What Applying for College can Teach us about Sales

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My daughter is a couple of weeks away from making her final college selection. As a father I have mixed emotions- excitement, anticipation, pride and a bittersweet realization that she is about to start an important phase of her life- on her own! As a business owner, this process of selecting a college seems very structured. As our family began this process 6 months ago, we leveraged a variety of published rankings and formal reviews, spoke with our personal network, researched our options and pre-selected a group of semi-finalists. We then initiated a dialogue with our top 3 picks and eventually narrowed it down to a final “provider”. Maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t this sound familiar? Isn’t this exactly what our customers experience when deciding which supplier or vendor will best solve their problem or fill a need.

Phase 1 – Research
When we began the college selection process, we focused on four drivers:

  • Her major (or area of expertise)
  • The school’s reputation (peer and student/client reviews)
  • The culture and alignment with my daughter’s personality (how will she be treated, is the environment supportive and understanding of her goals)
  • Our budget

As my daughter’s major became more defined, so did our investigation. We were able to focus our research on schools that offered her major (Fine Art), learning about their program requirements, graduation rates and job placement metrics. We then took our long list of prospects and factored in their cost confirming that we actually had the resources to handle the expense. Every parent would like to offer their children the opportunity to attend any school of their choice – just like every CEO would love to give their team an unlimited budget. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. We have a certain budget with which to work, and in the end our mission is clear: find the best environment, with a strong reputation, consistently positive reviews, and a program that meets her needs without exceeding our financial resources. Once again, sound familiar?

I’m happy to report that after applying to 13 schools, she was accepted to 12, and eventually narrowed it down to 3 finalists, based largely on the aforementioned criteria. However, as is the case with our clients, the process is far from over – it is now time to open a dialogue with her top 3.

Phase 2 – Engagement and Adding Value
In addition to meeting our 4 key criteria, each of her top 3 earned their status by adding value at each step along the way. Once she was accepted, they spent time, energy and money, engaging her –and my wife and I – on a weekly basis. They were not “selling” their school, per se, but rather, demonstrating what life would be like for her, should she ultimately select their school. Some of the schools chose not to engage at all – no calls, few mailings if any, and no effort to make her feel welcome. Needless to say, they did not make it to the top 3. Others, however, sought ways to connect with her on a weekly or semi-weekly basis, in a very personal and relevant manner. Once again, none of this interaction was a hard core sell, but simply an opportunity for the school to give her a glimpse of life at that particular institution. These activities included:

  1. Phone calls from alums to answer questions and share their personal experience
  2. Engagement with groups and organizations she had expressed interest in when filling out her applications
  3. Offers to stop by the department head’s office while we were visiting the campus
  4. Offers to sit in on a class within her major to engage with students and teachers in a real-time setting
  5. And in one case, sending her a package containing 2 tea bags and a handwritten note explaining that the founder of the college was an avid tea drinker and teapot collector, culminating in a collection of over 800 teapots at the time of her death!
  6. The same school provided a bit of “mental ownership” by sending a mock invoice, letting us know in very clear terms, exactly what we would be paying for the fall semester (this may seem a bit presumptive, but trust me, most schools make it extremely difficult to figure out exactly what you will be paying, thanks to the myriad of financial aid products)

Simple, unobtrusive, low-pressure reminders of what the school has to offer – the value add. Hopefully, this process resembles the journey your prospects take, with you as their guide!

Now is the Time to Review your Sales Process

How many of us take this approach when courting new prospects? Sure, we claim to be “adding value” and “collaborating” with our “future customers”, but how many of us fall into the trap of selling first and listening second, repeating the same verbiage and using the same “feature/benefit” approach that has been around for decades. Are we truly hearing what our customers are asking for; do we really understand the root of their problem; and have we offered a genuine solution? Are we taking the time to paint a picture of what life will be like for our prospect, once they have decided to partner with us? Are we taking an educational and supportive approach to help guide them through their final decision, or are we just throwing more data at them, in hopes of sounding sophisticated and successful? Do we make the effort to introduce our prospects to the relevant stakeholders on our team that will be interacting with them as a new customer? In short, are we doing everything possible to make them feel comfortable?

It’s been said many times in dozens of publications over the past few years, and it’s worth repeating: by the time a potential client makes their initial call to your office, they already have 60%-70% of the information they need, and have invested hours into researching their options. They are calling you because you made it to their “top 3”, and they now want to know what life will be like if they choose your organization.

This is the time for us to engage and build a relationship that clearly illustrates why we are different and better able to meet their needs. It is incumbent upon us to listen intently, understanding what is driving their decision to hire someone like you. Ultimately, the goal is to become a thought partner for your prospect, offering solutions and recommendations to all of their questions, while posing questions they hadn’t even thought of! This type of genuine dialogue sends the message that it will be well worth their time and money to invest in you and your team.

As D-Day (Decision Day) draws near, I have seen my daughter experience the same feelings and angst our clients go through when making big purchasing decisions. Her upfront research provided the insights and data she needed to identify her top 3. Ultimately, it will come down to how effective the schools are at validating her initial thoughts. In the end, I want her to choose the school that will fill her need – to secure a solid education and build a network – while welcoming her into their culture. I want her to engage with an institution that will respect her, challenge her preconceived notions, acknowledge her contributions and provide her with the tools she needs to succeed. And in the end, isn’t this what we all want for our customers!

About the Authors

Ken Schmitt is the President and Founder of TurningPoint Executive Search and the Sales Leadership Alliance. Specializing in placing sales, marketing and operations professionals across the country, Ken’s 16 years of recruiting experience have equipped him with the knowledge to serve as a thought partner to his clients for all recruiting, hiring and human capital-related initiatives. Ken sits on the board of Junior Achievement, the American Marketing Association, the San Diego HR Roundtable and is an Advisory Board Member for San Diego Sports Innovators (SDSI).

Vicky Willenberg has served as the Social Media Manager for TurningPoint since 2011. In 2014, she was elevated to Digital Marketing Manager, broadening her participation across all things digital for the firm. A former teacher with a Masters in Education, Vicky is an active and published blogger at The Pursuit of Normal and a marketing professional. She has her finger on the pulse of the latest trends in the recruiting, hiring and leadership sectors.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Rob Swette
    Reply

    Great article and a couple of points. First it also interesting going through the same process and discipline that so much of the decision is also intuitive. Some say they “just know it” when they walk on a campus as was the our case. It’s all that emotional, intuitive factors that also play a critical role in the decision making process. Second, I think prospects like to know that you want their business, are willing to work for it, and willing to work to keep it. It’s that follow-up that shows you care.

    Good luck and let us know how it ultimately turns out!

  • Ken Schmitt
    Reply

    Rob,
    I think you are correct on all accounts. There is certainly the “just know it” factor. It’s always difficult to explain that to people- both prospects, clients and even friends. It’s hard to tell people you “just know.” But it certainly a large factor in many situations. I can not agree with you more about follow-up. Often, it’s the only thing that differentiates you in the mind of the client. As you said, when they “know you want their business” and make the effort to gain it, they see a company that will continue to go to bat for them. This makes the decision making easier for them.
    Thanks for your insights.
    Ken

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