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Customization for Credit: What It Takes To Succeed in the Corporate Training Marketplace


Success in the customized training marketplace, above all else, requires the capacity to be responsive, agile and relevant.
Success in the customized training marketplace, above all else, requires the capacity to be responsive, agile and relevant.

The customized corporate training marketplace is incredibly competitive and is showing no signs of slowing down. With employer spending on training and employee education rising year after year, more and more training providers—both academic and non-academic—are clamoring for a slice of the pie. Universities have some distinct advantages in this marketplace, but very few of them truly understand how to leverage those advantages. In this interview, Brian Breen and Missy Pittman share some insights into how they built their team to succeed in the customized training environment.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): In the customized training space, how much competition do universities face from non-academic training providers?

Brian Breen (BB): In the years we’ve been doing corporate training here at UC Irvine Extension, our biggest competitors really are not only some of our sister schools in the southern California area but also the non-academic private institutions that are providing the same type of training: customized onsite short courses to companies throughout the country. The biggest competitor in the non-academic field are the private consulting and training firms of individuals who can go into companies and provide training fairly quickly and customize their curriculum rather quickly and match what a company’s specific training needs are.

Evo: What are some of the competitive advantages that non-academic providers have over universities?

BB: If we’re looking at universities as a whole, private providers have the advantage in that they can work agilely and quickly and not have to go through the academic process of getting curriculum approved and hiring instructors.

One of the things University Extension can do is really mimic what these non-academic training providers do because we are agile, we can customize curriculum, we can hire instructors fairly quickly, we can respond to what our client’s specific training needs are. Extension schools are aligned much more similarly with these non-academic training providers.

Evo: What does it take for a university to stand out from the crowd of non-academic providers and other universities?

BB: One of the reasons we have so many opportunities within companies is we are credit-bearing and a lot of times, organizations are looking for institutions or training providers to provide credit so that they can tap into their tuition reimbursement and tuition assistance programs. A lot of companies will not provide tuition assistance for non-credit-bearing courses or programs.

Our affiliation with our schools across UC Irvine is a key component to why we’re able to get in to some of these companies. All of our curriculum and instructors are approved by the affiliated school on our campus. We also have an affiliation with the business school, which sometimes carries a lot of weight.

Another huge reason why we are successful with companies is that we have a dedicated team that supports our corporate clients. When clients are working with us they’re not getting the runaround; they get quick responses and we build a nice relationship with them.

Lastly, our ability to customize on the fly helps us stand out of the crowd. Some non-academic providers do that but a lot of universities don’t because it takes time, resources and a very particular skill set.

Missy Pittman (MP): Here at Extension, we have over 60 certificate or specialized study programs with a breadth of topic areas. One of the benefits our clients see in working with us is that they can come to us for any one of those needs and they’re still working with the same individual to meet their needs, they’re still working with the same process. A lot of the non-credit providers will really have just a niche in the market and they can’t really branch out into other areas of the company.

That’s one of the benefits we see with our customers—we work really hard to build our partnership with them so they feel comfortable coming to us whenever they have a need for learning in any sort of area and we’re able to help them meet those training needs.

Evo: How much success do you have in leveraging the open enrollment programs you have to either find clients for customized training or to create content for customized training?

BB: Most of our leads that come in with an interest in customized corporate training come from our public open enrollment offerings.

Another means that helps sell the programs in companies is word of mouth. A manager will recognize the benefits of an individual going through the program and decide to train their team of 20. They may wonder how to do that without sending them all out of the office for a year after hours or during the day. Individual students who have completed the program are big proponents of our program when they go back to their managers.

Up until a couple years ago we did all our marketing for corporate in-house training through our open enrollment programs. We recently started promoting corporate training as a separate entity. It’s difficult and we’ve had challenges because a lot of companies don’t necessarily know what corporate training is.

Evo: How do you successfully get the word out that you and your team are focused solely on providing customized training, and how do you translate the benefits of that to employers?

BB: It’s been a challenge. Success stories from our long-time clients, the relationships we’ve built, the number of students on-site, their culture, their bottom line, their dollars. We’ve been able to share a lot of stories through PR and testimonials for our clients on our web page. We have been able to grab a few of those but just generally it’s been a challenge to really showcase how successful we have been but also how successful we can be for potential clients.

We now have a dedicated website built within our UCI Extension website that’s focused just on corporate training. We have a dedicated marketing person within our team now and we have a fairly robust corporate marketing strategy that has just started to be implemented last year. It’s targeted specifically to decision makers within companies who would first entertain onsite training and then also be able to champion it within their organization.

Evo: What are some of the biggest differences between managing a customized education division and managing a more traditional education unit?

BB: There definitely are many differences. First, it’s a whole different mindset and skillset to create customized education for your clients. There’s a different expectation. We go in with the mindset that we have to deliver the best program with the highest level of quality in our instructors and curriculum. In order to do that, there’s a lot of work on our end in ensuring the content that we’re delivering meets those expectations. That doesn’t necessarily mean customization. It means we look at our public programs and existing curriculum and ensure that they match the expectations of our clients.

Secondly, we have a rather large instructor pool for our open enrollment programs. When we deliver programs on site to our client, we really want that premier instructor to be able to facilitate and deliver the program to them. That means having someone who is seasoned in our open enrollment programs, who is familiar with the industry and hopefully familiar specifically with the company that we’re going into and then also flexible enough to understand what clients needs are and then tailor, tweak or customize programming for our clients instead of simply teaching an off-the-shelf program.

Thirdly, more traditional education units are on a quarterly system. With customized corporate education, we’re much more agile. We have clients who say we want a course in two weeks, so we have to identify their need, we have to find an instructor, make sure we have curriculum and then negotiate a contract and get that done within two weeks.

Responsiveness to us is very important. Our normal process is we respond to any inquiry or lead within 24 hours. We’re probably within 1-2 hours. We always send them a proposal—if that’s something they want—within 24 hours. That’s something that a lot of universities and non-academic providers are challenged with doing. We pride ourselves in being very responsive in getting a proposal out to them. With having a dedicated team, not only can we provide more resources and be more responsive to our clients, but we also have the skill set of people who are focused on customer relationship management, delivery of customized curriculum and meeting the expectations of the client, where sometimes in traditional education units that skill set is not there.

Evo: Is there anything you’d’ like to add about what it takes to be really successful in the customized corporate training space and how universities can differentiate themselves to stand out from the crowd?

MP: Being successful in the customized training realm is doing a lot of the front-end work with a needs assessment and in conversations with the stakeholders at the companies and making sure that they’ve also done some legwork on their end to understand the needs of the employees at their organization.

What we always do, especially when we’re engaging with a new client, is we really consider the first offering of any customized course or program more as a pilot and we work openly with our clients to revisit the success of the class. We always come back and revisit the content to scrub it clean and make sure it’s exactly what the client wants for the next delivery.

This interview has been edited for length.

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