From education to employment

Lessons from Supermarkets: The Real Key to FE Recruitment

Stefan Drew

Like me you probably understand that recruitment is a complex issue. You need the right courses, market them effectively and undertake extensive interview and induction processes to get those bums on seats. Even then you could find some students walk in the first few weeks. Recruitment is hard work and, for full time courses, the main recruitment season only comes around once a year.

Some providers seem to perform better in terms of the business performance measure we call recruitment. Why?

Sometimes it helps to look outside the sector to see what other industries do to recruit their customers. I believe there are lessons we can learn from the best performing supermarkets as, believe it or not, there are similarities. 

The Institute of Customer Service have just completed their UK Customer Service Index (UKCSI) and it reveals the power that customers hold when it comes to business performance.

Is Your Organisation an Aldi or Tesco?

The UK supermarket that’s seen the largest gain in sales and market share is Aldi. They outperform M&S, Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury and the other major players.

They also take pole position when it comes to customer satisfaction.

Coincidence? I don’t believe it is.

If customers aren’t happy with customer service they tend to spend less in supermarkets and don’t return.

Those supermarkets that saw drops in market share include Tesco, Asda and Co-Op Food and they also exhibited the lowest customer service performance index.

In my FE Success Research Study, I’ve discovered similarities between FE and supermarkets. Those providers that have a better recruitment record seem to score higher on customers service when we mystery shop them.

Coincidence. I don’t believe it is.

We also investigated student services and online enquiry logs to and correlated them against providers’ own perceptions of their recruitment performance. There is a high degree of correlation.

The UKCSI also demonstrated that where Aldi was getting a lot of repeat business it was also benefiting from customer recommendation. Satisfied customers tell others that then become customers.

It seems to me that FE should take note and learn from supermarket exemplars.

Poor Customer Service Examples

On examining the questions posed to those providers with recruitment issues there are shared issues.

The key one is that the same old questions seem to appear time after time. For example, one provider has been repeatedly asked a whole series of questions that come back to one thing; when is induction?

Another gets repeated questions about exam results. Again, they are phrased in different ways but boil down to “I was promised I’d get a letter with my results by the end of the month but it hasn’t arrived”.

In both the above cases the questions link back to poor communications and processes. If a complaint or query becomes commonplace then we need to examine why it repeats and amend the process or improve communications. It’s not rocket science.

If we’ve not changed a process in the last 3 years there is a good chance it is outdated or could be done better. We need to check processes on a regular basis to see if they are still needed in their present form or if we can automate them.

Einstein said, “Beyond complexity lies simplicity”. My advice is to keep it simple.

A Word of Warning

Humans don’t enjoy change. We revel in the routine. And it is easy to think we don’t need to make changes. It is also easy to convince ourselves we are good at something when we are not.

For example, I can guarantee that some readers will be saying to themselves that they have a customer service award so their customer service is clearly excellent.

Sadly, this is not always the case. A customer service award is not the same as delivering good customer service.

A lot of customer service award criteria is based on having systems in place. This is not the same as using those criteria effectively. Saying you answer the phone by the third ring and have a process in place for monitoring this is not the same as actually monitoring it at busy times when performance will be lowest!

Marketing Isn’t Key

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called into colleges that tell me their recruitment is dropping and marketing needs an overhaul. Quite frequently the problem isn’t with the marketing department but is a more systematic customer service failure.

Customer service can go wrong at so many levels. It happens when the phone isn’t answered, emails get ignored, poor information is provided and teaching is poor.

One of the main issues however is an overly complex customer journey. Getting it right first time is key. Students that have to ask for their results several times are not going to be praising you in the local pub or on social media. Your reputation is a good measure of customer service. A new logo doesn’t build your brand, good customer service throughout the customer journey builds your brand.

Preventing problems is key to good customer service (followed with how you handle the few problems that slip through the net). Other than checking your logs for regular complaints try this simple technique. Turn every step of the customer journey on its head and determine what, in your worst nightmare, could go wrong at each step. Now ensure you have something in place to prevent it happening.

However good we are we will still get few things going wrong. None of us is perfect! So, the secret at this stage must be to focus on complaint handling. The worse organisations start this process wrong. For example, they start their reply by acknowledging your complaint and telling you they have 6 weeks to answer. It’s like saying your complaint is not important to them!

Acknowledging the complaint correctly is crucial. Empathising and being a human helps a lot. Checking what outcome the complainant wants is essential and being able to do remedy the situation quickly works wonders! If the complainant wants their exam results telling them to phone another office doesn’t provide good customer service. The answer is to tell them you will chase it up and get back to them within ten minutes! Then you need to do that and deliver exemplary customer service. This can turn a detractor into a solid ambassador in minutes. 

To do the above you need just one thing. You need engaged, well trained competent staff. It sounds easy but many organisations find this a real challenge. That’s why Aldi are winners and their competitors lag behind them!

It’s Obvious Really

I’ve not written anything in this feature that you didn’t know. So why is customer service and recruitment such a problem for so many providers?

So many providers say they are student focused. But are they really as focused as Aldi? Are they gaining market share as well as improving their customer service index?

About Stefan Drew: FHE Marketing Consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for the last decade has consulted with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US.

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