Why are agent visits important?
Although many of us employ agents to be our representatives on the ground precisely because we cannot afford to travel all over the world, I do urge universities to try to make time to visit some of your key agency partners in person.
Here are 5 reasons agent visits are important:
You can discern the reality from the marketing.
Just like in any organization, what the CEO or marketing team envisions as their brand might actually be very different from day-to-day reality. I visited an agency last year in China that I had previously recommended to other colleagues; even though they didn’t send a lot of students, I always told colleagues, “They seem to be on the ball and are good at communication.” But then, when I had a chance to visit them – and it was a very charming, welcoming visit – I realized from comments that the counselors themselves were saying that we probably weren’t a good fit. Comments such as “Our students only apply to top 100 schools,” or “If a student has an SAT of 1200 he isn’t going to apply to your school, he is going to go for a better school.” (I’m still confused about that comment considering that score isn’t even high enough for admittance to our Honors College.) So, while these statements were not made maliciously, it made me realize that although the marketing director of the company had really solicited signing our contract, in reality the individual counselors were not putting a lot of effort into recruiting students for my school.
You can receive valuable feedback from those who actually work with students.
This is related to the first point. Often when you are negotiating agent contracts you are not actually speaking to a counselor who knows what the every-day is like working with their students. Visiting agency offices – and requesting to have a training/meeting with the counselors who actually speak to students – can be an eye opener. I’m able to ask counselors key questions such as:
- What majors are your students asking for? (You might find out that 70% of their students request majors that you don’t even offer – or you might find out that a large majority of students request majors that the agency didn’t realize you had!)
- What is a realistic budget that your students are aiming for? Is my scholarship scheme enticing?
- If I send more print brochures will your students find them useful, or is it better to have them translated into the local language?
- Have you received any feedback from students about our website? Is it easy to find what you’re looking for?
- When you recommend a student applies to my university, what other universities are they applying to? What “group” am I in?
- How does your office structure work – am I receiving email questions from a lot of different counselors or are you going through one central counselor?
- What information can I send you that will make your job easier?
- After listening to my school presentation, what key bullet points stand out for you? What is most of interest to your students? Is there a marketing point I should stress or gloss over?
You may find that the answers to these questions surprise you. Of course, it’s impossible for you to gauge the office dynamics and which counselors are extra-discerning, but if you receive the same answer multiple times it’s a good bet that there is a trend.
It’s an easy way to access students.
When I make agent visits, often the agents will arrange students to come to the office (either accepted students or prospective students) where I can have a smaller, more intimate setting to talk to students and to express the benefits of my university. This is a lot easier than trying to set up appointments at a high school, and the student’s “fit” with my university has already been evaluated by the agent.
Agents definitely notice who invests money and time to come visit them. It’s also a great opportunity to have a face-to-face meeting and to get to each other more casually. Sometimes when we rely only on email, cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications happen. Taking the time to meet someone face to face and build a collegial relationship can go a long way towards enhancing your partnership. It’s also a great way to find out how to get in touch with your agent contacts better – for instance, on my last visit to China, the counselors were delighted to know I had WeChat (Chinese messaging app) and added me into their contacts. They now feel more comfortable reaching out to me directly, rather than having to go to their supervisor and ask their supervisor to contact me. It also goes both ways. I once visited an agent in the Middle East who did not walk me out of the office nor offer to call me a taxi, and the office was located in a very remote area. Nor was he very prepared for our meeting – he hadn’t even bothered to refresh his memory on where my university was located. These little details – both your willingness to visit the agent, and the agent’s response to your visit – can really add or detract to your relationship.
Gaining insight into the country market
Email and Skype just doesn’t cut it sometimes – for starters, you have to actually know what questions to ask to receive a response. But spending time at an agent’s office, or over tea or lunch, often produces casual conversation that greatly enhance your international recruitment efforts. These are examples of things I’ve found out during agency visits:
- Government scholarship funding scandals and why I shouldn’t invest too much time into trying to get onto the government sponsorship list
- Parent-student dynamics and ideas to interact with parents who don’t speak English but who will be the decision-makers in the university selection process
- Whether or not fairs and tours are valuable marketing trends in that specific city
- How to engage students during talks and which questions they really wish to be answered but are too shy to ask
- Upcoming events in the following year that I can start planning for proactively
- How many students that agency has actually sent abroad to the USA in the past year
- What the perception of the USA is in that country and the perception of American universities
- Additional contacts or experts in the field that I can be introduced to