From education to employment

Is your college a commodity or an authority?

Last week I had an “out of the blue” call from the Ops Director of a business that is the UK market leader in its sector. He told me about a problem they had and that they wished me to investigate it and advise them how to solve it.

We spoke for about an hour and during that time I ascertained that he was the budget holder for this task, had thousands of people to select from but was only contacting me.

Wow! But why me? There is an FE context in this situation.

What if individuals or companies approach your college in this manner, why you and not your competitors?

Well, it turns out that this Ops Director knew he had thousands of other experts he could turn to, but, in his words, they were a commodity. He said they seemed to sell the same old answers, designed to fit every situation, every time.

What he wanted was an authority – one that would listen, analyse the situation and come up with practical solutions to their problem. And he stressed he didn’t want text book answers, he wanted someone that would give him a pragmatic solution and be there to walk them through the process.

Colleges as FE authorities

It is the same in FE at every level. There is a lot of competition out there. Local FE colleges and private providers compete for your 16-19 market. Regional and national based HE providers compete for your HE students. In-house training departments, training companies, trade associations and many others compete for your employer market.

So what are you to do?

Essentially you need to drop the commodity mantle. You need to stop being just another supplier that is as good as your competitors, but no better. You need to stand out as being the authority in your field – or in the case of FE these days, in many fields.

How do you become an authority

The answer is complex but perhaps not as complex as you might expect. Essentially you need to excel in what you do and people need to know that.

That’s not to say you can’t still offer the same courses as your competitors, if that is what your customers want; what it means is you do it better. And for those that think that means excellent teaching; sorry, that should be a given. You need more than that.

Excellence also includes all the peripherals including your website when someone seeks a course, delivery mode, your newsletters and other communications, your telephonist who answers the enquiry, the receptionist that greets visitors, the standard of your toilets – well, the whole interface with the customer before, during and after the course, and it is a long list.

Become a trusted adviser

You also need to become your prospects’, and customers’, “trusted adviser”. For example, schools have recently been slammed for poor career advice and you can excel here and be recognised in doing so. I don’t mean you need to display a plaque on the wall in reception; what you need is a reputation for good advice.

In the WBL world your trusted advisers need to be known for their impartial advice and that they can help businesses grow. They don’t need a reputation for hard selling commodities such as training. Sales follow if you are trusted; not as a result of hard selling techniques.

PR also plays a role. But not the story that you are “delighted” the winner of Xfactor or Strictly is opening your new building. Your reputation grows when someone of real significance and note regularly chairs your industry meeting.

In my case it was apparently a combination of reputation, best selling book, and website that demonstrated success, and the fact Microsoft have recently published an article quoting my advice to people like my new client.

Essentially colleges need to be in a position where their reputation precedes them. Where individuals and businesses consider them the authority and not a commodity.

Marketing consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and now works with providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US. Visit:


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