3 lessons learned by secret shopping as a prospective student

This fall, COE researchers went back to school: at our members’ request, we secret shopped their programs. We uncovered missed opportunities to reach more prospective students, surfaced potential customer service issues, and measured if outreach is sufficiently timely, responsive, and personalized.

Our secret shoppers first viewed selected programs’ websites through the lens of a prospective student searching for programs. They then submitted inquiries through programs’ web-based request for information forms. Over the ensuing weeks, our secret shoppers continued the inquiry process, receiving automated messages, interacting with staff, and experiencing recruitment steps from a prospective student’s point of view. As any good student would, we’ve learned some important lessons and found opportunities for improvement along the way.

Make tuition costs and application deadlines easy to find

Before inquiring, our secret shoppers spent time exploring program websites. On their first viewing, the secret shoppers sought answers to two key questions:

  • How much will this program cost?
  • When do I need to apply?

Without this information, or with it hidden at the bottom of pages or layers into the website, a prospective student wouldn’t be able to decide if a program were realistic to attend. The student would also potentially miss an upcoming application deadline and go on to find another opportunity elsewhere before the next application deadline arrived.

Interested students should be able to quickly determine how much a program will cost to attend, and find important program dates and deadlines (e.g., application deadline, next start date). Prioritize these points alongside information on why prospective students would want to enroll. Use the Web Presence Optimization Toolkit to design a website that is appealing, engaging, and ultimately effective.

Personalize recruitment across multiple channels

Personalized recruitment ensures the student feels valued as an individual and tailors the information provided to that student’s needs. Opportunities for personalization arise throughout the inquiry process, but follow up campaigns don’t always take advantage of such chances. Secret shoppers often received communications that failed to reference the program they were interested in, for example, with a generic “Thank you for your interest in the Certificate Programs at [institution]!” arriving after taking the time to inquire about a particular program.

lessons learned by secret shopping as a prospective student

Surprisingly, our researchers received communications that were too good – the institution had clearly invested in polished automated emails, and that was the problem. When the secret shopper received a highly stylized email with his name inserted into an obvious template, it felt like receiving an email from an online retailer. The simpler messages with a professional but informal tone and plain text instead suggested an email like that from a work colleague or friend.

Find the balance of engaging and personalized without appearing manufactured

It’s all in the follow-through: Ensure staff engage with interested students

Even when prospective student outreach is personalized and well-timed, programs can miss out on potential enrollments if staff aren’t equipped to follow up on inquiries. Our secret shoppers depended on staff to remember scheduled calls and reach out, sometimes with negative consequences—in multiple instances, program staff did not show up for scheduled conversations with our secret shoppers. For an adult student comparing programs while juggling work, family, and a generally busy life, that missed conversation may be enough to convince her a different option is a better fit.

Ensure staff assigned to follow up on program inquiries have this time incorporated into their workday so other tasks do not take greater priority. Staff also need scripts and training on how individual programs can meet students’ needs to make sure that follow-up conversations go well. Our secret shoppers found that, once on the phone, the experience could vary dramatically. The best conversations happened with program directors who learned about the secret shoppers’ backgrounds and tailored their program description to those interests.

One of the biggest opportunities we surfaced when talking to program staff was to make the conversation about more than just prospective students’ information-gathering. When staff shared program details only in direct response to the secret shoppers’ questions, we saw a risk in relying on prospective students to ask all the right questions. Instead, staff should invest in mirroring the best conversations we had by asking about students’ career goals and what they hope to gain from the program. This will allow them to articulate how a program fits students’ needs. Staff should also be equipped to answer essential questions about program costs or what aid students might be able to access.

lessons learned by secret shopping as a prospective student

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