Salespeople.  Ick. You’re in admissions because you are passionate about education, you love building relationships with families, you love watching all the kids you recruited over the years grow, develop and graduate.  You’re not some slimy salesperson, pushing a product. But, wait! You ARE pushing a product: your school, its culture, its values, and mission.  So, let’s talk about how you can sell without being “salesy”.

I’ll bet you have an elevator pitch – a great, well-rehearsed blurb about your school and what makes it special.  You can probably go into great detail about all the fantastic courses, extracurriculars, culture, class sizes, teaching style, facilities, financial aid and more.  In fact, if you didn’t have these stories, you would be remiss.  But be careful – this is your gold – don’t spend it all before the time is right.

How do you feel when some cold caller jumps right into a pitch of their product without knowing anything about you at all?  Or what about when the realtor raves about the house with a pool, and all the while, you can’t swim.  Do you tune in or tune out?

Not only can these unwelcome pitches put up your defenses, but they can also be focused on the wrong value altogether, completely alienating you.  This holds true for schools.  Remember, not every story will resonate with every candidate.  Some stories might even turn a candidate off, even if the other aspects of your school were a perfect fit.

Turn it around.  Start your calls and conversations with a very brief and very broad message.  Perhaps something like this:

“Generally parents are interested in our school because they’re looking for a better learning experience for their child.  This can mean various things to each family. That said, it would be so helpful if you could tell me a little about your child and your specific goals and concerns about her education.  Then, if it makes sense, we can talk about the specific areas where our school might fit those goals. Would that be okay?”

Then listen to what they have to say.  Ask a lot of questions.  You’ll probably hear ways you can help them, but don’t jump in with your pitch yet.  Be sure to complete the entire interview first so you don’t miss any key details.

During this time, you might also catch some major red flags.  If it’s a big enough concern, don’t be afraid to interrupt and address the issue right then.  If the red flag is a deal breaker from either perspective, it’s best, to be honest, and kindly disqualify them as soon as you know.  It’s the icky salespeople that push products that they know their customers won’t be happy with in the end.

Your school is great.  You believe in it. You’re excited about it.  You are proud to be a part of it. Of course, you want to share all of the wonderful anecdotes!  But remember, you will have the strongest “sale” if candidates feel like they’ve come to that conclusion on their own.  The best strategy is to be their guide.  Help your candidates find their own path and their own special place in your story.

If you do this effectively, both you and your prospective students will win.  And you’ll never be left feeling like that slimy salesperson.

Happy selling… errr recruiting!

This post was originally published on August 01, 2013 by James Collins and updated on November 13, 2018, by Cassandra Breeding.

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  • Nice piece. I think being an effective admissions director is at least 50% listening! I hate the ‘sales’ label but for many (for profit) schools, the admissions office is responsible for 100% of the income. No pressure 🙂

  • Terrific post!
    We all dislike those customer service folks who sound soooo very patronizing, and whose “canned” reply makes us wonder why we bothered to call. We are quite certain that they have not heard the details of what has inspired our call. We don’t feel heard.
    Same with parents…if we sound insincere; if our response is not specific to their situation; or – worse! –if we don’t even ask about the details but start in on our elevator speech, then we are no better than that annoying customer service guy/gal. Consider the fact that the parent is interested enough in your school or concerned enough about their child to call you. If you are a parent, remember those situations when nothing was going right. You needed help. If it has been your experience, bring back the memory of discovering that your child needed another academic option. Then respond accordingly. Make the parent feel that they are the only call you received that day…don’t be overly solicitous, just be attentive. Listen! Then, tell them all about the features of your school that meet their child’s interests and capabilities. You ARE in the marketing and sales business. You just don’t want anyone to know it #:->!

  • Early on in my 25-year career as the senior college/university communications officer at five schools, I was taken aback the first time I heard a CFO refer to students as “units of revenue.” This is of course true in a literal sense, since no school can survive without income from tuition and fees.

    Your can call admissions recruiting sales, but I prefer to look at it as counseling and marketing in the most positive sense of the term — listening to prospective students and their parents, presenting what your school has to offer that meets their needs and aspirations, selling them on your school if it’s a good fit, and directing them elsewhere if it’s not a good fit.

  • As a career salesperson and the author of this post, I appreciate the discussion and feedback! Sales CAN be a very noble profession – and that is really my point in the article. The best salespeople, regardless of what they are selling, sell with integrity. They listen to the needs of their prospects, guide them to the best solution and they turn away a sale when it isn’t in the best interest of the buyer. Obviously the title of my post is meant to be provocative, but I believe admissions professionals should embrace their role in sales, study sales techniques and strategy, and continually work to improve their consultative selling approach. That can help them help more families.

  • Even though I’m recruiting for adult degree programs, I enjoyed this article. It may sound elementary, but a lot of time, people need elementary.

    Thank you!

  • This is a great article and so true for us in recruitment. Many students and parents want a good listening ear not at sales talk. It is sometime hard to keep the priorities on target with all the demands. If you do it will pay off.

  • Very good input for admission team. Being in education sales for last 10 years for undergraduate and graduate degrees in propriety education, there is no doubt that admissions are the engine to generate revenue. When enrollments are down, everything is cut. I consider education sales as a very high end sale because not only the student need to take care of tuition, he/she needs to dedicate time, sometime years to get education and need to change life style especially for adults who could not complete their education immediately after high school for some reason or others.

  • This is a great article and very well stated. I spent 5 years selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door and I can say first hand that recruiting is selling. In the world of admissions the key to being successful is identifying a problem and formulating a solution. The well thought out message you gave us remind me of an old quote, “people want to buy but they do not want to be sold”.

  • Unique article, thank you for sharing. I deal with this issue many times with myself and my staff of being “salesy”. I categorize it a bit differently though as you can read in one of my posts here:

  • Thank you! After many years in schools, and ten years in corporate sales and marketing before that – I would say both environments are served well by careful listening first before making that all-important “pitch”.
    Nice job with the article.

  • Remember that the person doing 80% of the talking, is the one that is doing the selling. The person doing 20%, is the one that is listening. People want to be listened too and we, as Admissions professionals, must show them (the prospect) that we care and we truly have their best interest; and we are here to help them make an informed decision about their career and education. Together, we can see if what we have is a good fit for them and if they are a good fit for our college. This is accomplished by “active listening”. In summary, ask open-ended questions, peel the onion, sit back and guide the phone/interview where you want it to go. At the end of the day, it is up to you- Admissions professional, to build TCR- Trust, Credibility and Rapport with every prospect you come into contact with over the phone or in person. Good luck!! JR 🙂

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