A Crash Course in Selling to Academia

by in Marketing

woman-hand-desk-office-largeSpending on education technology is expected to reach $19B globally by 2019. Though commonly overlooked by B2B sales teams, the education market can be an especially lucrative arena for SaaS sales conversations.

Several recent trends have transformed academia into a particularly fertile breeding ground for technology purchase conversations. For one, spending on PCs is on the climb, giving rise to new hardware to support SaaS software. For another, academia is increasingly embracing the “going digital” trend, replacing archaic infrastructure in favor of cloud technologies. As well, academia is gravitating towards decentralized purchasing. There’s less red tape and end users – faculty and students – now have more say in the decision-making process than ever before.

While this is all good news for SaaS sales reps, there’s no denying that education is a distinct beast in the B2B kingdom. There’s an art to capitalizing on the opportunity at hand – an art that must take into account the following:

Validation process:

Education institutes typically adhere to a distinct mindset when it comes to validating potential technologies. They don’t have the luxury of in-house Gartner-esque analysts that other industries are privy to. Decision makers (the true academics that they are) do their own homework. While they tend to appreciate fact-driven sales collateral (such as feature-to-feature comparisons outlining how a specific technology stacks up against competitors), they seek out cold-hard evidence that a product wil solve their specific needs.

Effective sales reps will produce this “cold-hard evidence” by adhering to a“ land and expand” strategy. That is, they’ll first target a particular cohort of schools (in the case of K-12 entities) or a small department or faculty group (in the case of higher education entities). By demonstrating success on a small scale, they’re better able to garner support from key decision makers to commit to larger purchases and join forces with colleagues to secure the necessary buy-in.


Compared to other sectors, academia places greater importance on relationships during technology sales cycles. Dr. Kim, Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, explains, “in the high-tech world of companies turnover is normal and expected. In higher ed, we tend to stay at our institutions for a long time, and we build relationships over decades.”

When working the education market, it’s essential that sales reps commit to developing strong relationships. Handoffs will be inevitable (turnover rates among sales reps have been estimated at nearly twofold the national labor force average). When reps inherit education accounts, they must devote a lot of time upfront to understanding the decision makers involved (ideally, by reaching out to previous reps in charge of the inherited accounts).

The importance of relationships is also fortified by the long sales cycles involved in education purchase decisions. More than half of educators report that planning for new technology initiatives takes 10 months or longer. Selling B2E offers a good rule of thumb: purchase decisions for a single school span 9 months on average, while decisions for district sales span 18 months. When fostering relationships with education decision makers, sales reps will do well to focus less on ROI and more on demonstrating how a particular technology aligns with the academic entity’s teaching and learning approaches. They’ll take time to inquire about the entity’s approaches and craft conversations accordingly.

Account tiering:

When tiering education accounts, sales reps will likely need to develop a fine-tuned approach that includes a large number of variables to account for the intricacies of each account. One account tiering variable should almost certainly be level of education. K-12 and higher education accounts are very beasts. Investment foci differ: in 2015, U.S. higher education purchases were expected to relate predominately to enterprise networks and high end notebook computers, whereas K-12 investment were expected to relate primarily to applications and general PC upgrades.

Another account tiering variable ought to be approach to technology innovation. A 2014 report found that states differ markedly in terms of their approaches. Virginia, for example, was found to exhibit an organized, modern, and detailed approach to technological progress (along with states such as Ohio and Maryland). On the other hand, states such as Iowa, Missouri, and Montana fell short. It’s likely that technology innovation will differ within states. One effective method for sales reps to gage innovation affinity is to research current technology initiatives launched at accounts (for example, online learning, MOOC initiatives, etc.). To this end, Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire University, and Western Governors have been acknowledged as “first movers.”

Sales reps should also consider available funding in tiering and prioritizing accounts. There are few buying consortiums as each district and each school operates according to its own policies. Ryan Catherwood, higher ed blogger and the Assistant VP for Alumni and Career Services at Longwood University, reflects, “having worked at a very small private university and now a large public, I can safely say that the available funds for new technology are just about the same — minimal.”

Location should be considered alongside funding. States tend to differ notably in terms of their aptitude for education IT spending. According to a 2015 report, California leads the way in terms of education IT spending ($2.3B in 2015), followed by Texas ($1.2B in 2015), and New York ($1.1B in 2015).

There’s no denying that academia has become a promising arena for SaaS technology sales. There’s no sign of slowdown. According to an IDC report , 1.8% and 1.7% growth in spending is expected in 2016 for K-12 and higher education, respectively. The best sales will become ace students – they’ll diligently take time to do their homework on prospect accounts before enrolling in sales conversations. By doing so, they’ll be more likely to graduate from deals with A+ grades.



About The Author

Rebecca Hinds
Rebecca Hinds - View more articles

Rebecca Hinds graduated from Stanford University in 2014 with a M.S. in Management Science and Engineering. In 2013, Rebecca co-founded Stratio, a semi-conductor company developing infrared sensors. The company was selected by the Kairos Society as one of the 50 most innovative student-run businesses in the world.