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If my recent appliance purchase taught me anything, it’s that you can draw a lot of parallels between shopping for a refrigerator and choosing a college. Hear me out. My husband, Neil, and I had to buy a fridge recently, and our experience made me think about the influence of salespeople on the buying experience. That, of course, made me think about how it connects to the work in admissions and how we communicate with prospective students and their families. 

At the first store, we encountered a salesperson, who, rather than take us through the store to look at refrigerators, rushed to his computer to show us how to search their website and compare options online. Then, he went into lots of technical details about refrigerators. I didn't care about 90 percent of the things he was telling us and we couldn't get a word in edgewise. We took his card and left, knowing we wouldn't be back.

It was then I started thinking about the admissions and visit process, and realized we may be making the same mistakes with our prospective students. Here’s what I learned from the first store: 

  • Don't refer someone to the website when they're sitting with you in person. Anytime you’re talking to a prospective student or parent on the phone or in person, do not refer them to the website. Use the conversation as your opportunity to build a relationship and connect them to your campus personally.
  • Listen to the customer rather than being on autopilot. While you want to guide the conversation and hit your key selling points, it’s important to tailor it to what a student is seeking. Be attentive to individual interests and needs, and respond accordingly.
  • You will lose people if you get into nitty-gritty details too quickly. I left because the salesperson was talking over my head, so imagine how families feel when they interact with college admissions representatives. The college admissions process is more intimidating than buying a refrigerator (and more expensive!), so be aware of your use of institutional and industry jargon early in your conversations with families. Do not take a deep dive into details until you’ve assessed a student’s needs and developed a sense of trust and mutual understanding.

At the second store, we met a salesperson who was friendly and not at all pushy. He was eager to answer our questions, but never answered the "question behind the question." We don't know much about refrigerators, so we were hoping he could provide a greater level of expertise. Their store had a few floor models, but options were limited, and their prices were higher than the first store. We probably could have been sold, but he missed an opportunity to illustrate why their products were better than less expensive options.

After the second store, the parallel between making a major purchase and college searches experience became clear. Here’s what I learned:

  • Answer the "question behind the question" whenever you can. Many families know some general questions to ask colleges, but they are not always sure how to assess what makes good answer. They are relying on you to be the expert. And, their questions may not get you to what you want to sell about your school. It’s up to you to make those connections. For example, you may get asked, “Who will help my child choose a major?” You could answer their specific question and explain the role of an academic advisor. Or, you could consider the question behind their question, which likely relates to a desire for a supportive environment, the value of their investment and your four-year graduation rate.  
  • People will pay more if they are convinced of value, but they still like to feel like they got a deal. We had an idea of what we wanted to spend, and but were willing to go over budget if we felt like we got a deal. And it sure felt good to get a huge discount off of an expensive fridge! Colleges must be able to tangibly illustrate their value. A prospective student or their parents will inevitably ask why they should pay more to go your institution than college X or Y. Without an effective response from you, chances are they’re not going to be convinced.  

At the third store, we were enthusiastically greeted by a salesperson who was genuinely interested in learning what we were seeking. He provided insight into options, brands, pricing and more. He outlined the service that their company provides and talked about the certification of their technicians, giving us the confidence to buy from them. I was also impressed at the inventory on the sales floor. The salesperson was open and honest about where it makes sense to spend money and where it doesn't. At the end of the day, we spent a bit more than we had planned. But, it was highly discounted and we were sold on the value based on all of the information the salesperson had provided. 

The experience at the last store is exactly what we needed. Here are my takeaways for admissions staff and other communicators based on the visit that sold us the fridge:

-- A prompt and enthusiastic greeting makes a great first impression. This is especially important for front-line staff members. Do not underestimate the importance of the initial greeting and how you make a visitor feel; it sets the tone for the rest of the experience.

-- Allow people to experience as much as possible. While we like to think that families will be captivated by our engaging information sessions and charming personalities, we must remember that a visit is about experiences. Structure your visits to allow for as much engagement and interaction outside of the admissions office as possible. Students must be able to picture themselves on your campus. 

While helping families decide where to send their students is a bit more intense than helping someone buy a refrigerator, admissions staff, just like salespeople, can make or break the entire experience. Here’s hoping I’m still satisfied with my purchase when it arrives.

Karen Dahlstrom is the executive director of admissions at Augustana College.

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