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

by sduncan

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

by sduncan

by sduncan
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.


Scott Duncan