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November 10th, 2014

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10 Ways to Improve Phone Calls to Prospective Students

by Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services

I’m a frequent channel surfer. It’s a bad habit I know. During halftime of a recent college football game I came across the sports movie classic, Jerry Maguire. For me the 1996 film is one of those movies that I can watch over and over again. The key message in the film centers on personal relationships. At its core, the college admissions process is about making those same types of connections.

As college admissions professionals you are continually counseling prospective students on the admissions process and opportunities available at your institution. In this day and age a bulk of that guidance will occur primarily through phone calls and emails. I’m sure each of you has a preference, but remember that a well-balanced mix of communication is key.

One of the questions I always ask a college-bound student is whether they would rather receive an email or a phone call from a college that they’re interested in. Regardless of where the student is at in the process nearly all choose a phone call. Their reasoning is simple. It’s more personal and to them demonstrates genuine interest.

In talking with numerous admissions counselors and enrollment managers, engaging with prospective students on the phone is an all too frequent frustration. Most secretly admit they don’t enjoy it, particularly if it’s the first time in the admissions process that they’re interacting with the student. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that they’re not alone. The teenager on the other end often feels disconnected, in large part due to poor communication and lack of enthusiasm during the call. Too often admissions counselors become so focused on selling their school that they fail to display any personal attributes that would separate them from their competition.

Where do we go from here then? Just like in the movie it starts with forming that connection and showing a more likeable human side to your recruits. Here are 10 areas that you and your staff can target to help improve phone conversations and yield the results you’re looking for.

Etiquette. Eating, chewing gum, having music on, hearing other phones ringing in the background, or worse, other people yelling on their phone while you’re on a call are all impolite. Find a quiet area to make your phone calls from where you can be totally focused. Another common etiquette issue is speaking volume. Some people just don’t know how loud they are. Finally if you’re going to put the other person on speakerphone let them know.

Slow down and speak clearly. I’ve done my share of public speaking over the years. Early on I received some great advice. Speaking slower doesn’t make you boring but just the opposite. Slowing down makes you appear more articulate and knowledgeable, but be mindful that low energy will bore the other person. This is a skill that takes time to master so don’t get frustrated. Enunciating is also critical in conversation. You want to make sure there’s no chance that the other person didn’t understand the information you’re sharing.

Put them at ease right away. It’s a documented fact that speaking to an admissions counselor is a stressful experience for most prospective students. They really want to attend your school and are fearful that one wrong sentence could jeopardize their chances. Remind him or her that your job is to help them manage the college selection process. Your goal needs to be to get the other person comfortable enough to open up, ask questions, and then maintain a steady dialogue. One way to accomplish this is to have talking points prepared ahead of time. These need to be questions that focus on the student – not your institution. Showing genuine interest in them is more important long term than trying to get an answer to where your school ranks.

Questions, questions, questions. Most students who indicate that phone calls are helpful as part of the college selection process have similar reasoning. It allows them to ask questions, and more questions.  In short it personalizes the call.  Your counselors can also get a feel for the other person’s comfort zone by introducing a topic they want to discuss in a neutral way. Then it’s time to sit back, listen, and take notes. You will be amazed at the volume of information students are willing to share if they feel in control of the conversation.

Avoid information overload. Research shows that although our minds can amass limitless amount of information in our long-term memory, we can only focus on a small amount of information at any given time. The worst thing you can do is start spouting off facts about your school. This will overwhelm the other person, and as we just mentioned, students won’t remember everything they’re told anyways.

Short vs. long. As a college basketball coach I always found it helpful to ask a recruit about their recruiting experience once they had committed. What I consistently discovered was that prospects got bored with recruiting calls that dragged out. A few recruits even went so far as to tell me that with some colleges they found themselves putting their phone on speaker and playing video games or watching television while the coach continued to chatter on. So, how do avoid the boredom and that lull? Feel things out. If a recruit is asking questions there’s nothing wrong with letting them dictate how long. Asking questions means they’re intellectually involved in the conversation, so don’t cut them off. If you sense that the other person is no longer engaged, be willing to wrap things up even if you haven’t had a chance to convey your selling points.

Handling objections. Objections are inevitable. Always remain calm and don’t become defensive. Students can tell when your tone changes during a phone call. Even if you have facts and figures to prove your school’s business degree is better than that of college “X,” if a recruit says they believe the opposite, meet that objection with a question to find out why. Once you’ve done that, listen to their entire reasoning and then you can present a solution and lay out facts to support your point of view.

Stop trying to be a mind reader. I’ll admit it. I’m guilty of doing this more then I should, especially with my wife. We’ll be having a conversation and I assume to know what point she’s trying to convey. More often than not, I’m wrong. When your recruit makes a statement you infer to be negative or questionable, don’t jump to conclusions. Instead write it down and gather information to determine if the statement is sound and justifiable. You can then determine if reasoning exists to support your assumption.

If you don’t know, just say so. There’s no shame in telling someone that you don’t know the answer to a question. Convey that you will get an answer as soon as possible. As I’ve said in previous posts, the last thing you want to do is exaggerate the facts only to have the recruit discover you did so.

Parents. When mom or dad answers the phone and says their son or daughter isn’t home, what do you do? Believe it or not this presents a great opportunity. Parents are not only more involved in every aspect of the college admissions process today, but in many cases their child wants and even values their input. Therefore, my advice is you must be comfortable talking to your prospect’s parents. Mom and dad can provide you with useful information, and studies are showing that more parents are actually doing a bulk of the work for their child during the admissions process.

 Near the conclusion of Jerry Maguire, Jerry and Rod Tidwell embrace and show how their relationship has progressed from a strictly business one to a close personal one. For your office to secure enrollment, that same relationship needs to be cultivated between prospective students and your staff. It’s imperative that phone calls are more about the student and less about the college.

 Try following these simple but proven communication strategies the next time you or your staff picks up the phone to talk to a prospect. They will help deepen your connection.

 Our clients get even more advice and direction on an ongoing basis.  Want to have access to one-on-one expertise as you approach this next recruiting class?  We’re ready to help.  Click on the link for all the details, or email Jeremy directly at jeremy@dantudor.com

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