Business of Education

9 Strategies a Commercial Director Used To Grow A Pipeline With 200+ Levy Clients

February 17, 2022

Table of Contents

Over the last few years a commercial director used the following strategies to grow from just a handful of clients to a pipeline of 200 engaged employers for apprenticeships provision.

Today, I’m going to show you exactly how they did it.


Grab my checklist below so you can get all your ducks in order.

Then, use these methods to grow your provision!

An Overview Of The Steps Designed To Win Levy Paying Clients

Growing provision since the reforms has been tough, in parts. It forced a lot of apprenticeship training providers to reevaluate their sales processes and the type of sales professional they needed to win employer clients.

Gone were the day of ‘bums on seats’ and along came higher expectations.

Today, we’re shining the light on a Commercial Director’s strategy in a large provider who overhauled their sales function with great results.

Here’s what that looks like:

It takes time to build, but if you focus on getting the fundamentals right, the rest falls into place.

The 9 Steps Followed To Win The Right Clients

There are ten steps they focused on:

Step 1: Get the right people doing the right things, outsource parts of the process and have a blended team where each person is enabled to play to their strengths

Step 2: Have robust hiring processes, don’t settle for second best and hold out for the right people.

Step 3: Tackle outdated ideas about sales people and what they do by opening up lines of communication with the rest of the business and redefining robust processes.

Step 4: Build a culture where sales team members consider their own personal brand

Step 5: Develop cast iron SLAs both internally and externally.

Step 6: Create a sales processes that put HR and L&D partners first.

Step 7: Implement multi-channel marketing that creates actionable leads.

Step 8: Outsource parts of the sales process you don’t want to do internally and leverage suppliers to cleanse data.

Step 9: Make it easy on your target decision maker by educating and supporting them to make the best decision for their organisation.

Step 1: Get The Right People Doing The Right Activities

Develop a small and very close knit team where trust, mutual respect and integrity is key with clear vision. They created a harmonious team environment where each addition to the team enhanced rather than diluted any individuals effectiveness.

Crucially, everyone held core sales skills and everyone understood the full process.

What they did well was to make sure they had unique specialisms seeded throughout the team. This allowed specialists to challenge and develop other team members not as strong in their specialism.

Specialisms include things like;

  • Someone strong at pitching
  • Someone who understood the nitty gritty of curriculum and solution design
  • Someone great at the daily grind of appointment setting and hitting those core sales activity metrics
  • And so on..

Everyone brought something to the party and could swoop in to help when needed.

Key Takeaways:
  • Hire people better than you: Encourage and develop people to work in the areas that they’re best at
  • Consider your commission structures: Design your bonus structures to encourage the right behaviours. Bake in clearly defined metrics to ensure a good balance between quality and quantity. Make sure there are no blurred lines between reward and recognition and that they aligned to the core values and objectives of the business.
  • Do what is best for your customer: Don’t let internal politics get in the way of whatever solution is best for your customer or learner. If this means you shuffle roles and responsibilities as a team then so be it. That’s what good teams do.

Step 2: Have Robust Hiring Processes

Hiring is key to getting the right people. They looked for up to several months to hire the right person into a sales role.

If the team is small, each team member should bring something to the table and be a power player.

Their mantra was that you can teach skills and knowledge, but you can’t teach behaviours. They looked for key traits such as integrity, passion, motivation and charisma. They brought people in who were likeable but challenging.

The decision makers and processes in levy paying organisations can be multi-layered. Sales professionals need to be believable, similarly organised and highly presentable to hold their own at C-suite level.

Key Takeaways:
  • Don’t hire for the sake of it: It’s better not to hire at all than use the wrong person.
  • Use sales preference testing: Different from psychometric or behavioural testing, in a close knit team it’s important to understand where each person enjoys working and where they need to develop. At Bolt, we use sales preference testing so employers know who they’re hiring.
  • Use an industry expert recruiter for key hires: Work with an industry specialist like Bolt to de-risk an important hire. Engage one agency, brief them well and you’ll save money. It’s worth reading our guide to working with agencies.

Step 3: Tackle Outdated Ideas About Sales People

Like lots of training providers, sales teams come with a label. Over time, it was important to reverse the negative perceptions of the sales team and their processes to become a leading team in the business.

How did they do this?

Simply by asking. Lots of conversations and networking within the business. It turns out that non-sales folk in a provider typically think the following:

  • Sales lack quality and accuracy
  • That they don’t know what sales do
  • None of what they say happens or comes true

So, they embarked on a process of making marginal gains, in all areas where small percentage improvements added up over time to become better across the board.

Here are some of things they did to combat the perceptions above:

  • Redesigned the sales process
  • Created a central depository of all sales related information
  • Delivered on promises and crucially focused on delivering to forecast sales numbers
  • Installed robust and accurate reporting

These factors combined to give the business more decision making capability, complete transparency, clear pipeline and removed any blame culture.

Key Takeaways:
  • Find out what the wider business thinks:Don’t stick your head in the sand as it’s difficult to get things done without backing. Take a 360 approach to examine how the sales function is perceived internally and fix it - head on.
  • Create a simple, single source of truth: Keep it simple. Build a repository of sales data and put it on a central drive. Anyone in the business should be able to access this at any time rather than be reliant on speaking to someone.
  • Track everything: Create accountability and traceability on everything the sales team does. Give the wider business a birds eye view of what’s happening, what was agreed by who and when so internal and external expectations are managed better. This will lead to greater employer and learner satisfaction as promises are delivered on.

Step 4: Sales Team Members And Personal Branding

As part of addressing sales team perception, individual sales team members were encouraged to embrace their own personal brand internally through increasing standards of professionalism, from attitude to dress code.

They created job titles to focus on their relationships focused approach. They used terms like partnerships and relationships to reflect the service they provide.

Key Takeaways:
  • Encourage ownership: Promote the profiles of sales team members internally and externally. This could take the form of internal and external bulletins celebrating wins and success as well as more public shoutouts on social media. Promote their sector expertise as they’re able to support and advise at the highest level.
  • Use appropriate job titles: This can be used to differentiate from competitors and give team members a sense of ownership over what they do. Crowdsource opinion from your team if unsure.
  • Hunt feedback: Seek out good news stories and get feedback from everywhere in the organisations, from operations, quality, curriculum, recruitment and SMT.

Step 5: Develop Cast Iron SLAs On Communication

Simply, create the fastest turnaround time on internal and external communications. The sales team gave everyone a 24 hour turnaround guarantee.

That’s not all. They always called first. No emails disappearing into the ether.

They called first. Followed up with another call and voicemail. Then moved to email on the third follow up.

Key Takeaways:
  • Don’t hide behind email: Things get done quicker when you speak. Problem? Sort it there and then. Avoid inefficiency.
  • Keep a 100% audit trail: Track actions internally alongside external actions to maintain the democratised access to information on each employer or learner profile.
  • Create a 100% acceptance policy to fix problems: The sales team agreed to fix problems before and after they arise, often going over and above to meet the satisfaction of employers and learners.

Step 6: Create Sales Processes That Put HR And L&D Partners First

Step 6: Create Sales Processes That Put HR And L&D Partners First

They created a Roadmap aimed at determining a series of milestones that contained EVERYTHING that needed to be done from lead conversion through to starts and beyond.

You guessed it - this has a 100% audit trail and was filled with SMART targets. They reverse engineered the desired SLA for employers and tagged responsible stakeholders into the process, ensuring everyone was aware of who was responsible for what and when.

Key Takeaways:
  • Hold your employers accountable: They have to deliver their side of the bargain. If everyone is engaged in meeting the timescales agreed then you have a method of moving things along even when a party hold things up.
  • Collaboration: Ensure everyone is aware of the opportunities you are working on in terms of timescales, delivery models, additional support needed and capacity. Give employers the best possible journey.

Step 7: Implement Multi-channel Marketing That Creates Actionable Leads

multi-channel marketing

So many training providers follow traditional marketing which goes like this:

  • Buy data
  • Call the leads
  • End up with a binary outcome - appointment or burnt

They tackled things a different way. They ran problem focused mini-campaigns to segments of their target employers. They took time to understand their buyer personas and focused on the biggest problems and how to meet their needs.

Then, they leveraged good content marketing such as;

  • Linkedin posting
  • PR
  • Whitepapers
  • Niche sector publications
  • Events
  • Networking
  • Seminars
  • Webinars
  • Etc

They ensured all the channels were used effectively and budgets were closely monitored against ROI. They also believed you have to give value to get value and cemented themselves as thought leaders.

Key Takeaways:
  • Track activity: Be sure to track activity taken on content, whether that be using a pixel, or monitoring opens/clicks. You should have insights to measure ROI.
  • Use a call to action: Make this a cardinal rule from this day forwards. Every piece of content marketing should have a call to action somewhere and is measurable otherwise you will never know what works and what doesn’t.
  • Create accountability: Marketing teams should have KPI targets to generate leads and the sales team should be accountable to marketing for lead conversion. It’s a simple cycle of lead nurturing and closing. Remember, maintain transparency and audit trail.

Step 8: Outsource Parts Of The Sales Process


Outsourcing some of the sales process such as marketing, social media campaigns, telesales or telemarketing has been common practise in the sector. This Commercial Director felt it was important to outsource parts of the process to a high quality supplier BUT with conditions so that they could concentrate on key areas internally.

Rather than burning through a list of data, they leveraged the service to target people who had interacted with their marketing thereby creating a warmer call.

Their secondary mission was to cleanse the data set, performing research alongside the appointment booking attempt or vacancy generation. This meant that their data became one of their strongest assets week-on-week, improving the efficacy of their content marketing and conversion rates of calls. A flywheel if you will.

This moved sales conversion from 1-in-5 to 1-in-2 prospects who raised their hand.

Key Takeaways:
  • Agree a trial campaign first: Walk before you run. Go for a 3 month minimum campaign depending on what you are outsourcing before tying into a longer contract.
  • Ask for metrics: When engaging a lead generation, telesales or marketing service, they should have their volume and conversion stats to hand. Reverse engineer your spend to work out if the CPA is worth it.
  • Consider long term ROI: When investing in outsourced services, it is a front loaded investment. Track the multi-year return to check ROI.

Step 9: Educating And Supporting Your Buyer

supporting buyer

They created their process to educate first, and win business second. This led to them winning business from PLC accounts where incumbent providers had held the business for multiple years.

The goal was to win the relationship, not starts. People buy people and brings back around to the first steps in the process. The sales teams goals were to help HR and L&D professionals navigate through their levy choices.

They delivered stakeholder education sessions at all levels in organisations to manage the perception of apprenticeships. Delivering on behalf of L&D or HR gave them kudos and, for them, it provided another audit step on the project.

This led to outstanding learner and employer satisfaction (90-95%) for this stage of the customer journeys.

Key Takeaways:
  • Go the extra mile: They often supplied the presentation their contacts would use to present to higher ups. They gave out cost calculators to aid the decision rather than forcing the sale.
  • Don’t threaten: Coming from the apprenticeships world, we often know more than HR or L&D where it is just one part of their role. Rather than bulldoze, act as a trusted partner.
  • Allow for more time in the sales cycle: Everyone wants starts, but no one wants poor quality so the Commercial Director was prepared to spend more time to meet the needs of their clients first. They believed the starts would flow from building great relationships, avoiding short term gains and long term losses. These are multi-year deals with great employers and what’s another month?

What next?

Is it worth using a recruitment agency

Get the right people on the bus.

First things first, with the economy the way it is, you need to be working with the right people.

If anything in this article takes your interest or you have questions, reach out and let's talk. We can hook you up with top sales strategic consultancy, help you to hire to A-Player(s), or just chew the fat on how to make the most of what you have to hand.

Look out for our articles coming soon on what good marketing looks like.

Want Us To Help You On How To SCALE Your Training Provider Using Tactics From This Guide?

We can hold your hand to build you the teams and processes you need to grow.

We get results. This might mean you outsource all of it to us, or we give you the tools you need and move on. In reality, it’s usually a mix of both.

What you need to succeed:

  • A long term mindset. You need to commit to a variety of methods to develop a consistent flow of great leads into your organisation. We're able to help you with all parts of the sales process but this involves trying things and it won’t happen overnight.
  • A Commercial Leader that is actively involved in the talent acquisition process. We don’t believe in shipping the hiring problem off to HR and forgetting about it. Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t work when it comes to good recruitment of sales people.

If you want to hear from us weekly on the FE, skills and learning jobs market, you can subscribe below.

If you have any questions, you can find our founder Alex on Linkedin.

Finally, if you think someone would benefit from reading this article, please give it a share. we’d really appreciate it.

Alex Lockey
Director | Bolt Jobs
Founder Alex Lockey is an expert in further education, learning, and skills sector. He leads cost-effective hiring solutions and is known for successful talent placements. Dynamic and driven, Alex seeks innovative solutions to solve sector hiring challenges.