Understanding school evaluation and buying cycles

Throughout the year, schools generally go through several steps in the evaluation and buying cycle. First they determine their needs, then they seek solutions and request information, and finally they review alternatives and select a product for purchase. Ongoing marketing is needed at every stage, but knowing the key points along the way can help you refine your marketing and sales strategy and maximize your opportunities.

Schools and districts in the U.S. generally operate on a July 1-June 30 fiscal year, with one exception—school libraries, which use a calendar fiscal year. They must consider the regulations attached to state, federal, and local funds, and those regulations generally involve timing.

Schools and districts typically begin to look for solutions in the late summer and early fall, after they have reviewed end-of-year test scores and identified areas of need. This is an important time to get your message out to a broad base and help customers begin the process of considering your product.

At this time, it is important to reach out to customers repeatedly with strong, consistent branding and messaging. Let customers know which problems you address and how, and provide data from other schools if possible. Avoid a list of features—remember that schools are thinking about their areas of need.

The next stage, in the early spring, involves several concurrent activities. You may need to provide additional information to prospects identified in the fall. You may need to be aware of competitive strengths and weaknesses, as schools evaluate your product along with others. Your sales people may need to provide demonstrations and reference accounts and begin building relationships.

At the same time, it is important to continue your outbound marketing program, to keep up the awareness level, identify additional prospects, and maintain momentum as the time for decision making approaches. Schools and districts issue most purchase orders between June and August, depending on the funding source. State funds, generally the largest portion of school funding, must be spent before the end of June or forfeited, so if customers are using these end-of-year monies, the purchase order must be issued and the product received by June 30.

If schools plan to fund the purchase out of the next year’s budget, the purchase order can be issued earlier, but the product cannot be received until after July 1. Securing end-of-year monies can be competitive, so be prepared to offer special pricing or other benefits if needed to secure the order.

For products over a certain dollar amount, schools may need to issue an RFP, generally between December and March. Staying up to speed on which RFPs have been issued can be challenging, and the sales cycle can last up to 18 months, although the average is six to nine months. Here it is important to move quickly and provide an RFP response by the required date. And remember that start and end dates for each step in the process can vary widely, so after you have identified prospects, be sure you understand the details of their local purchasing cycle.

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