The best way to increase your odds of long-term sales success is to develop a deep understanding of your prospects’ situation and goals before you pitch something to them, said public-sector experts speaking Wednesday on the second of e.Republic’s 10 Laws of Government Sales and Marketing webcast series.
This knowledge is crucial to having relevant sales meetings — and ultimately developing lasting partnerships — with public-sector prospects. But based on results of a pre-event survey of webcast attendees, companies often struggle to gain this crucial intelligence.
More than half of our webcast registrants said they lacked confidence that their sales and marketing teams can “speak the same language” as government customers. 50 percent said they need stronger public-sector positioning of their products and services.
So, how do you get on the same page with public-sector prospects? The key, says e.Republic Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler, is to understand government customers from three perspectives:
Haisler, former CIO for the city of Manor, Texas, joined Kecia Ray, executive director of e.Republic’s Center for Digital Education and former Director of Learning Technology for Nashville Public Schools, for an interactive discussion on how companies can engage more effectively with potential government clients. The two former public officials offered an insider’s perspective on how to approach prospects.
It might seem logical to simply ask prospective clients about their challenges, but both Haisler and Ray say to avoid cliché questions such as, “What keeps you awake at night?”
Opening a sales meeting with queries like these indicate you haven’t taken the time to learn about a customer’s needs and understand how your solution can help. That’s the wrong message to send to public officials who are barraged with meeting requests and wary of gratuitous product pitches.
Instead, come to the meeting armed with a firm grasp of a prospect’s current situation and where the agency is headed.
“Every interaction needs to be valuable for your prospect and for you,” says Haisler. “I wanted meetings that were built around how a solution was going to solve my unique problems. Vendors that hadn’t done their homework didn’t understand my challenges or even how my budget process worked.” Understanding the rules and variables that shape the needs of government clients is the foundation for productive partnerships and more sales. Here’s what you need to know:
These are the rules government officials must live by: Budget cycles, procurement regulations, organizational structures. You simply can’t be relevant to government clients without understanding these factors upfront.
“It’s so important to know these foundational elements in advance,” says Haisler. “And the great thing about government and education is these are the most transparent industries in the world. So you can find this information online and through a variety of other channels.” Simple web searches often will provide a wealth of information about procurement rules, current contracting methods, budget cycles and organizational structures. This information helps you understand how a jurisdiction typically buys things, as well as the timing for major purchases.
“You can glean tons of insight from understanding a jurisdiction’s fiscal year. That will tell you how to time your sales and marketing campaigns,” says Haisler. “You can also see contract vehicles that already are in place, and the rules for discretionary spending and what needs to go out to bid.”
Understanding these factors not only tells you the landscape in which your prospects operate, it also helps you avoid embarrassing mistakes. “I had a vendor come to me one time with a great solution for helping me manage my electric utility,” says Haisler. “The only problem was my city didn’t provide electricity. So it was a complete mismatch and a waste of time for both of us.”
These are the factors that guide an agency’s strategic direction. They include leadership priorities, strategic plans, roadmaps and the existing technology environment.
Rays says these elements have a huge influence on public-sector purchasing. “Almost everything that’s happening in K-12 and higher education is related to the superintendent’s or university president’s plan,” she says. “Those plans are approved by the government board of a district or university and they are how education leaders are held accountable for their jobs. So everything they do is related back to that vision and mission and strategic plan.”
Strategic plans and mission statements commonly are available online, as are technology plans and IT roadmaps, which can give valuable insight into future procurements and the existing IT environment.
Searching information about awarded contracts — which is often posted publicly on government contracting web pages — also can provide valuable insight into where agencies and institutions already have made significant investments.
“You need to understand who they’re working with, what their existing landscape looks like and what their plan is going forward,” says Haisler.
“That’s where you can find opportunities to align yourself to help them accomplish those goals.”
These are outside forces like technology trends and best practices that will impact the way jurisdictions use technology to address their challenges. Vendors can provide huge value by mapping these big picture trends to the specific needs of their customers.
“When I was in the public sector, one of the most significant partnerships I had was with my industry contacts who would help me think through really complicated issues,” says Ray. “They could tell me how districts like mine were approaching similar challenges. That’s incredibly helpful.” Ray also valued vendors that could show her solutions from other markets that might be relevant to her needs. “For example,” she said, “they might bring me ideas from working with emergency management customers that could help me with campus security.”
Successful companies combine specific knowledge of a prospect’s foundational elements and internal variables with this broader market expertise to become indispensable to government customers.
“This is where you take what’s happening in the market and craft it with a point of view around your product or service,” says Haisler. “You speak the language of government by combining these elements into a concise and uniquely relevant message to your prospect.”
Featuring Dustin Haisler, Chief Innovation Officer, e.Republic; Joe Morris, Vice President of Research, e.Republic.