Riding in cars with sales consultants

As I’ve mentioned before, I work for Premier, an educational services company. We provide lifeskills training and tools for over 60,000 schools. This week I travelled to Texas and went with two of our local sales consultants to experience what their life is like.

After attending the National Association of Elementary School Principals convention in San Antonio, Texas, I spent two days riding along with sales consultants in the area.

Tuesday, April 4: Joy

It’s Tuesday, April 4th. I’m near Austin, Texas, to do a ride-along with Joy, our local sales consultant. I’m hoping to understand our market better by meeting the people in schools that we sell to – and by spending time with some of the people that meet educators and sell our products and programs.

Our first school of the day is Brushy Creek Elementary School in Leander, Texas – just a little north of Austin. I’m driving up from San Antonio – a couple hours away. I leave early just in case there’s a lot of traffic, and arrive before Joy, so I take a brief stroll. The April Texas weather is absolutely wonderful. Joy, the local sales consultant, will be there in just a few minutes.

Waxing philosophical

Just this past weekend I attended NAESP (National Association of Elementary School Principals) in San Antonio. And I’m still thinking of Judge Glenda Hackett’s keynote last night.

Hackett has huge talent for making pictures with words … mostly by telling meaningful stories that weave together to form a coherent speech. As I’m thinking about word pictures, I see one of the the oddest trees I’ve ever seen. The tree is literally longer than it’s tall … stretching parallel along the ground for probably 15 feet, then popping up vertically perhaps 10.

I immediately dub it the crazy tree.

Then – Judge Glenda’s on my mind – I think about kids. Some kids are like that tree. We have a place we want them to go … a destination we want them to end up at. But they don’t go there. In fact, they start heading off in some totally separate direction. And maybe we think they’re not really getting where they need to be going.

But some of those kids are going to turn a corner, and start heading right up where they need to go.

Joy arrives, I abandon philosophy, and we go into the school.

Getting into the first school

Today we’re talking to the school secretary, who will be making a decision on what planners the students will be using that year. Joy, who’s outgoing and very easy to talk to, asks a few questions and shows her a number of different options.

One of our agenda enhancements is a Book log, where elementary kids can record what books they’re reading. This sounds interesting to our client, so I tell her about the online component as well, where kids can compare what they read with other kids all over North America, rate their books, enter little book reports, and more.

The secretary says she also needs student folders for home-school communication. She wants customization with her school colors and logo, but that’s not a product we offer yet. I make a note to talk to product development about folder customization.

As we talk, I look around. The secretary’s “office� has 3 open doors and 2 windows. She’s interrupted every few minutes. Kids walk past in the hall fairly frequently, and one crying kid interrupts us for about 3 minutes.

The secretary we’re talking to gets but does not take three cell phone calls as we talk. Also, her own child, who is at this school, walks in and puts his head down on a desk: allergies, and not enough sleep last night (relatives over, she explains).

Joy runs back to the car to get a sample Book Log (I offer to search, but Joy isn’t confident that I’ll find) while I make small talk with the secretary and she takes care of some of her many tasks.

We walk out with an order and I jump into Joy’s Jeep as we continue our day.

Panning for gold

Next up is prospecting at a couple of local schools. We don’t have a ton of luck getting in with principals or VPs: they’re all busy people.

Sales is a hard job, especially when you’re cold-calling. School secretaries sit like guards at the entrance to a lot of these Texas schools. Pass them and you’re still outside the moat. There’s still a personal secretary for the administrator, or the office manager, to justify your existence to.

Pass all the tests, be persistent enough, be nice enough, and they might let the drawbridge down, giving you the administrator’s name and email address. The key is persuading the gatekeepers that you won’t waste the administrator’s time.

But the walls of the inner keep are still in front of you. Once you meet a school administrator the real game begins. Listening to his or her challenges. Presenting some Premier solutions. And having a persuasive enough story to get a signature.

The PTA volunteer

After our prospecting, we drive to a school where we have an appointment to meet a PTA person. On the way, Joy’s GPS has a brain cramp and takes us in a 25-minute loop to get to a school we later discover to be only 5 minutes away.

Meeting the PTA contact is eye-opening. She’s a dedicated volunteer – and hurried away from work just to meet us. She estimates that she’s put in 24 hours of volunteered time just to research us, our competitors, and understand what teachers and kids in her school need before choosing us. We meet outdoors, but I tell her it’s the nicest office we’ve been in all day.

Joy had previously met her and given her some samples and brochures. Now she brings out the samples and shows us what products she’s chosen. Uh oh! One of them, interestingly enough, turns out to be a School Mate agenda! (I make a mental note: clearly we don’t have adequate brand differentation.) Joy deftly stickhandles the issue – 15 minutes of questions, suggestions, and quick thinking – and we get the full order anyways.

It’s TAKS Time

Next up is another appointment, this time with Caraway Elementary in Austin. We meet a grade 3 teacher who re-orders their agendas. The school name just changed, so the teacher is thinking about using one of our planners with the option to have the school picture on it and the school logo, in the school colors.

She tells us about the Texas Academic Knowledge & Skills (TAKS) tests, and gives us a tip. Every school in Texas (we’ve heard it at almost every school) is going nuts with TAKS tests right now. High-stakes testing, indeed.

The tip is that the Texas Educational Service Center, region 13 has an amazing boiled-down brief version of what students need to know for the standardized tests. Maybe it’s something we can develop into a Texas-specific agenda insert. I make another note for product development.

We get a signed order, and that’s pretty much the end of the day with Joy. She’s been great to ride with, and I thank her before we part ways – she going home and me driving back to my hotel in San Antonio.

Wednesday, April 4th: Matt Reevely

The next day, I’m with our San Antonio rep, Matt. He picks me up at 7:30 at my hotel, and we drive about 30 minutes north of San Antonio to New Braunsfeld. We have an appointment at Memorial Elementary with a principal.

The long arm of the law

Unfortunately, when we show up, we find out that she was subpoenaed today to testify in a court case. Thinking the appointment is toast, we start to leave. But just as we’re about to go, the school secretary ducks her head out of the office and tells us that the principal left a message that instead we can meet with a secretary and an assistant principal/instructional development specialist.

We have a good meeting – essentially repeating what they purchased previously. No decision-maker there, so there isn’t much of an upsell opportunity, but Mat gets the name of the school counselor to follow up with on our Sunburst video training products (Character Education materials). He fills out the order form and leaves it with the counselor and secretary, to be signed by the administrator. We’ll pick it up later in the afternoon, on our way back into Austin.

Planting seeds

Mat and I then stop by New Braunfeld’s Middle School, just a couple of miles away. They’re already our clients – using our agendas – but the administrator has expressed some interest in our USGT program (USGT = Ultimate Success Guide for Teens) to accelerate the mentorship initiative she has started in the school.

We don’t have an appointment, but since we’re in the area, we pop in anyways. As expected, she’s busy, but Mat leaves a USGT workbook and his card. He’ll follow up later by email and phone, and hopefully all the seeds planted will result in something harvestable.

We drive up to San Marcos. On the way, Matt’s phone rings. It’s a principal he’s been trying to contact. We’re 2 minutes away from an exit, and Mat asks if he can call her back in a couple of minutes when he’s pulled over. We pull over, he calls, and gets her voicemail. We get back on the road – then she calls again. We pull off again, and this time Matt sets up an appointment for next week.

Echoes of Katrina

A few minutes later we pull into San Marcos High School. The principal’s busy with a student, so I wait in the office while Matt goes back to the car to pick up one more thing. As I’m sitting in the office, I overhear the school’s registrar talking to a woman and her very little child – about 2 years old, just like my son Aidan.

The kid is painfully cute, asking the registrar if her finger has a boo-boo because she has one of the rubber page-turning things on her thumb. They’re from New Orleans – displaced by Katrina. The registrar is asking them if they’re planning on returning to New Orleans. The mother isn’t sure – she says it’s been so good for them since they’ve come to San Marcos that she doesn’t know if they want to go back.

Promoting the USGT: new ideas

We continue waiting in the office for another 20 minutes. While we’re waiting, Mat and I talk about an idea he has regarding our USGT product. To stimulate business, he’d like to offer schools a free 1-hour start-up on the program, with product, as long as they bring 30-40 kids in and the principal and at least one teacher sit in on the session. His wife would do the sessions (she’s a certified and experienced teacher), and Premier could offer her a stipend of $100 or so for each session.

I recommend he do it – just try it – and then, based on the results, suggest it to Tom Osborne, his regional sales manager, and Premier higher management.
Finally, Jan, the head counselor that we’re meeting with, finishes up with the 3 visitors that she’s had in her office and comes out to meet us. She’s smiling and apologetic – there was a family crisis she had to attend to.

Remedial agendas

She’s looking for agendas – they’re going to use them with their freshmen (grade 9) who are coming into the school to get them up to speed on accountability, homework completion, and time management. In fact, the school mostly wants to use them in remedial situations. I suggest that other kids will see them – they’re going to be very cool-looking books with the school’s logo – and want them, and Jan enthusiastically agrees.

Mat asks a few questions, and we find out that she’s interested in a handbook with drug and alcohol information, and a hall pass – they currently use a clipboard in each classroom, but can replace that method with something that is individualized for each student. We can stick it right in each agenda.

So Mat writes up the order and she signs it. About 750 agendas.

Education in America

We start talking about education. In Europe, education gets so differentiated as kids get older. But in America, it seems to be all the same for all kids.
The counselor mentions Daniel Goleman and multiple intelligences, so I tell her about Educator Symposium, which is an amazing seminar that we’re running in Chicago and simulcasting via satellite to 40 cities around the USA.

The Family Matters Calendar

Then it’s almost 12:00, so Matt and I stop for lunch at Johnny Carino’s. We start talking about the Family Matters Calendar, and Matt thinks that an agenda insert is a better opportunity than the flyer sent to parents. It’ll be visible for longer, he thinks.

I think the challenge remains the same: getting parents to do something when the FMC is the opposite of an impulse buy. (That was our problem with the product launch previously. Everyone loves it, but not as many people actually do it as we’d like.)

Matt suggests we have a class prize for the class that is responsible for the most sales. So: the class that brings in the most receipts that parents get after purchasing an FMC will win a pizza party. We’ll need a minimum order, however, of at least 100 per school and perhaps a class minimum.

We can send the school a letter telling them this, and SCs can also inform schools of this opportunity. That will necessitate a letter or newsletter mention home from the school so that parents hand in their receipts – a bonus because that’s another way to let parents know what’s going on, and remind them to get their custom calendars.

Getting out the metal detector

After lunch we swing up to Kyle, near Buda, Texas, and drop in on Jack C. Haye’s High School. It’s a big school – 2500 students – and a good potential client. Matt’s contact there is the interim principal, who used to be the academic dean, and just interviewed for the job of principal.

After waiting for a moment – someone’s in her office – we get ushered in. She’s polite and friendly, and it looks like she’s very interested in putting our agendas in combination with her academic advisory period.

Matt asks how sure she is that she’ll get the job, and she thinks its about a 7 or 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. That’s good news, because she’s almost certain to order with us if she does. Until she knows if she’ll be the principal or not, however, she’s not making any major buying decisions. Having waved the flag, we troop back out. While this school’s not going to make a decision until the leadership question is resolved, the prospects are good.

Next door is Barton Middle School. Matt’s hasn’t gotten a very warm reception here in the past, but we figure we might as well take another swing, so we drop by. A man at the front desk is fairly standoffish – won’t even take Matt’s card – but the other receptionist, Colleen, is warm and friendly.

The principal we want to see is doing “observation,� which means she’s spending time in classrooms while teachers are teaching … checking out how they’re doing. But we spend some time with Colleen, telling her a little about what we do. She’s interested, and lets us know the best way to get through to the vice-principal. The school’s currently using a competitor, but Matt very nicely and briefly outlines some of the reason why they should at least consider working with Premier.
It’s a good call, and it’s worth the effort. Hopefully some of the seeds we’ve planted will bear fruit in the future. At the very least, this secretary is now an ally instead of a gatekeeper.

Picking up the gold

On the way back down south to San Antonio, we drop back in on Memorial Elementary in New Braunsfeld. The order form that we filled out this morning is now signed, and we pick it up before continuing south on I-35.

One more big idea

On the way back, Matt’s wife phones. She’s got an idea for a new insert – a state-specific insert on the Texas Academic Knowledge & Skills (TAKS) test. That’s right in line with what we’ve done for California, Virginia, and BC, as well as other states and provinces. Texas, being so big, is a natural for this kind of insert. Since we’ve already seen lots of interest in this type of thing, I make yet another mental note to mention it to marketing and product development.

We drive back on into San Antonio, and that ends my two days of sales consultant ride-alongs.