I’ve worked at Education Elements for just over one year. Fourteen months, to be precise. As such, I’ve now worked in sales for more than one year.
I didn’t intend to work in sales. At the end of my undergraduate, I applied to over thirty jobs. Only one was in sales; the rest were in research, education policy and communications. While both of my undergraduate degrees (economics and political science) were from the W.P. Carey School of Business, I had very little interest in working in a traditional business role. No accounting, supply chain, or finance for me. Definitely no sales.
My passion was education. An edtech documentary project in Mexico and a thesis on English Language Learner policy had convinced me that my talents would be best applied somewhere at the intersection of technology, policy and education.
Then, I found Education Elements. A consulting company working with public school districts, Ed Elements was one of few organizations in the edtech space that I saw asking–and answering–deep, systemic questions about how classroom instruction needs to shift with modern technologies. Though Ed Elements has historically also sold a software product, the bulk of the company’s work was and continues to be in-person consulting services. Our “Design and Implementation” consultants support district and school leaders in changing instructional practice to a more student-centered, personalized approach. Towards a philosophy that we call personalized learning.
At Ed Elements, I am a salesman. Specifically, I do lead generation, meaning that I help source and cultivate relationships with new districts that might work with us. Lead gen was one of few positions open when I resolved to apply to the company.
It was also the only position for which I was qualified. Begrudgingly, I could see how my background–with writing, public speaking, research, project management and general business knowledge–actually made me well-suited for sales.
As an inside sales representative, I am potential clients’ first personal point of contact. I am both the prophet that preaches the potential of a new path and the familiar face that district leaders can consult with as they explore personalized learning, blended learning and how to implement those ideas.
I am also the fisherman trying to hook new prospects, hiding the barbs of my hook with enticing baubles and fine meats.
That is not a flattering analogy, but some days it feels true. To me, sales is often difficult–compromising, to some extent. I don’t mean to imply that I lie or deceive, but a necessity of sales is lauding your success stories and downplaying your failures. This may involve omitting complicating details to effectively convey your organization’s vision and value.
This is not good; it is not bad. It is reality. Every organization, whether non-profit, for-profit, or public, must find customers or benefactors to survive. This requires sales, which is often just strategic storytelling. Sales, like storytelling, involves crafting the right message to captivate an audience–not necessarily the most thorough or factual message.
On one hand, I love having the opportunity to share with educators about Ed Elements’ services. I spend my day telling inspiring success stories which I’ve witnessed firsthand from visiting our partner districts. Plus, despite my young age and relative inexperience, I am granted incredible agency in how I help the company develop and operationalize new strategies for company success. Growing any organization is complicated work, and I get to be among the first to try my hand at cracking the growth nut, frequently with tools of my own crafting.
Of course, there are downsides. I work for a for-profit company, and our clients are public schools. There is a constant tension between how much is too much when it comes to our fees. When the revenue of any company stems directly from taxpayers pockets, especially at the expense of our students and public schools, I believe there is an added burden of moral accountability. This is not an unwanted tension; it simply compels me to scrutinize our costs, profits and how we allocate resources.
Additionally, though all of our consultants are former educators, they are still consultants. Thus, my team is viewed with suspicion from the start by already cash-strapped district leaders. Such is consulting, in any industry. As the spokesman for those expensive consultants, I have the challenge of persuading prospects that we are worth every dollar.
I believe we are worth a lot, but there are still mysteries surrounding our profit margin that I do not completely understand. I hear, however, phenomenal praise of our consultants from our clients, which helps me in my sales responsibilities.
One of the biggest insecurities I feel in sales is that I don’t ever “walk the talk.” I have worked in education research, edtech journalism and afterschool organizations, but I have never taught in a formal classroom setting. When it comes to personalized learning, I know the path, I know what you should bring on the journey, but I can’t say that I’ve ever traveled the road which I want you to take.
I actually think it’s common for sales professional to have little experiential knowledge of their products or services. For example, at a bar I recently spoke with a dental technology salesman. While obviously adept at speaking about his product’s features, he was not a dentist; in fact, he had never used his product in practice. None of his dental sales colleagues were dentists either. I suspect that few dentists become dental technology sales professionals.
I’ve learned that having little subject matter expertise does not make you unqualified to sell. (Though it certainly doesn’t hurt.) To sell well, you need to be articulate, an active listener, and empathetic. Ideally, you are persuasive and resilient as well.
The above skills are those that I am actively developing in my sales work. While there are days that I struggle with being a “sayer” and not a “doer,” I think these skills are important to hone. I am grateful for my job and what I am learning.
That being said, I do not want to work in sales forever.
Luckily, Ed Elements has a good culture of supporting employee interests as they relate to professional responsibilities. I’m given considerable flexibility to dabble in lateral fields where there are identified needs, such as in sales operations, marketing, communications, and impact measurement. For the time being, given that flexibility and the opportunities I have to learn about new trends and developments in edtech, I am very satisfied working at Ed Elements and living in Silicon Valley. And I’m having fun. My passion is first and foremost education, but right now you might say that I’m sold on the sales experience.
Photo Credit: Starmanseries