Business Development

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How to Develop a Strong Sales Culture within your Higher Ed Recruitment Team

A typical higher ed recruitment sales team


To be successful in today’s competitive marketplace, you need to develop a strong sales culture within your higher ed recruitment team. If you are marketing undergrad programs at a top-tier school with an acceptance rate of less than 10%, you might argue that you do not need to sell. But, even at your school, if you go check with an executive MBA, continuing ed and or microcredential program manager, I bet they’d agree with me.

People used to feel similarly that marketing was beneath them but the increasing number of VP, Marketing roles on senior management teams across higher ed has pretty much put that argument to bed. “Sales” not so much, but the practical reality is that sales, in one form or another, has been practiced in higher ed recruitment for a very long time.  We “recruit”, we “advise”, and we “soft sell”; we call it many different names, but it really boils down to the same thing.

Yes, there have been many bad actors with respect to the practice of sales in higher ed, and there are still a few out there, but ethical sales practices are mostly the norm. Responsible schools today generally use some variation of a customer-centric, solutions-based sales approach to recruitment.  

The fact that we don’t like to call it “sales” may explain why many schools are still quite bad at it. Some institutions/departments are better than others. Particularly skilled are those involved in “last mile training”, for professional, continuing, and online learning programs, that have had to compete aggressively with other schools for students. Many short-term certificates and other online training products are other good examples of this. Some schools, on highly coordinated growth trajectories, like SNHU for example, have also proven to be better at it than others. Given the ongoing challenges postsecondary institutions face with respect to recruitment, revenues, and financial stability, I think it is inevitable that best practices in sales, will be more commonly adopted and normalized in higher ed in the future.

This post lays out why I think you can benefit from the development of a strong sales culture for your higher ed recruitment team and provides some practical suggestions on how to accomplish this goal.

What is Sales Culture?

So what exactly is “sales culture”? Sales culture encompasses the attitudes, behaviors, and habits your recruitment management and team exemplify at any time or place with respect to sales. It is that unique combination of values, beliefs, language, and norms that shape your recruitment environment and make it work. Its core elements look something like this:

The Building Blocks of Sales Culture

Graphic Details describing Sales Culture

Why Develop a Sales Culture within Your Higher Ed Recruitment Team?

A strong sales culture supports the approach and operations of your recruitment functions. Developing a strong sales culture within your recruitment team can provide numerous benefits, including:

  1. Competitive Advantage
    A sales culture equips your recruitment team with the knowledge, skills, and mindset that they need to compete with and outperform other schools that don’t have one. By adopting a sales-driven approach, you will differentiate your institution from most other’s approaches and if implemented effectively, attract a larger pool of high-quality candidates and students.

  2. Create a Stronger Sales Team
    A strong positive sales culture creates a healthy, sales-focused business environment in which your staff can thrive. They learn, develop and practice their skills, gain confidence in their role, and make significant positive contributions to both the institution they work for and the students they serve.

  3. Revenue Generation
    A sales culture focuses on maximizing conversion rates and increasing enrollments, resulting in higher revenue for your institution. This additional revenue can be reinvested to improve academic programs, facilities, and student services.

  4. Relationship Building
    The sales process emphasizes building positive relationships with prospective students and their families. This cultivates trust and loyalty, leading to long-term engagement, enrolment, and potential referrals in the future.

How to Develop a Strong Sales Culture in Your Higher Ed Recruitment Team

Here are ten tips to help you develop a stronger sales culture within your recruitment team:

  1. Hire Strong Sales Oriented Staff
    Start with being sure you hire sales-oriented recruitment representatives and staff. Develop a well-structured sales-oriented job description. Get help from people experienced in sales and sales management to assist in your hiring process, and hire for sales experience or at the very least, demonstrated sales aptitude. Use a probation period to ensure they demonstrate the sales skills they will need to be effectiven and, if necessary, remove the ones that don’t work out. In the long run, those less-sales suited recruits will be much happier doing something other than sales and your program will be more successful.

  2. Invest in Sales Training and Skills Development for Your Team
    Provide comprehensive sales training to develop and enhance the sales skills of your recruitment team. Bring in outside trainers if you do not have the expertise internally. Train staff on effective communication, active listening, negotiation, selling, and relationship building. There are some naturally born communicators out there who seem to be able to sell anything. They can be a great hire, if you can find them, but they too need sales training to learn what it is they are actually doing and to continue to improve their skills. These natural born salespeople can also become important trainers/mentors within your team, helping to develop less experienced, or skilled staff. Provide and encourage continuous learning through sales workshops, webinars, and industry conferences.

    sales training graphic

  3. Develop Team Level Sales Objectives
    Sales in higher ed is different than in most environments and uniquely flavoured. Prospective students work through multiple touch points, communication flows, outbound campaigns, and inbound contact over quite long periods of time. Set your team sales objective as an aggregate number, with each of your reps’ performance contributing to a monthly, quarterly, or annual objective.  Set individual rep goals, based on time experience, and opportunity, measure it, and review it individually with them on a regular basis.  But your team’s public numbers should be a team-based goal, that everyone contributes to, that everyone succeeds or fails on.  Encourage individual sales performance but make reaching the team goals even more important, encouraging a collaborative and supportive team selling environment where multiple reps can engage with any given prospective students, over a long sales cycle, providing the student with the best recruitment experience possible.

  4. Reinforce Your Commitment to, and Practice of, Ethical Sales
    Higher ed is not just in the business of just selling products and revenue generation. Most schools follow an ethical approach to student recruitment where we seek to find the right program for the right student. To help reps learn this approach and behaviors, codify your approach in a code of conduct and ethics that your team operates by, have them sign a copy on their day one, and revisit it regularly with them.

  5. Develop Sales Management Skills
    A manager in your organization has to OWN the sales management mandate, 100%. If no one does, your sales team will struggle. They need active leadership, structure, training and supervision. Your recruitment team, (or pretty much any sales team) is like a herd of cats. They will sometimes sit pretty, and purr nicely, and then all of a sudden, wander off in completely different directions. It’s the nature of the people who are good at this kind of work. To master this challenge you or some manager must develop equally good sales management skills, systems, and procedures.  Train and manage your reps in the moment, as learning opportunities arise, and meet with them regularly one on one and as a group to give them positive, (and negative), feedback on their sales performance.

  6. Have Regular Sales Meetings
    Have a sales meeting, at the same time every week/month, by Teams, Zoom, or even better in person, and be sure to call it a Sales Meeting. Train your reps a little, (have a VIP guest speaker), give them program, and practice updates, celebrate success (talk about that sale that went perfectly) or dissect the failures (talk about the big fish that got away), and reinforce your personal bonds with the Team and keep them focused on your group objectives.

  7. Track Your Sales Progress and Report your Performance, Up and Down the Ladder
    Develop a good tracking system for your sales and marketing objectives. Develop your reporting so you understand individual rep performance, group performance, and overall channel marketing performance. Look at inbound and outbound call activity, average $ per student, time to first call on student, lead aging to sales, etc. Then share your KPIs with your reps and your boss so everyone knows how hard you are working and how much sales success you are having. It is the only way to be agile and responsive to changing circumstances in the marketplace. Overcommunicate your results, communicate the next steps with the team and your sales performance will improve. (Pro Tip – Get good at using Data Studio, (aka Google Looker Studio), for this and it all gets much easier, not to mention impressive to the boss.)

  8. Build In-House Lead Generation Capacity and Lead Management Systems
    Implement your own organic lead generation strategies, leveraging a marketing mix of digital marketing, social media, email, events, and partnerships. If you want your reps to get really good at selling you need to provide them with a wealth of low-cost prospects on which to apply and practice their developing sales skills and get really good at it. Establish efficient lead management systems to ensure prompt follow-ups and personalized interactions with prospective students.


  9. Emphasize Collaboration and Provide Support
    Foster a collaborative environment within your recruitment team, encouraging knowledge sharing, brainstorming sessions, and team-selling activities. Provide them with the necessary resources and support, including CRM systems and marketing automation, if possible, to make them successful.

  10. Provide Incentives and Recognition
    Providing incentives in higher ed recruitment is a hard topic. Institutions can’t pay dollar bonuses on recruitment performance, like sales people in other industries. So, get over that, and focus your efforts on recognizing the sales successes of individuals in front of the team in other ways, and to the benefits of the whole group meeting its objectives. And don’t forget to celebrate successes to motivate and inspire your recruitment team when and how you can. Free pizza and beer or maybe a Friday afternoon off, can go a long way.

If your recruitment and support staff are union based. some of the above gets more challenging but it does not mean you can’t implement a lot of it. It is amazing what a well-run, well-motivated sales team, pursuing common team-based goals can accomplish, regardless of larger union-management relations or collective agreement constraints.

Developing a strong sales culture within your higher education recruitment team can significantly improve your prospective student experience, and your enrollment results, driving revenue and foster more meaningful relationships with prospective students. Embracing a sales culture not only enables your team to attract a larger pool of high-quality candidates but also establishes a foundation for long-term engagement, future enrolment, and new referrals.

Good luck as you define, develop and refine your recruitment team sales culture. Let me know if I can help.

Cheers,

Scott Duncan


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5 Ways to Position Your Online Programs for Success in Challenging Times

5 Ways to Position Your Online Programs for Success in Challenging Times

In a recent advisory call with a senior college manager who was working to further develop their online programs and support infrastructure to meet an expanded mandate of more programs, registrations, and revenue, he posed a question that went something like this. “Given all the challenges we have in the (higher education online) market, what are the most important things you should do to position your online programs for success”?

It’s a common challenge, buttressed by a well-known gauntlet of higher ed market forces and economic factors, including increasing costs, demographics-driven declining enrollments, low unemployment, hyper-competition, the rapid evolution of ed tech, and post-covid instability, to mention a few. In the moment, my response covered some of what’s below, but it also launched me down the rabbit hole of the “what are the most important things” question.

My more organized response to the question is:

1) Tune Up your Operational Efficiency

Even if things are going well there is always an opportunity to tune up your operational efficiency. Look at your registration revenues, your recruitment infrastructure and systems, marketing costs, ROAS, social media advocacy stats, and KPIs and adjust your investments accordingly. Do what you do well, even better, but also choose to trim back on the things that are not delivering. Be cautious here because overzealous operational efficiency can be the enemy of innovation, so make sure you keep investing in new programs, partners, and marketing and sales to drive your online business forward.

2) Benchmark your Programs and their Performance

Benchmark against your primary competition, and identify where you are underperforming and where there might be “low-hanging” opportunities. Then act on it. This review might reveal that your local/regional competitors already all have a trendy new program and that it’s probably too late to get into it (i.e. data sciences). On the surface, and without looking externally, it may seem appealing but being 3rd or 4th or 5th into a market is usually unsustainable. Or at best, a breakeven proposition. You need to carefully select and prioritize where you will invest, given limited time and resources. Pick the programs that best align with your academic strengths and have the greatest upside.

3) Get Really Strategic

Make it your practice to seek and develop opportunities and activities that differentiate your programs from your competitors while at the same time giving you a sustainable competitive advantage. To meet the definition of good strategy you must accomplish both. Make the hard choices of what you will do and what you will not do, based on how much value your programs will create for students. Then challenge yourself to really push your boundaries to innovate and create new market spaces, restructure market boundaries, and eliminate the competition and position for success. (Try your hand at Blue Ocean Strategy for this).

4) Reduce your Time Horizons on Strategic Planning 

Strategic Planning has an unfortunate but often deserved reputation of only being useful for long-term planning (the average strat plan in higher ed is currently around 5 years) and that it generally sits in a binder on a shelf until being revised again some time far in the future. That interpretation, (or reality), is simply not acceptable because your strategic planning is critically important. The institutional strategy should lean longer term but not to the extent that it is ignored or not highly relevant to the short-term planning. Strat planning should also be all about making the choices that drive your business every year not just longer business planning or budgeting. I think a simpler, more agile, short-cycle strategy approach is the way to go, particularly in these challenging times. To accomplish this, you may need to create an independent departmental level strat plan, but regardless, change your personal and departmental, (if not institutional), mindset to actively embrace agile Strategic thinking, all the time.

5) Focus on Execution 

Strat plans, in particular, often fail to deliver on their objectives. Recent research indicates that 48% of all execs fail to reach half of their strategic targets. Business plans and marketing plans are often a close second, as they often don’t have real teeth to them or are not effectively implemented. Assuming you have gone to the effort to create a good solid plan, don’t then let it fail due to poor execution. One effective way to tackle execution is to get specific on setting and managing objectives and expected outcomes. (I personally like to use OKRs to manage this). To ensure effective execution, you need senior management to champion your plans, you need to overcommunicate them, align staff to them, train for them, measure progress, and follow up on them. If you do all of the above, diligently, you might just get yourself over the hump and into the half of execs who do succeed with their plans and meet most of their strategic objectives.

Collectively, I think the challenges and opportunities faced by higher ed managers and marketers today are more formidable than we’ve faced before, at least over my 35 years in the business. But they are not insurmountable, they never are. So, roll up your sleeves, dive in, and get to work on one or all of these five areas to position your online programs for success.

Cheers,

Scott

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