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Why are some doing better than others?

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Well, we could say they have better courses to offer, and for the most part, that’s probably true. ITT, Strayer, take a look at the offerings. They are pretty impressive and probably command real interest in the marketplace. The world has just about enough medical assisting and massage schools. Actually if we never approved another one after today, we would still have enough to finish out the decade.

But, as ITT, STRAYER, etc. will tell you, they have to watch their admissions activity too. That’s not new.

If we take our eyes off the admissions process, it generally falls apart. Then we regroup, usually overreacting, and have to start patching the bridge we just broke.

Admissions is a functional process first. Then a people process. Not the other way around. Too many people tend to manage the people and pay little or no attention to the actual process. Admissions is about listening and having something significant to say after you have heard someone. It’s not really about going to school; it’s about going to work. And people work for their own reasons. It could be as simple as eating and having a roof over your head. It could be about moving on with one’s life and starting over. It can result from waking up one morning and realizing that their life has come to a standstill. Whatever the reason, it’s not about going to school – school is the means to the end. And as a result the admissions person has to make sure that the benefits of attending their school are greater than the costs of time, effort, and money in the eyes and mind of the person sitting across from them.

Outside of our immediate world, people attend school for pretty much the same reasons. Work. People go to law school to generally practice law and make a living. Medical – they want to be a doctor and work. Accountants – work. MBAs – Work. Criminal justice, too – work. And so on.

So just for the record, how do your admissions people make the leap from school to work without making promises other people can’t possibly keep?

How do they make the interview about the benefits of a career, without losing the emphasis we need to place on doing a good job while they are a student? Well, that is a whole new blog by itself. But, let’s look at this piece of the puzzle: the telephone. And how can a good sales manager help them learn how to do it better?

Well for starters – what are we really teaching our admissions people? Is it how to use the telephone better? Whether inbound or outbound, are we actually “teaching” them how to use it? Not just talk, use it?

Over the years I have always questioned this telephone part of admissions. It seems to me that a very small group of admissions people actually are any good on the phone. Now by “good,” let me throw out something. If we look at the metrics, and to keep it simple, let’s say 100 people contacted your admissions representative, 25 a week, and requested more information. Good leads, right? They called us. Regardless of the source, they called us; they are bonafide shoppers. And let’s say for the sake of argument they appointed (ground school) 50% of them. OK, we now have 50 people coming to see us. Let’s also say that they have a 50% no-show. Now we have 25 people in front of them. Let’s also say that they enroll 75% of those people, and then 90% make it to start day. Give or take, we now have 17 starts and the attrition countdown. So in the end, we will have some leave, etc., and we maybe will see 15 or so move on. Now here is the rub. Where are the other 80 +/- people from that starting group of leads? They never appointed or no-showed, that’s where. No, let’s change it up just one notch. The appointed/shows metrics. Let’s say that 75% appointed and 75% showed. Everything else the same. Now we have 38 starts, give or take, drop a few along the way, and we end up with 33-34 moving on. That could mean that in reality there are 18-19 more starts. At 1, 000.00 +/- per month of average earnings – it adds up when you think of how many reps we may be talking about.

I think over the years I have asked every admissions director what they do to evaluate one’s ability to effectively use a telephone. Some do, most don’t. They assume if a person can present themselves in the interview as a competent sales person, they can handle the phone too. Well, look at your own numbers on those admissions reports. Lead to interview. Is it working for you?

My thought is either keep them off the phone or train only on telephone skills. But make sure if you are asking they be trained on telephone skills, the trainer is strong, effective and proven. If not, add a new element to your admissions organization: a call center that is held to higher metrics. The 75/75 metric. Pay them admissions wages and have the best call center trainer money can buy. They appoint all the leads, and follow-up on the no-shows, re-appointing, etc. Besides getting in front of more people, your representatives will actually develop a whole new attitude about their performance and ultimate contribution. You see, having been a representative, what killed my self-image and perception about how good I felt about what I did had a whole lot to do with how many shows and no-shows I had today. And that affected my interview skill. I oversold when I panicked and lost enrollments as a result. In hindsight, with no telephone to worry about, I became a great interviewer and polished the skill I thought I was hired for: interviewing students. I never wanted a telephone job to begin with, but like most young sales people, I thought, “piece of cake” when anyone said “are you comfortable working with the telephone.”

Reps will always enroll 50% of the people they get in front of; it’s just the way it washes out in the end. But, with a call center approach, the sales managers now will have only the interview aspect to train to with the admissions team, and most of them know how to help someone who is eyeball to eyeball with another person. So if that 50% moves to 60% – well, you can do the math on that one.

Just a thought.

Sell the differences, not the similarities

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How is your school like the school down the street? Maybe the one down the street is a private one like you, maybe it’s a community college, maybe a traditional college. Whatever it is, you don’t want it to end up looking like you in the eyes of the client. In the same context, you don’t want to level the playing field too much in comparison with a community or traditional college either. You’re not like them, and that’s good!

Admissions people need to learn how to sell the differences in schools, why you aren’t “like” someone else. People like differences, particularly where money may be concerned. If you are like the community college down the street, well, OK, but they are a lot less expensive to get the same thing. So, have your admissions people make a list of why you are different than your competitors. What do you have at your school that differentiates you from the rest of the “noise” in the marketplace? Financial aid, individual attention, career services, smaller classes, etc., probably won’t cut it. Everyone will claim to have that, too. Accreditation, caring faculty – Nah.

In 33 years of on-the-job research, here is what I think needs to be different – the admissions people talking to prospects. They are, without a doubt in my mind, the most important part of the Do-They-Attend-Or-Not scenario. And the reps need to be “differently-different” than the guy down the street, or the community college (not much of a stretch there).

Now, different could be in the eye of the beholder, so let me narrow it down a bit. The reps have to exude both confidence and finesse. They have to listen more than they talk. They have to know their programs backward and forward, without the use of flip charts or PowerPoints. They have to engage in eyeball-to-eyeball conversation with support material to do exactly that – support! They have to have great eye contact, have an office setup that doesn’t look like home, have pictures of students doing what they train for. They have to be able to lead a GREAT TOUR, and know how to stop and introduce their prospective students to the people that will help the students succeed after they start school. They don’t need to be good closers, but great openers. They have to smile a lot and actually enjoy helping the person sitting across from them. They have to see the potential in everyone and help the people sitting across from them make a decision today, right now, about changing their lives tomorrow. And if you get people like this for reps, pay them well, because they will earn every cent of what you give them.

They have to like to compete against themselves and against each other. They believe that playing fair is, well, fair. And they need to be able to adjust quickly if something needs to be adjusted. Attitude is everything in admissions.

See, once you have this person on the payroll you will see what I see – the differences.

They are out there, but probably working someplace else and generally don’t ever look at the classified newspaper for a job. They have their next job in a clear line of sight if need be. So referrals and personal observation is the best way to find them. One of my best admissions representatives was the one I met when I was buying a new suit at Macy’s in Southern California, and the next best one was the tour guide we had at Universal Studios. They were both looking for more, and we provided a way for them to grow.

When selling differences we never talk in terms of other schools being either good or bad. Different schools tend to cater to different types of people and learning abilities. Your college tends to be focused on people who want to ________________________________________. And at your school you have found that the graduates tell you that the best part of going to your school was_______________________________________.

Test it out and ask the admissions people, “What’s different about us?” See if what they know is (1) right, (2) enough.

Is it just me, or am I missing something?

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Leads, leads, leads, and still you hear “enrollment in ground schools is below expectation, etc, etc, etc.” I have been a real believer that if leads are up, starts should be too. Sure, more players, more options, stronger job market – but so what?

The people contacting us are still contacting us; despite our reasons to think they aren’t really serious, they are! They are shoppers looking for an opportunity to buy. And they called you and said, “So why should I go to your school?” In their eyes they think they are really good leads – they contacted us!

I would understand starts being down if leads were down – but they are not. I heard just yesterday, “Well the lead quality isn’t what it use to be.” Really? How about this possibility: maybe the representative quality isn’t what it used to be. Maybe the drive, motivation, strategy, and skill of the sales team isn’t up to the standard of the “shopper.” We all know that shoppers are needed first before we have buyers. So shopping for a school is a good thing, isn’t it?

Here is what I think if anyone cares. We seem to have become an industry where new leadership is coming in from out of this sector, and they are bringing in Welchism, Pepsi and P&G philosophies. Now I love to read Jack as much as everyone else, and I think Tide and McDonalds are great products, and hey, I love Pepsi too, but we are not a product-driven business; we are a service business selling education. You can’t start it up, put it on a shelf, eat it, or drink it. Selling education is not the same as selling equipment, food, or consumer goods. Some principles apply, some don’t. Some companies are taking something as simple as selling an opportunity to someone to go to school and get a skill and making it a white paper opportunity for Wharton. It’s no wonder the admissions departments are confused. Most of them never went to Wharton, don’t want to, and if asked, probably don’t even have any idea where it is! What they want is an opportunity to help someone get into a program and graduate. Remember, they make no incentive for their efforts, so this is a job for someone with a heart and soul. They want to help these people for the sheer pleasure of doing something good for them. They are really the only ones that get tears in their eyes at graduation. It matters to them that they “helped someone,” it really does. And for the record, Wharton in my eyes is great!

So in simple terms, if leads are up and starts are down, you have a local sales management problem and in my opinion, a leader in operations that doesn’t walk the sales talk. Start with spending time asking your admissions people what they think about the training, motivation, and support from Finance, Education, and Career Services they are getting. Ask very specific questions like, “Billy, what exactly does Robert do in his finance position to help you get an enrollment?”; “What does David do in Education to help you get an enrollment?”; and “What does Andrea do in Career Services to help you get an enrollment?”

Don’t be too surprised if you find it’s pretty lonely up there in those cubicles.

The sales side of financial aid

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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.

Get more from your start conversions

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What really makes a difference between 10 starts and 20 starts? Leads, of course. CDLs, PDLs, they are all important, but the difference in starts comes down to one major metric: conversion rate from lead to start.

Getting more from a start conversion involves only two things: one, a good interview, and two, a better second interview. Over the years I have learned that the best of intentions are always at the forefront of every admissions representative. But sometimes, the interview lacks the commitment element that makes a big difference in whether or not we see the student on start day.

Admissions people sometimes confuse consent with commitment and assume they mean the same thing. So a good second interview by a more seasoned rep – or better, the admissions director – can often uncover problems that may have been overlooked or ignored at the initial interview.

That second interview is meant to ask the questions that uncover hidden fears, apprehension or confusion. The second is a simple, five-minute “check the checker” experience. The questions are centered around the terms of the commitment – the time, effort and money associated with attending school, and just the general health of the applicant after they have finished speaking to everyone.

The questions that we need to ask this applicant are really simple:

What made you decide to pursue a career as a _______?
What did you and your admissions representative discuss regarding your commitment to becoming a graduate?
When you met with your financial aid advisor, were all your loan and other financial options discussed, and do you have any questions?
What do you think are the best qualities you will bring to us and the other students you will share class time with?
Now that you are finished with this part of the admissions process, are you still motivated to graduate, and can you see yourself putting forth the effort and energy to change your life?

That’s it … or a variation of these questions. They are all emotional-type inquiries looking for logical answers. That is an important transition in the success of any interview.

The “checker” needs to make sure that the prospective student is on the same page as the admissions representative, and that there are no loose ends that will fall through the cracks once they get outside to the parking lot.

It takes a few extra minutes, but it will make a big difference on start date.

Listening Skills Often Make the Biggest Difference

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In the many workshops and seminars I have participated in over the years, the one question that always seems to come up after “I have a sales problem” is, “What should I look for in a good rep?”

A good and very important question. Equally important is who is doing the looking and what are they really looking for? Recently, a small school owner told me that they had set out to interview for an admissions director, and had not found one yet because they all seemed to be too “sales-ey.” A bit confused, I asked what exactly that meant. They went on to say that they were too pushy and animated, etc. Now I wasn’t there for the interview, but on the surface, those seemed like OK qualities to me.

So when I say listening skills are important, I mean listening to yourself. Have a frank conversation that starts out with “what’s good for the business.” Listen to those answers and match them up with your personal perception and analysis of what you are willing to accept as a solution. If you have a sales problem, and you hire people in your own image, but you are not a salesperson, you will miss the boat. And worse, they will miss the boat with you.

First things first. Could you use more new starts? Do you manage the metrics? Do you manage the process of admissions first, the people second? Do you manage performance daily? Do you currently have representatives who have performance behind them as opposed to having potential in front of them?

With those questions asked and answered, admissions is a pay-for-performance position. Not an incentive pay-for-performance, a pure pay-for-performance using any compensation methods that work within the guidelines. They get a salary; they produce starts that meet your company objectives. If you need a lead-to-start conversion of 20 percent to make your budget, based on advertising performance and leads generated within your budget, then that is what you need to manage to. If you aren’t, it’s either because your representatives aren’t skilled to do it, and that is a training problem you should solve quickly, or they have an attitude problem that you have to repair or replace as soon as it is uncovered. You treat infections, not let them spread. If training them isn’t something you are comfortable with, then send them to workshops.

Listening begins with asking yourself what you need to do and how fast you need to do it. Put it on paper, give it a purpose, then put everything you have into making it work. Woulda, coulda, shoulda aside, it’s a new day and a new, fresh start. Take a deep breath and go out there to compete and win.

One more listening tip. Walk around the school for a couple of days. What do you hear? If it’s not a bunch of enthusiastic chatter, create it! It drives referrals and retention, which are both free!

Internet … more than the new pet rock

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I thought CCA was a good time. I met and spoke with a lot of the Wall Street crowd, some old friends and some new ones, too. All in all it was an exciting foray into the new world of the Internet and time well-spent with those who think it's the new pet rock and …

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