University-to-Business Sales: How to Dominate the Corporate Learning MarketLisa Verma | Director of Custom and On-Site Programs, Louisiana State University
The following interview is with Lisa Verma, director of custom and on-site programs at Louisiana State University. At the recent UPCEA South conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Verma shared her thoughts on university-to-business, or U2B, selling and the best practices involved with developing robust and long-term training and education partnerships with employers. In this interview, she expands on that topic and discusses what it takes for a university to be successful in the highly-competitive corporate training marketplace.
1. Many universities operate with a “build it and they will come” mentality. Why doesn’t this work in the corporate training sphere?
There’s a lot of corporate training out there that I call ‘training road shows.’ You’ll see them come through cities and they set up shop for a day and have training. As we’ve moved forward out of that realm, we’re starting to see a lot more spending in corporate training. There was a little bit of a hiatus with the economy with [businesses] not spending money on training. Now that they’re willing to spend money again, they really want to spend money on the right thing.
Building something and thinking people will come without any input from the corporate side — either by individuals or companies themselves — is going to be tough because it’s just going to look like a generic road show program. You don’t want to have a generic feel, even though it might be an open-enrollment course or you’re going to do a custom on-site training course, you certainly don’t want it to feel like it’s a canned course and it just happens.
2. What’s the biggest problem with canned programming? What’s wrong with taking a program and assuming it will work for a wide variety of employers or in different localities?
It depends on why you’re sending the person to the training. Certainly, if you’re going to go to a class to learn the introduction to Microsoft Excel, there are probably certain elements of Excel you’re going to learn no matter who you get the training from. When you get into some of the soft skills, for example, or some of the more complex ideas or thoughts or learning, it’s really hard to have a large room with 50 people in it with someone just going city to city. I’m not sure how personalized you can get.
One of the first things we say [in our programs] is: “who are you, where are you from, where do you work, how many people do you supervise?” Then immediately our instructors can think about how can we take the material we present consistently from course to course but customize it to the needs of the people in the room? It might be that we spend more time on one topic than another topic, but another class has a different dynamic and we’re able to change that up.
3. We all know about business-to-business, or B2B, selling. What’s involved with U2B sales?
We’re selling a product we truly believe in and we know is beneficial for our companies. What’s different with U2B is the mindset from the university standpoint. The business standpoint is different than when you’re in a face-to-face, business-to-business sale. The company thinks of me as their training partner — they don’t necessarily see us as a for-profit. At least on the university side, we don’t always see ourselves as that salesperson.
One of the things is that if you’re at a university, especially like mine — a large, public, land-grant — sometimes a business might be unsure about calling you because they’re not sure how quickly you’re going to respond. And because we’re a public institution, in my case, we also have a lot of red tape and bureaucracy we have to follow; a lot of state laws and rules and statutes and procedures. However, I try to make sure, from my side, that the business doesn’t see all of that.
4. A lot of this sounds like standard customer service. Is this something you find is turning heads among colleagues across the higher ed space?
Definitely, it’s customer service. I think many times, the university is a “we build it and they will come” organization. In general, we’ve lost some edge in customer service. Some people are just surprised to have that old-fashioned customer service that really might be sales but you’re implementing some great customer service skills.
We lose some of that customer service touch through email. We were sucked into email so much that we lost that personal touch, but every once in a while you do have to have a phone call, you do have to have a conversation and everything can move quicker when you do that.
The customer service angle is probably just as important as the sales side; they go hand in hand.
5. What are some best practices for the U2B approach to the marketplace?
One really grassroots best practice would be that we have a very robust open enrollment program and the majority of people are being sent there by a company. Some of our best practices at getting the approach to the marketplace is though individualism. If [a student has] had a great experience in our courses, they’re going to tell somebody else. A lot of time they go for one reason and we introduce them to the fact that they have a whole lot of options with us and how this might help them.
One of the other things we do is we still have a paper catalog. We still print [approximately 30,000] every six months and we’re mailing them to different people — we have our past participants from a certain number of years back, and our key contacts get them because they’re in our system. We felt really strongly our market was not ready to give up a catalog altogether. Everyone was trying to get paperless and save money but you just have to be careful.
6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the U2B approach to the corporate training marketplace and how it’s helping universities compete and serve larger corporations that expect a different level of service?
In the end, it helps universities and continuing education units. It’s a new stream of revenue; it’s a different kind of revenue. There’s less operation and overhead cost to trying to put together custom and on-site courses as it would be to some of our traditional face-to-face classroom open enrollment courses. We can provide [businesses] something unique that best fits their needs, as opposed to just having a generic product where we’re trying to put a round peg into a square hole.
We’re starting to see my efforts on the custom on-site, even some workforce development grant writing I’m doing, supplement the general open enrollment. We’re seeing that balance tipping a little bit on the gross revenue side. The expenses are equal to, if not lower than, the other products and the way we do business, but I’m starting to see a flip in that. We’re here to identify the problem and then figure out what you need. We’re trying to change that mindset; we’re not the guy with the gold chains and the cigar in his hand, we’re the doctor that looks professional and is really trying to help you.
This interview has been edited for length.