The sales side of financial aid

I have witnessed a major change in customer service over the years. Many schools forget that they are a “retail” establishment selling “education.” For the most part, all your prospects have choices from where they buy. If you operate a school in the greater Los Angeles area, they have dozens, even hundreds, of choices. And for the record, there is nothing wrong with being a retail outlet – ask Nordstrom, Wal-Mart or even Pepsi. Over the years I have been in many an argument with the school guy/gal, usually with some tenure, telling me, “We are not a retail outlet.” OK, but in the eyes of your customer, you are, and with that, it really doesn’t matter what we think. So, as I have said to many, if you’ve got to be retail, be Nordstrom. They are the best when it comes to customer service and customer loyalty. And for the record, customer loyalty, not customer service, drives referrals.

Now the financial aid thought. Just for fun, walk into your financial aid department and pick the three or four financial aid representatives that are going to fill the three or four empty admissions representative positions that just became available that day. These need to be people who can hit the ground running and will drive starts for you now, as payroll and rent are due on the first of the month. And, you are betting the rent and payroll on their performance.

If you walked in and picked them right out, my sincere congratulations.

If you said, “Are you crazy? I have no one in the financial aid department who I would put in admissions,” then we need to talk.

The tasks of the finance people are different than the sales people, but the one thing they have in common is they both need to be sales-sensitive and sales-focused. In fact, when it comes to sales skill, the finance people need to be better skilled in sales than the sales people. In most schools, people see admissions first, finance second for the close. And closing is the most important final part of the sales process, if anyone expects someone else to buy something from them.

With no closing skill, you end up with a perpetual conversation.

If you think about it, the financial representatives should be the best of the best you have. They need to possibly collect a registration fee, manage the student loan/grant process with finesse and motivation, make arrangements for a co-borrower if necessary, keep the focus not on the cost but on the opportunity, and get them back to admissions whole and more motivated. Anything less than that may result in no-starts.

A possible solution is to create a position between your admissions representative and your financial aid representatives. A few companies have adopted this and, if managed right, it works. They report to the FA Manager, but are a part of the admissions team when it comes to training, etc. Their job is to reinforce the buying decisions, both the applicant and the representative exchanged, talk about solutions, rebuild where necessary, fill out positively all the documents required for initial financial aid qualification, find and help secure a co-borrower if necessary, help them make a commitment to their success, reaffirm the educational integrity we represent, and return them to their representative with a complete analysis of the outcome. The representative, of course, then reaffirms the commitment to start, and away we go!

In this sector, especially for the smaller schools, we need to have “added value.” We don’t have the budgets the larger groups have. So customer service, at all levels, will lead to customer loyalty, which leads to referrals.

And that’s the beginning of more starts.

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