gain insights into their sales strategy. Historically colleges would operate within a reasonably constrained geography.

Since FE Colleges are firmly rooted within their local communities they tend to work mostly with SMEs and mid cap employers - often leaving the large national employer skills needs to private providers. This led to the rapid growth and ultimate crash and burn of providers such as Carter and Carter, First 4 Skills, eResponse and 3aaa.

Whereas those private providers had slick sales functions their quality of provision (and sometimes ethics) was derisory. In contrast, many colleges have excellent provision and a truly ethical spine, but their sales teams all too often lack experience and the sales skills required to engage meaningfully with UK industry.

In the current climate of reduced funding, colleges are increasingly having to look for more sizeable contracts — many of which require skills and training to be delivered well beyond their traditional stomping grounds. This calls for a new level of sales sophistication.

"What" I asked, "was the college’s sales strategy for securing training contracts with large employers?"

The tumble-weed silence that ensued spoke volumes. A good half hour later and after a series of gentle probing questions I uncovered enough insights to prompt me to ask the same question of other colleges.

What I discovered was this:

  • Many colleges wait for the phone to ring and then respond to employer enquiries. Not because of some sophisticated social selling strategy but because they lack a cohesive sales strategy.
  • All too many sales reps working within the education sector have had little or no sales training, sales visits and calls aren’t planned or structured. They don’t lead the conversations with buyers.
  • The ability to ask the right discovery questions of employers is wanting, often turning into something akin to an inquisition rather than demonstrating a credible ability to uncover real pain points.
  • Sales enablement processes and resources are limited.
  • CRMS are underutilised as is robust prospect research.
  • Sales and marketing teams within training providers are often placed in silos- reporting into different leaderships with different budgets and misaligned KPIs.
  • Colleges seem to fear using the term “sales” at all. A variety of euphemisms are referred to instead: “Employer engagement officer”, “Business development executive” and other such job titles adorn business cards.

Selling into the B2B Market

The paradigm shift brought about by the introduction of the apprenticeship levy represents both challenge and opportunity for the training sector.

Digital technology means that sophisticated buyers are well-informed and do much of their research before even speaking to someone from a local college. These buyers are experts and unless we match their expertise with well-trained sales professionals, we run the risk of insulting them and wasting everyone’s time.

Instead of turning to sales reps for information - today’s buyers trawl through case studies, price-lists, online brochures, Ofsted reports and customer experience feedback from the comfort of their desk and via the internet.

The consequence for those hapless “business development executives” is that a lot of the buying process is happening without their involvement.

Some estimates claim that close to 60% of purchasing activities occur before a sales rep is involved.

What to do?

Let’s professionalise our frontline sales teams!

If you are a training provider or FE college and especially if you are a levy payer, then now is the time to invest in your frontline sales teams. Equip them with the skills required to up their game.

Wouldn’t it be compelling if your sales reps could say they are actually an apprentice when asking employers to sign up the own staff for apprenticeships? Isn’t this a great way of dispelling the myth that apprenticeships are only for new starts?

Apprenticeships are about learning new skills and that exactly what our sales teams need. The new B2B sales executive apprenticeship standard is the perfect vehicle for this. It includes the Level 4 Sales executive certificate accredited by the Association of Professional Sales (APS).

Equip your sales team with the knowledge and insights they need to build meaningful relationships with industry.

Co-locate your sales and marketing functions

Let marketing throw the ball and your sales team catch it and score. Put them in the same room, let them report into the same leadership. Have them share targets and work together to effectively manage data, mine prospects and provide valuable feedback loops from your customer base.

Let them collectively focus on the customer experience. In the digital age marketing is a critical facet of the sales journey. Create rich and engaging content and stop spitting out bland adverts that say: “We’re the best…” No-one cares what you think of your own product, the market will decide for itself.

It’s all in the mix

Mono-culture sales or marketing functions just don’t cut the mustard in the modern age. Cold calling doesn’t quite deliver the return it used to. Your customers are engaging through multiple channels so if we want real dialogue with industry and an opportunity to build trust- training providers need to adopt a multichannel approach.

A Facebook page and a measly LinkedIn presence just isn’t enough. Think webinars, blog posts, infographics, trade shows, video explainers, case studies & thought leadership articles. Think of coaching your sales teams. Get your sales and marketing teams to develop customer personas. Have them present and constantly update a sales plan.

From good to great

Buyers expect excellence. They have plenty of choice and if you or the training provider you work for want to play with the big kids you will have to demand excellence from your customer facing teams. The Learning and Development and procurement teams of large UK companies all know and talk to each other.

To be credible in this space we need to be nothing short of excellent in terms of customer service and effective communication. B2B and B2C sales are on a path of convergence. The same respect and ease of purchase offered to the consumer needs to be extended to the B2B buyer too.

Let’s not underestimate customers by sending poorly trained sales reps out into the field to confuse and frustrate our client base. As educators and custodians of learning we need to make it easier and simpler for companies to access our services. We need to be clear on the value we offer. We need to know how to ask the right questions.

We spend too much time talking to each other on social media and in the trade press; attending gala dinners where we pat each other on the back in the absence of employers (our customers).

We need to be where our customers are - not hanging out with competitors. Let’s ditch the acronyms and jargon. Let’s make sure our sales people are as good as they can possibly by investing in them. 

Let’s help make UK industry great again. (sorry Mr. Trump). OK, so I’m getting a bit excitable now, perhaps that’s a cue to get off my soap box ?

We all stand to benefit from professionalising the sales people working within the education sector. Start mapping out your customer journey today. 

The question I really want to ask is: “How did we get by for so long without investing in our frontline sales teams?”

The new B2B Sales executive apprenticeship is, to my mind, the right product at the right time.

Steve Bannister, Commercial Director, Collab Group

About Steve: With considerable experience in sales and marketing, he has been the commercial director of several learning, education and employment organisations. Steve is passionate about people and business transformation

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