Today, students behave more like customers than ever before!
They order products and services on the go, they interact with businesses on their own time and convenience, and when they engage they expect immediate responses. Their customer service expectations are shaping their day-to-day behaviour – even when it comes to pursuing professional and continuing education.
There is also no denying that, these days, students have a plethora of program options available to them. Apart from the traditional four-year university, there are online options, for-profit institutions, MOOCs and corporate training providers that they can choose from. They are so spoilt for choice that they spend a lot of time carefully researching for and evaluating the different programs at their disposal, and they do this work independently. The days when prospective learners would call the school for information, or show up at an enrollment fair, are over. Now, they do the majority of their research online and, generally, the university only knows a particular learner was interested when they make their enrollment decision or reach out to get final questions answered.
These students are secret shoppers. They search for programming options—in stealth mode—that meet their needs and offer them flexibility, affordability, or the ability to meet their goals.
According to Lesley Nichols, Executive Director of Professional Studies at Emerson College, secret shoppers are a reality and an aggressive approach to recruiting them won’t work. Instead, schools must facilitate their decision-making if they are to earn their trust.
“Many colleges struggle with the notion of stealth applicants—mysterious prospective students who seemingly appear out of thin air and apply. The reality is that these stealth applicants aren’t making a snap decision. Rather, they have been quietly doing their research on the schools that best meet their needs,” she wrote in her article on The EvoLLLution.
“My theory is that students don’t want to be “sold”. No high-pressure sales pitch, no Apply Now or Register Today pleas. When making a significant choice that will impact the rest of their lives, students are more likely to choose a school that helps them along the way as they make their decision.”
Winning the Trust of Secret Shoppers
So what is it that your professional and continuing education division can do to earn the confidence of these secret shoppers and win them over? Here are some strategies that you can consider adopting.
1. Develop a simple website with accurate information
Your website should be clean and easy to navigate so that is easy for secret shoppers to get in and search for the information they need. Remember they are looking for information across areas such as program flexibility, costs, and even outcomes. You will need to ensure that your website clearly brings out such aspects. You may choose to have this information reside behind a form, but in that case you also run the risk of putting some of these shoppers off. Though secret shoppers are experts at gathering data and analyzing it, remember not to overwhelm them with information.
2. Make the website searchable
Secret shoppers first look for course or program-related information online, and once they find it, they use the information to draw out a shortlist. While you may have made all the information available, what you’ll also need to work towards is making the website searchable. There are a lot of programming options to choose from and if your website is not searchable, you may never catch the secret shoppers’ eye. This means that you will have to optimize your website for keywords that are both central to their needs and your programming, so that your CE website ranks well and comes up on top in their searches.
3. Leverage student ratings and reviews
Customer reviews and ratings play an important role in informing customers’ decision-making process. The same holds good for secret shoppers. You should think about collecting ratings and reviews from your students–both past and present–and publish those on your website. This will help you drive home the point of a quality learning experience to a secret shopper who is evaluating options and trying to assess program ROI. And at the same time, this would also help your CE website stand out on search engines, which is also critical to appeal to secret shoppers.
4. Improve accessibility and responsiveness
Secret shoppers expect to be able to find out all the relevant programming information—needed to make a decision—themselves. If they can’t find the information, they typically hesitate to ask for the fear of being actively pursued to be recruited. So you’ll need to be careful in your approach of engaging with these secret shoppers. Live chat presents you with an option to engage these secret shoppers effectively. But before you do so, you will need to train your staff in the conventions of stealth prospects. In managed effectively, the chat functionality can help you to address secret shoppers’ information needs and engage with them on a real-time basis.
Secret Shopping Is Here to Stay
Technology has changed the way we buy products and services. Education is no different. Students, now have the power to research, evaluate, and even enroll without even having to interact with a university or its staff. This phenomenon and the rise of stealth applicants, in turn, has the potential to alter the traditional inquiry management and student recruitment model.
The four strategies above offer guidance on how you can serve secret shoppers, win their trust and convert them into your students.