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Remember the rules of admissions

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They narrow down to some pretty simple concepts:

People won’t make contacts for products they have no interest in;

Managing admissions performance is not for the weak at heart

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For a long time now I have managed admissions performance. I have managed it at the admissions level and at the school manager level. They are both hard.

Developing a productive admissions department

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“As we move forward in the business of career education, we find that today’s schools rarely compete against other schools, and program offerings rarely compete against other program offerings. However, managements are measured against managements, and executed strategies are measured against other equally executed strategies. In essence, one management team competes against another. In the end, the winning team is the team that can best select and act on the right set of facts, and then place these facts into a working sales and marketing plan.”

Proper selection of admissions representatives has a great deal to do with your school meeting its revenue goals. Month by month – quarter by quarter – it really doesn’t matter. If you can’t hit the starts, the net income will be impacted. Now don’t get me wrong – you can get hammered if retention is off, or bad debt rises above the threshold anticipated. But nothing will kill a school faster than low conversion performance. So, hiring someone who can and wants to do the job, well, makes the job a lot easier.

It seems today we are having a tough time finding the right “fit” for the admissions position. Our “keepers” stay, but the turnover rate of the new people keeps getting more and more serious.

I have always felt that training will improve someone’s overall performance about 20 to 25 percent. So, if you hire a 7 on a scale of 1-10, they can get to an 8.5 or 9. But, if you hire a 3, the best you will probably see is a better 3.

In some markets even getting candidates to show for an interview can be a challenge. And, with the nation’s unemployment rate running low, the pickings are a bit tough. I have always felt that good salespeople are rarely out of work. Somehow good salespeople have a clear line of sight to their next job when it’s time to leave the current one. And, in reality, good people do move on.

I know of a school here in Southern California, American Career College, run by David Pyle. I also know his admissions management people, and as a company they do one of the best jobs of not only finding people, but keeping them, too. They hate turnover of representatives, so they do a better job of making sure that the ones they hire fit the profile of the ones who stay. It’s not foolproof, but it works better than most I have seen. People in this market “want” to work for them, and that’s a great start. David and his executive team are very professional and methodic about the responsibility associated with keeping representative turnover low, and as a result, because it is managed from the top down, turnover is low. They hire right, then they train right, too. It is far easier to train a person who walked into the position as an 8 than to train one who was a five.

Now understand it takes time to find the right person to fit the job. But as a first step you need to define the job. Not in a job description manner, but as if you were explaining it to your sister. Who makes it in this position and why? Sales success is definable. I have heard over the years so many people say “well, it’s in their blood,” or they just “never give up,” or they just have a “knack for this sort of thing.” All of which may be true, but how do we duplicate that sort of objective analysis?

In my experience everything about a person is definable. Yes, I need to know about them on a “whole person” sort of platform, but once I know it, I can manage to it. Sales shouldn’t just happen. That makes the whole forecast model a bit rough.

So, in looking to what makes a representative a success, we first need to know what we need to look for in the next hire to help us stack the deck in our favor. When you look into the DNA of your top people, what do you see? Can you break it down into individual attributes? Do you think you can duplicate it in the next hire? Probably not all of that is for sure. Some of the best representatives I know have that “one thing” that separates them from the crowd. So we move past that one and try to get some of the rest.

But one thing I know for sure, once you have that person profiled, and you set out to find a person like them, you can’t waiver back and forth. If you set your sights for an 8, then an 8 you must find.

Be assured, they are in your market. But, maybe they are not currently unemployed. So they won’t see the ad you have placed.

Here is a thought. Use radio or television to find a new representative. Reach the people going to work, not looking for work. Although there is an exception I am sure, most people today if they really wanted to work, could. So sometimes what we are left with to interview are people who aren’t really as motivated as a representative needs to be in order to reach their start goals. Now I am sure there are exceptions as I say, but with the low unemployment rate today, the jobs are there. And remember, you really aren’t looking for someone who will require 100% of your time. So, honestly, they have to walk into that interview with something already going for them besides having a great personality and thinking they like to help people. Yes, they need to have both, but only after they have the core skills.

When I have interviewed representatives for admissions in the past, I covered all the more standard questions about education, experience, goals, competitive spirit, etc. And from the answers I receive, we either move on or I thank them for coming. I have always felt that before any interview, someone should be 100 percent prepared to talk about themselves and their interest in being a success at the job they are interviewing for.

From there we move on to a more practical question and answer period. Once we have some comfort in the relationship, I ask them how they would rate themselves as a successful sales professional on a scale of 1-10. I tell them that the scale only pertains to their productivity compared to their peers (if they worked in a sales position before). Anything below an 8 could cause trouble. Since I am asking them to answer with no substantiation or validation to back it up, I would hope that they would see themselves as a strong C+ or B. Now on the other hand, if they say less than 8, they are probably not lying.

Assuming 8 or better, I say, “Good. Then tell me how you would handle the following two objections. Regardless of what your sales experience has been, you most certainly have come up against these two before. Oh, when you tell me how you would handle it, speak to me like I am the one who posed the objection. The buyer. Talk to me the way you would if you were actually selling me something. OK?” And they say OK.

Objection One. “Your price is higher than your primary two competitors for the same product. Why would I ever want to pay more for the same thing?”

Objection Two. “You know, that’s a ton of information to absorb. What I would like to do is take this information home and think about it. Can you get back with me next week?”

The answers they give you to these two are really not all that important. Of course whatever they say as it pertains to answering the objection should be considered. But the most important thing you are looking for is the manner and style they used when addressing them.

When they responded, did they do so with enthusiasm and creditability? Did they maintain reasonable eye contact with you? Did they seem sincere? All of those are inbred; you can’t train to any of them at their age. Are they 100 percent gotta-have qualities? You need to determine that for your school.

But I will tell you this: Not a lot of starts hit the boards from people who aren’t enthusiastic, have questionable credibility, lose eye-contact, and seem insincere.

Good selection goes beyond profile testing and a resumé. They are the initial steps to actually getting someone in front of you to interview. Now the hard part takes over.

Good selection takes time, so:

Take the time to do it right. Don’t rush the process.
Conduct an absolute two, or preferably three, interviews before making any offer.
Be conscious of the reality that this person will drive your revenue.
Shop around for the best candidates.
Don’t oversell the job in the interview – make the applicant do the initial selling.
Compare and evaluate applicants of the same exact scale.
Don’t be a spendthrift when looking for the right person.

This takes me back to radio and television. Think about running a radio spot during morning and evening drive. It will serve two purposes. You get some publicity and the people driving to work may be driving to a job they don’t like or want. Possibly your offering might spark their interest. Think of doing the same thing in afternoon or early fringe TV. A spokesperson, maybe you, going down to the station and cutting a 30-second spot asking people if they like the idea of really helping someone. If they are good at motivating people to a greater level of success, maybe admissions is something for them to consider. Great school, great benefits, great opportunity to grow, etc. You may catch a wife, husband, mother, father, friend who knows someone who, yes is working, but would love something that actually has a career path, too.

I ran a newspaper ad a while back: It said: “Admissions position for leading local college available due to promotion. Starting salary up to $60,000 per year, bonus, great benefits, no weekends etc., etc. I got 43 responses. We hired one, started her at $43,000, and she was happy because she got an $8,000 bump. We told her of the graduation incentive program, and that she would be reviewed twice a year for increases or decreases. She was pleased as punch. We put the high salary there because the client was prepared to pay it if a $60,000 person walked in. They didn’t, but a $43,000 person did and she will be at that 60 sooner than later. She walked in an 8.5.

Contrarily, we ran the same ad again without the dollars. Got 9 responses. Could have been the weather, could have been everyone was busy that weekend, or it could be that people did not want to waste their time and get caught up in “let’s make a deal” interviewing.

I know this from experience. Some people are worth $60,000 in admissions and should not be excluded from earning that because others in the company don’t. In an earlier blog I have already said that admissions is the only department in your school that generates revenue. And revenue is where pay raises for the others can come from.

I suggest running a background check on everyone you hire in admissions. Credit and background check. People with poor credit history should be explored a bit more. The pressure of admissions plus the pressure of bill collectors (if that fits), makes it tough for a representative to keep focused. Most representatives and admissions directors seem to have a FICO somewhere between 600 and 700. When it drops to the 500s or 400s, I would ask what happened. Sometimes there is good reason, sometimes just poor judgment. But depending on the rest of the package, it could go either way.

Bringing the right person on board takes time and patience. But in the end, it makes good sense.

What does this have to do with referral fees?

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Previously: Think of it in more simple terms

O.K., back to us.

Here is how I see it. Sales turnover, or not getting “good marks” if you will, isn’t something that a new representative in an old chair is going to solve. It is a management issue for us to get resolved. But management has to understand the real admissions truth, and that, my friends, only can come from experience in the trenches. The buffers, the VPs and the Regional VPs are good salespeople themselves. Remember they all came from admissions! So they can simply apply rules of admissions, one of which is “find out what the prospect wants to buy and sell it back to them.” Hence, the new managers want to buy a systematic, logical, graph-able, quantitative analysis of generational trends and buying behaviors and psychographic data, focus group results, etc. – and so that’s what they get from their lower ranks. They generally say “this cohort, or that cohort, etc.” Here is the truth.

They are selling a medical assistant program to a person who is motivated by fear and mostly afraid of making another bad decision. She is a single mom with a couple of kids who she prays to God don’t follow in her footsteps. The boyfriend or whatever is two minutes away from unemployment or jail; she is worried about paying next month’s rent and always looks to see the caller ID before she ever answers a phone. She doesn’t want to make the final decision, she needs someone to help her turn the fear that she feels into a sense of pride, and then she needs her hand held from day one all the way to the graduation exercise. Her only cohort is her age group – all the rest, well, she’s on her own and she knows it.

If you’re not ITT or Strayer or Art Institute or UoP, she is the one who calls you looking for information. She needs to be “sold,” not on a program but on herself. The admissions representative she gets in front of needs to be empathetic and motivational and help her get beyond her emotional insecurity, and folks, that takes talent. And that talent needs to be cultivated and managed and motivated, too. Good admissions people don’t grow on trees. You find one, you keep that one. All the referral money in the world isn’t worth a damn if I lose a winner and you hire a loser. And on that note, they may come in a winner, but a bad pair of managers will have them less than productive in no time.

So, the front end looks easy – so with that I say to the guys who tell me, “This is just the same as________”; “sales is sales”; “when I was in the ________business, it was the same as this”; blah, blah, blah: Go be an ad rep for a week. Be the King Arthur, get down with the people. Take some leads, make some calls, work with financial aid, do it all, and let’s see how you do. You’re smart, well educated, well read, with a mind like a steel trap (or at least you think so), so get into those trenches and walk the talk. No armchair quarterbacking for you. Come on, get out there and show those admissions people how a pro does it. I dare you!

Oh yeah, the referral fee. You can’t offer an incentive to mask over bad management. If you’re losing reps, you’re the reason. What are you going to do about it?

Maybe the survey call should be from the new leaders to the old representatives, maybe a simple “How did we do?” may be a good start. Remember people rarely leave companies; they leave managers and leadership.

See if you got all 5s.

Think of it in more simple terms

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Previously: How much would you pay me if I sent you a good admissions representative?

You buy a new car. It’s a 1-2 hour experience, you get financed, you drive home. The only call you will probably get is from the guy that sold you the car asking, “Don’t you just love it?!” and looking for a referral. Makes sense.

Then you go to your first service call. You meet your service advisor, Brent, and he gets you set up for service. You go pick up your car, all seems well, and then it happens – Brent hits you with the quality customer service story. It sounds a little something like this – “Dave, in a couple of days you will be getting a call regarding MY SERVICE TO YOU. Anything less than a five (5) and I fail. So when you get it, remember 5s all over, O.K., Dave?” Then if you do business with Crevier here in Orange County, you get a mail reminder, and then another mail reminder, this one marked with the checkmarks already in the 5s, just in case you were voting impaired with the concept at the last presidential election. The call came, from J.D. Powers I assume, and off we went.

But you know what, no one ever asked me about my feelings about the sales process – never. And I thought that was odd.

So, off I went to Crevier and asked to speak with the General Manager. Lots of buffers getting to that guy, but finally I got to him, after every buffer made sure I had nothing to say that would have impacted them. We sat down, and he offered coffee and said, “How can I help you, Dave?” So I told him.

He listened, went on to tell me the merits of BMW, etc, etc. None of which had a thing to do with my question, “Why doesn’t anyone care about my sales experiences?” He went on to tell me then they assumed it was favorable or I would never have bought the car. Can’t argue with that logic. He was right.

But still, why didn’t anyone validate it the way they do with service?

After much back and forth, he told me “because they generally would not get good marks, and that would impact our relationship with BMW.” WOW!

Next time: What does this have to do with referral fees?

How much would you pay me if I sent you a good admissions representative?

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$100? $200? $300? $400? $500? $600? $1000?!

What’s the referral worth to you? Well, recently I have seen many, if not all, of those referral fees offered to the staff and faculty of schools needing admissions representatives. For me, personally, I get worried that offers like these equate to a high representative turnover problem. That is disturbing to me because that always boils down to prospective students getting the short end of the stick.

Admissions has changed over the years. That’s not surprising at all. With so many people coming into this sector with absolutely no experience to draw from, other than their own kids’ education and their pursuit of that education, it’s no wonder admissions has a high turnover. Many of the people in charge now have never, ever conducted an interview; taken an inquiry; held an admissions meeting; addressed a class seeking referrals; participated in a phone-a-thon for two hours; filled out an application; had coffee at their desk with parents really wanting their kid to find a cheaper way to go to school; answered the popular, “I want to think it over,” or my true favorite, “Can I start in a later class? This one seems so close to now”; had to explain why making the $125 per month GAP payment is really something they can and should do; listened to the rest of the staff in the lounge tell the reps how “easy” they have it; or listened to why everything short of the Second World War was their fault, including my all-time Oscar-winning comment, “We missed the start because of admissions.” Wow, I hate that one. We miss the starts because management doesn’t manage outcomes. Admissions is everyone’s job, not just the representatives.

How much is it worth to you?
Next time: Think of it in more simple terms

Invest in financial aid advisors to get more leads

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I was watching the Washington Mutual commercial last night. The one where the WM guy is talking to all the other shark-type bankers caught in a roped-off circle, pushing hard the sales/money side of banking, etc. Then the WM guy tells them they are not today’s banker because they are just sharks, etc., etc. I know it works for WM as their list of clients has grown as a result of making everyone else in banking seem just like money-hungry vultures.

Our Internet performance I’m sure is being helped as I see more company-owned sales URL listings being pushed, such as or, etc. But for the most part, when people want Apex school, they Google Apex school and click the first one they see. They aren’t sitting at their TV sets with pen in hand waiting for some marketing expert to walk them through the most cost-effective way to reach his product. They really don’t much care about lead effectiveness.

So what are we left with? Well, maybe we are back again to one lead, many suitors. And if that’s what we’ve got, then all the lipstick on the pig isn’t going to change the fact that we need to get that one lead to appoint, show, and enroll at your school.

And that takes me back to how well we are training your customer relationship people. Are we spending an appropriate amount of dollars in finding and hiring the best receptionist, call center, admissions, financial services people we can? Or are we shopping for a bargain? Funny, yesterday I got a call from a recruiter I know looking for a financial aid director for a pretty large school. They were willing to pay upwards of 80-90K for the right person. I asked him what the financial aid advisers were making at the school. He told me he didn’t know. So I told him I would give him a referral, only after he found out. He called me back this morning and said, “It’s pretty good, they start them between 28K and 33K (this is a Southern California location).” Before I go on: let me add this. I called my cousin Todd in San Diego. He is the general sales manager at a large Toyota dealership in town. I asked him about sales compensation. He essentially told me the average for one of his sales people. Then I asked him about his F&I people. He then told me they (5 of them) earned an average of 170K last year and are on track to do pretty much the same this year. I asked him what would happen if he paid his finance people 28-33K a year. He was speechless (something that is rare of you knew Todd). He finally said after a brief pause, “The dealership would probably close down.” I asked him why, and he said, “Salespeople are like guides on the lot. They walk, talk and show cars. If they get someone back to the cube, they look for an offer, any offer. Then they take it to the sales managers who are there to get more, and at a greater net return (I guess he meant interest). From there, the salesperson is just a body in motion.” Once the number is agreed on, the real salespeople take over, the F&I people. Their job is to sell the add-ons, (which he told me generally have a 50-80% margin,) and get the CUSTOMER TO ACTUALLY SIGN A PROMISSORY NOTE AND VALIDATE THE SALE. He told me that until the contract is signed, all that’s going on is a whole lot of banter, conversation, and jockeying for position.

Well, back to the financial aid advisers. Aren’t they doing a lot of the same tasks the F&I people are doing? Yes, they are. And yet, we will pay an admissions person upwards 60K to take leads and get them to the advisor, but 1/2 to the advisor to complete the enrollment. And we are willing to pay a financial aid director 3x as much to manage these people. And for the most part, this director has little or no admissions experience. Actually, it’s been my experience that they are sometimes not as supportive of the customer relations/sales side of that job.

So, in closing, are dealerships that much smarter than all the collective knowledge of our senior leadership? Maybe.

If the lead you are giving to your admissions people is also going to be given to an additional 29 salespeople from other schools, or maybe another one from your own school, your guy/gal better know the value of a good first impression and how to have a conversation that leads to only one thing, an appointment that shows. And that takes talent, and well, you have to buy it first. I learned a long time ago from John Bennanti, “Dave, you can’t carve rotten wood!”

Thanks, Jack Larson

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Since this blog is mine, and it is about admissions, I would like to say thanks to one of the best admissions guys I have ever had the pleasure to know – Jack Larson, Founder, Career Education Corporation. Jack is stepping down from his day-to-day role at CEC and assuming the position of Chairman.

I met Jack a million years ago in Newport Beach when I was VP of Admissions at National Education Corporation. We were creating divisions, and Jack took the position of VP of Admissions at the business school division managed by Jules Rosenblatt. I remember the time we spent together and how good I felt about his direction. He had the passion and the strategy, and he was such a good-looking kid – reminded me of Alex Trebeck. Anyway, off he went and he did a great job. He had my vote the moment he walked out of the office. That was 1979.

We sat down again in Û¥95 when he was looking to buy a school I had an interest in, and then again in 2003 when he acquired Whitman Education Group. I was president of a division, and upon completing the acquisition, I went to work for Jack at the Gibbs Division.

Yesterday I heard that Jack had stepped down from CEC, and with that decision, we will lose a real icon. Over the past 10 years, Jack has brought more admissions ideas and strategies to this industry than most others combined. He would never say so – his sense of humility is amazing – but trust me, he has. So many of the ideas used today in both ground schools and online were incubated and tested at CEC. So many people who left CEC brought many of those new ideas to our schools. So on many levels, we all shared that information and hopefully profited from it.

And yes, CEC has made headlines lately, but this isn’t about that. This is about an admissions guy who, with passion, skill, luck and the support of his family, put everything on the line and built a billion dollar company. A leader on many levels, this admissions guy, who always walked his talk, did so in a really, really big way.

I will miss Jack at the CEO level. I have sat in a number of meetings that Jack delivered and learned something at every one. Jack is our own six degrees of separation Kevin Bacon; very few in this industry can get beyond more than two levels without having been a part of something that has a Jack Larson footprint. That’s amazing!

So to Jack, I say thank you from all us admissions guys. Thanks for the new ideas, the new strategies, the guts to take a front row seat when everyone else was holding back, and thanks for teaching me that hope wasn’t a strategy.

So with that, a real career school guy is stepping aside, and I believe his influence will be missed. To the new guys at the top: You would do well to learn how Jack actually did build this billion dollar business. And remember: Success leaves clues.

On a more personal note: Jack, thanks for all the reasons you already know. On a professional note: Thanks, Jack – we have all benefited from your courage.

It’s still about that initial contact

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Good news on some sales fronts. So, again, to those ahead of the curve, congratulations.

But I would not take my eye off the interview metric.

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