In 2002, when the EAIE Marketing & Recruitment Expert Community (M&R) was founded, marketing was considered a four-letter (ie rude) word by many across European academia. We have come a long way since then. Now, the international marketing and recruitment of students can be seen on the agenda of every European university. Yet why do we still talk about marketing and recruitment when the reality is that we are ‘selling’ and recruiting international students?
The term ‘selling’ is very much applicable to student recruitment and effective sales skills are essential for staff in the recruitment department. Yet the word ‘sales’ very often conjures up images of car salesmen and pushy evening phone calls from telesales people. Selling education however, does not even come close to these ideals, for various reasons.
No such thing as ‘cold calling’ in higher education
University recruiters do not buy lists of prospects to start calling complete strangers. When marketing higher education, universities generate leads (ie prospective students) by going to fairs, using alumni, working with agents, advertising off and online, etc. Anyone interested then provides their contact details to the university. They share their details voluntarily. Universities then contact a prospective student because that person was interested.
When proactively calling a prospect who enquired or completed an application form, the university is actually helping that person – helping them understand what the university can and cannot offer. The university is helping them to understand the admission requirements and the steps before starting class, such as applying for a visa and arranging accommodation.
High quality sales service required
Education is a service and the product is the result of interaction between producer (the university or professor) and consumer (the student). The product is only ‘completed’ at graduation and this makes education a very intangible product. It is a high-involvement and high-risk product that one only acquires two to three times in a lifetime. Making the right choice is not easy for most people, considering that they can choose from over 18 000 universities worldwide. High quality sales service can make the intangible tangible and help prospective students to make the right decision.
As the competition for good students is high, universities have to become more proactive. Currently, most of the follow up is done via e-mail (if at all) and not by telephone. Yet, calling an admitted student is probably the easiest call one can make: “Hi, congratulations! You have been admitted to the university. Do you understand the next steps or can I be of assistance so you can start classes this September?”
Basic sales tips
As with any profession, we need certain skills to be successful and these skills can be learned. Understanding a few basics is a good starting point:
- Speed: prospects enquire with multiple institutions. The institution that is first to talk to the prospect immediately sets expectations that other institutions will be measured against.
- Listening: learn to listen more and talk less. Listen to what the student really wants and needs.
- Questioning: understand better by asking the right questions. Ask open, probing questions early in the recruitment process and closed, commitment questions at the stage of application and enrolment.
- Objection handling: deal with objections by asking more questions so you fully understand the situation. Then you can tackle the issue or concentrate on others prospects.
- Closing: never leave a follow up to chance. Closing is not just about securing the final decision but also setting up the next stage. If a student agreed to look at some information, make sure you schedule a follow up appointment to discuss the content and answer any remaining questions.
- Impressions: people buy from people they trust so you must be responsive, reliable and emphatic.
Check out the diagram below for some extra tips on how to sell education (adapted from Anna Vital, Funders & Founders).
Critical success factors: KPIs
To be successful in introducing a more sales-oriented perspective to the marketing and recruitment activities of your university, it is of vital importance to implement an adequate sales process. All staff in contact with prospective students, applicants and admitted students must be aware that they are ‘selling’ the university. More importantly, the management of the marketing and recruitment departments should develop a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure the performance and success of the recruitment operation. Appropriate KPIs could include the number of phone calls per day, number of applications, number of admitted students etc. Managers must continuously coach recruitment staff and provide feedback on telephone conversations.
Switching to a more sales-oriented environment requires a new mind-set and focus on activities that yield results. Sales and recruitment departments will constantly need to evaluate if undertakings are effective. Being highly organised and able to manage a sales process and a pipeline over several intakes will greatly contribute to the success of the university. If a student is not ready to enrol in a particular intake, they might do so in the next one. This requires keeping in contact with a large part of your database through activities such as webinars, social media and e-mail campaigns.
Just like ‘marketing’, ‘sales’ is not a dirty word, but a necessity in a student-focused organisation. It is how universities can survive in a competitive environment and ensure they attract the right students for their programmes. The marketing and recruitment departments function as the first point of contact, and thus the face of the university and its programmes to prospective students. When prospects encounter a high level of service, it will reflect positively on the rest of the enrolment process and the institution.
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By Thijs van Vugt, iE&D Solutions BV and Preben Sperling, Providentiae BV