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Why Some Colleges and Universities get an "F" for Sales

Posted by Rich Schreuer on Tue, Sep 10, 2013

failing gradeIt’s been accepted wisdom, for the past 10 years, that customer experiences should align with a company’s brand value proposition. Simply put, operations should focus on making sure the brand promises, implicitly (or explicitly) conveyed in market communication, are actually delivered.I recently stumbled across an entire industry that not only isn’t taking this view of brand-experience alignment, it doesn’t seem to realize that experience matters at all. It's not that they don’t care about their customers’ experience once they are customers (they care very much), but they seem completely blind to the importance of experience in the purchase process. Indeed the disregard for this type of experience is so commonplace that I didn’t notice it until I heard about a glaring exception.

I’m talking about higher education. This past spring, I toured many colleges in the Northeast with my 18 year-old son as he went through the selection and application process. Each of these colleges clearly spent a lot of money on sales and marketing. They all had very strong collateral, high quality mailings, hosted events designed to attract students, and I’m sure had a lot of other marketing activities as well. But when it came to delivering a pivotal experience—the guided campus tour, they all completely blundered.

The first tour at a highly regarded small liberal arts school in Maine was typical. It was conducted by an intelligent, friendly student. It would have been a great tour if my son had been primarily interested in how easy it is to make friends, how many good friends the guide has, how she found her art major and the greatness of the creative arts facilities. Of course she talked about other things, but these subjects were where her passion came through.

At another small college in upstate New York, the tour would have been great if my son loved playing Frisbee and wanted to know about all the wacky stuff the kids do to have a fun social life without a Greek system.

These tours weren’t bad, but they didn’t click with my son. He liked both colleges, but the tours did nothing to further his progress along the “journey” to becoming a student.

I didn’t think much of this until I had a conversation with a colleague whose daughter was also visiting colleges, and he told me about their visit to Elon University. He described how great the tour was. The student guide made everyone feel at ease, asked questions, and made sure the tour and conversations catered to everyone's interests and needs. She wasn’t salesy, she took a genuine interest in her charges and apparently tailored tour content on the fly.

My colleague mentioned that on the drive home (after seeing seven colleges) he asked his daughter which schools most interested her. Elon University was one of the three she mentioned. This surprised him because, while a very good school, it didn’t seem to be a particularly good fit academically or socially. His daughter soon came to the same conclusion and dismissed Elon from consideration. It struck him that the tour experience was central to creating such a strong impression. Imagine if Elon had offered a more fitting academic and social environment for my colleague’s daughter, it’s very likely that the tour would have sealed the deal.

So that brings me to my conclusion and recommendation. From my small convenience sample, it seems that most colleges and universities are ignorant of, or are just ignoring, the power of personal experience in the buying process. They spend a lot of time and money moving candidates through the purchase funnel, and then when they’re at the bottom and literally knocking on the door (to mix a metaphor); they fail to give that final little push.

I don’t know anything about how student tour guides are selected or trained. But surely it would be very easy to select the most outgoing, flexible, appealing work-study students, and then give them basic sales training on how to make people feel comfortable, ask the right questions and then tailor their approach to their customers’ needs and interests. Of course they wouldn’t call it sales training.  It could be a short seminar called “The Need for Understanding and Flexibility in Human interaction, 101.”

Rich is Senior VP and Chief Methodologist at CMB, he's the proud father of a brand new college freshman.

Join Tauck's Jeremy Palmer, CMB's Judy Melanson and South Street Strategy Group's Mark Carr on September 12th at noon (EDT) for a webinar: Focused Innovation: Creating New Value for a Legacy Brand


Topics: brand health and positioning, customer experience and loyalty