With enrollments declining and budgets shrinking it is understandable that nonessential expenses be trimmed, cut, or completely slashed. However, you must be careful when deciding what is “nonessential.” And Mystery Shopping definitely is not on that list. Join us for a review of some shopping wins that we have witnessed, and then continue on and explore a 7 steps checklist for getting started.

A true story is always good way to show a point. Let’s start with a quick one that happened a long time ago and reinforces the value of Mystery Shopping. I’ll never forget the experience an evaluator had in 2007 when visiting an open-enrollment school. Let’s just say the college name could have been “High-Pressure Slime School.” Here’s the short version: Our shopper was in the admissions office and the representative pointed to a pile of folders and explained how these students had been rejected. Really? I know from doing other work with this institution that rejected admissions applications happened… Well… NEVER! In fact, back then; this school even enrolled ability-to-benefit (ATB) students. Yet, the unscrupulous representative was using high-pressure and reverse sell tactics to coerce an enrollment. And that’s far from a best practice, even in 2007. Our advice: Don’t do that! Don’t lie or deceive. Your prospective student (or mystery shopper) can see right through that most of the time.

Fast-forward nine years and guess how “High Pressure Slime School” is doing?   Terrible. In an effort to trim cost, they downsized the compliance department, abandoned shopping and have spiraled to near-death. It is unfortunate, as we know that several proactive measures could have been informed and remedied as a result of on-going Mystery Shopping.

On the flip side, some schools are committed to compliance and regular inspection via Mystery Shopping. And, needless to say that they are doing so much better than the others. I’ll share some of the results we have seen.

We will call these schools “Squeaky Clean.” These are schools that have regular mystery shops for compliance and customer service. The resulting reports are shared, action steps are defined and taken, talk tracks are created and, re-inspection continues.

So what kind of tangible results have we witnessed? For school A, we noticed missed opportunity early on that pertained to the sales/customer service side of the business. When scheduling interviews over the phone, few if any conversations included the suggestion of bringing a friend to the interview. Sounds simple, right? Seasoned admissions pros know the power of suggestion and how one interview can result in two enrollments. That is – if a friend comes with. Over a two-year period we watched the suggestion of “bringing a friend” increase a little, then a little more – and today, guess what? Eighty percent of phone conversations include the suggestion to bring a friend. Victory! And that means more conversions, better results.

For school B we will highlight a very objective, black-and-white item: Including specific compliance materials in the interview packet. It should be easy enough to make that happen, right? Not necessarily. When the directive first came out to include specific compliance materials in each interview “take-home-folder” we observed a 40% inclusion rate. We reported this back to corporate and even shared the materials we collected in the field. Gradually, we saw improvement. But it was slow coming. Finally, three years later we now receive compliance disclosures in over 80% of our admissions interviews. Another great victory!

Now that you know how much your results can boost with shopping, you may be wondering how sector leaders are using this to create a culture of compliance while improving customer service. We’ve carefully put together 7 thoughtful steps that every school should implement:

  1. Schools need to Commit to on-going inspection

Mystery Shopping should never be a “one and done.” Not when you are committed and really want to change things. When institutions make Mystery Shopping part of their quarterly plans, regular feedback is received. This feedback is used to compare trends over time and informs continuous improvement. Sector leaders shop monthly or quarterly.

  1. Shop the face-to-face interview

Sure – you will save budget by commissioning phone shops. But your compliance officer worries most about what is said behind closed doors. These are the most important – and sometimes scariest – ones. Make sure your shopping program concentrates on the admissions interview and the conversations that occur during the initial interview. That’s your primary opportunity to improve customer service and it is also the area most susceptible to blatant compliance culprits. The most common still include the inflation of outcomes and embellishment of transfer credit opportunities, along with promising financial aid – or, worse yet, the cardinal sin of coaching on the financial aid form. And, this happens incredibly often, even though it should not.

  1. Your process is not the standard

When shopping, go beyond using your admissions process as the standard. We have seen some shopping that only verifies if the internal prescribed process is being followed. While that’s a good first step, it ignores benchmarking to accreditation and Department of Education standards. And you should not be doing just that. The advice here is: Don’t just shop to your process. Make certain the following pain points are being addressed in a compliant manner: Tuition, financial aid, outcomes, accreditation, and credit transfer.

  1. Collaboration is key

Always develop collaboration between compliance and operations. This is another point that often gets overlooked as school groups work from their internal silos. Effective shopping must progress through the admissions interview on the path toward gathering compliance information. Even though the “owner” may be your compliance department, you can develop a way to share sales and customer service data points. Perhaps you will share simple objective information like inquiry response time, lobby wait time and follow up scheduled. Your operations folks will be very interested in gaining insights from basic opportunities like these. Over time, you should endeavor to share even more interview components that can influence admissions performance.

  1. Coach and improve staff performance

You can use Mystery Shopping results to coach and improve admission and financial aid performance. Unfortunately, we’ve watched well-intentioned but inexperienced administrators rush into the admissions department waving the shop report and hell-bent for someone’s head. The ensuing days are then filled with the representative and often the DOA attempting to defend their action and prove the report wrong. It is a terrible waste of time. The smart school operators know that reports should be thoughtfully socialized. They know how to look for trends. Of course, you must deal with egregious issues swiftly and document bad behavior with warnings – but the general results can be shared globally. Individual findings should be used to inform improvement plans – not “gotchas.” Mystery Shopping shouldn’t be feared. It is an opportunity for improvement and growth.

  1. Don’t boil the ocean

Shopping results may seem daunting – especially at first. Prioritize your action steps, and divide the list between compliance and customer service. Then, determine the one or two most important action items in each area that require change and focus on those specific elements. With proper focus, along with the development of tools and talk tracks for admissions representatives, you should see change on the next round of shopping. But if you try to fix everything at once your progress will be much slower. One step at a time is the way to go.

  1. Know how to counter the claim that “I’ve Been Shopped”

Savvy administrators know the best answer when a representative or director of admissions claims that they’ve been shopped is to come back with: “I hope you did your best and most compliant interview ever.” Even the best shopping program will result in occasional discovery. More often, however, your staff will suspect a prospect that is an informed consumer and who is asking questions. That’s because an effective shopping program increases awareness across admissions and financial aid. Ironically, our experience has been that most times when clients call and ask if we were shopping their Buffalo school today, the answer is “no”. That’s because professional shoppers aren’t the only people asking questions. And you should know that commissioned evaluations aren’t the only mystery shops taking place. Your schools are being shopped more than you realize. The competition is shopping, the press may be shopping, and regulatory groups may be shopping you. And that may be the most compelling reason to inspect the troops at regular intervals!

Mystery Shopping might seem like a luxury when enrollments are declining and budgets are being cut in half. But this might be exactly the way to change that scenery. We’ve seen schools using College Mystery Shopping to improve compliance and customer service, generating great and impressive results. In a rush decision to save money, your institution might be giving up of its best chance of recovery.