How to sell to Not-for-Profits

I’ve worked in higher education for almost all of my 30 years after college, but I did spend some time in for-profit companies. As a result, one of my interests is the differences between the two. I’d guess, based on my interactions in the past, that we on the not-for-profit (NFP) side understand sales people way more than they understand us; I see it every time I get a sales call. In the interest of making those exchanges better, I offer some advice. If you sell to NFP’s, these tips might be instructive:

First, read Corporate Cultures by Deal and Kennedy. You work in a low-risk, fast feed-back industry. I work in a low-risk, slow feedback industry. You may think I need to or want to decide RIGHT NOW, but I don’t. In other words, your sense of time is not ours, for another, many big decisions in NFPs are layered in collaboration and process bureaucracy. In general, things in higher education take lots of time: WAY more time than you think.

Second, your calendar is not our problem; it’s not even on my radar. If the end of the quarter is here and you need to make your quota, well, maybe I can help you, but there has to be something in it for me. Empathy ain’t free.

Third, many of the terms you use are offensive to us (well, not to me, but many of us). Bottom line, profit, leads, and solutions all have layers of meaning to me that they don’t mean to you. Clean it up.

Fourth, it’s likely everyone selling something like you’re selling thinks their product is the best. You’d better be able to tell me why yours is even better.

Fifth, funding models are different. WAY different. I probably won’t be the recipient of the ROI you think your product will generate for me; someone else at the university will. And the cost (and opportunity cost of what I can’t do) is all mine.

Sixth, I can tell how many times you call me. If you don’t listen to my voicemail that says I don’t answer numbers I don’t recognize, well, I’m wondering how smart you might be. Send me an e-mail, like the message says.

Seventh, don’t ask me to call you back so you can sell to me. Ever.

Eighth, don’t use snarky techniques to get through to me, like telling someone you’re returning my call. Your chance goes from slim to none real fast.

Ninth, don’t pretend you’re not going to try to sell me something by indicating you just want to “pick my brain,” or “get my impressions of the market.” I was born at night, but not last night. I know you’re gearing up to sell me something. And it’s going to take more than 30 minutes, no matter what you say.

Finally, I know that theoretically, software can do almost anything if you throw enough development time at it. But when I ask you, I want an honest answer.

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