May you live in interesting times, goes the Chinese curse. Well, FE has forever lived in interesting times and it is getting more interesting by the day. Last week an FE Principal suggested a change to my normal column. He suggested I reflect on my month in FE and how client colleges, like his, were overcoming the challenge of interesting times.

It is a story of success and failure; of mystery shopping, the art of the possible, full cost courses and technology that increases student recruitment.

FE Mystery Shopping

In the last month I’ve conducted four mystery shopper exercises and all revealed some surprising secrets.

Principal A told me how they had a process for handling incoming enquiries.  He was surprised when my enquiry for a bespoke course saw me redirected to a competitor college, as there “was no call for this type of course”!  The requested course was widely advertised by the college, and featured in their latest video.

The process failed because front line staff were unaware it was a star course and failed to direct my enquiry to the right people.

Principal B was concerned about one of their commercial venture that wasn’t hitting target.  A quick phone call discovered a full answer-phone with a message to say they were closed for Easter.  This was 36 hours after the term had started and customers were being ignored. The result, no bookings.

Superb full cost (cookery) courses

I recently attended a two day Indian cookery course at a private provider.  Despite being very expensive, virtually every course they run has a waiting list and they operate six fully equipped kitchens 360 days a year.  Who says the recession has hit full cost FE courses.

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Some courses are for professionals to hone their skills, with the remainder aimed at the leisure market.  The school’s success is down to superb marketing, customer care, top end facilities and highly trained staff.  All full time staff have worked in Michelin starred kitchens; most have also done a stint working in FE. I’ve been going back at least once a year for six years … they are that good.

Any FE provider could replicate this success, in their chosen sector, but few seem to rise to the challenge.  Providers tell me it is due to facilities being tied up with students (untrue for 20+ weeks each year); unsuitable staff (this school doesn’t have a resident Indian expert so “imports” one.  She has several TV series under her belt, 14 books published, advises multinational food companies and hotels as well as teaching top chefs new techniques).  These are just excuses; if you want to run top end courses, you can find a way.

It isn’t possible …

I recently spoke to a Principal about their “impossible” college website.  A year ago, with IT telling them it wasn’t possible to do all the things they wanted, we specified and project managed a new site for them.  Procurement found some brilliant web designers and the “impossible” went live.

The lesson here is to discover what is possible.  IT considered what they could do as being “possible” rather than what technology actually allowed. “Not invented here” is often an IT barrier to college success and needs overcoming.

Staff training

IT and marketing are rapidly changing.  Therefore, what is possible changes rapidly. It therefore amazes me that providers, whose role is training and education, don’t dedicate enough time to training their own staff. At Internet World last week I met with some more astute college staff who recognised the need to keep up to date.

Technology to increase student recruitment

One idea I recently discussed with provider staff is the idea that making websites more engaging will increase recruitment.  Some of our prospective students are functionally illiterate and don’t want to email a question from the website.  The answer is to use products like SpeakPipe, which allows them to leave a voicemail on provider websites and get a voicemail reply.

For those that favour “blog type” functionality that can go viral over social media sites, another product, Pubble, allows your staff to answer emailed courses enquiries in a novel way. Both question and answer appear on the relevant webpage and both can go viral via social media.   Pubble also creates a knowledge bank of questions that means that after a short while you don’t need to answer all questions as your previously answer can be offered.  Pubble really is a wonderful Q/A platform for providers; so why not test it free?

Other interesting topics this month has included a Google Analytics course I arranged for one client, demographic downturn discussions with a marketing manager, guerrilla marketing ideas for a GFE (I wasn’t convinced by all their ideas) and a marketing appraisal and strategy recommendations for a client.

Stefan Drew is a marketing consultant, and was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges. He now works with providers throughout Europe and the US. Visit: www.ProviderMasterMind.com

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