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Learning from the Car Sales Industry: Would You Buy a Used Degree from Me?

Learning from the Car Sales Industry: Would You Buy a Used Degree from Me?
Focusing on good marketing and sales is as critical in distance education management as it is in car sales, and administrators would do well to take notes from their automotive counterparts.
Distance educators can learn from a number of other industries. I suggest we learn some important lessons from the car sales industry. This is especially true in marketing and recruiting students, as well as retaining them in their program of study.

You can’t teach a student unless you first sell him or her a class. Hopefully, you would like to not only sell your students one class, but an entire degree.

Selling a degree program has benefits for everyone: the student gains knowledge, skills and career preparation. At the same time, the institution gains a repeat customer who will continue to buy classes until the degree is earned.

In a recent column, I advocated treating students like customers. This is especially relevant when it comes to getting a student started with your institution.

I found a useful blog on how to sell a car by self-described “trainer and motivator” Noel Walsh from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Let’s compare his seven steps of selling a car to your process of student recruitment and retention:

  1. Meet and Greet
  2. Establish Rapport and Qualify
  3. Walk the Lot/Search Inventory
  4. Walk Around/Test Drive
  5. Ask for the Sale
  6. Start the Write Up
  7. Final Delivery [1] 

You may be surprised by how well these steps match the process you should be going through when actively recruiting students into your distance education program. I’ll go through them step by step.

1. Meet and Greet

You can’t recruit students until you make contact. You need to engage them. Your marketing and customer contact staff need to do a great job of getting prospective students in contact. Briefly: if you don’t advertise, you can’t sell much.

2. Establish Rapport and Qualify

Once you are in contact, you must learn your prospective students’ wants and needs. Do they need something you offer? If so, do they want it? Will your program help them achieve their goals? Can they afford the time and money required to succeed in your program?

3. Search Inventory

At this stage, the institution’s offerings are tested. Do your programs match the student’s needs? If not, you should refer him or her to another education provider. If there is a match, you should use the qualifying information you gathered to direct the student into the program best suited to his or her needs and goals.

4. Test Drive

Do you have a way for the student to examine your programs? Get a look into courses? Talk with an advisor to learn about how the program is conducted? At this point, you’re really helping the student “kick the tires” on your program to see if it’s a good fit.

5 and 6. Ask for the Sale / Start the Write Up

At some point, you have to ask students to commit, and that’s closing the sale. You may need to help them with the process for enrollment, financial aid, employer benefits or other aspects of getting started in your program.  Do it.

7. Final Delivery

The student enrolls. But now you should ask yourself how you will retain that student. Do you have follow-up mechanisms? Do you have an ombudsperson or other venue for the student to ask ongoing questions?

I’m going to add one more step particularly critical to higher education:

8. Service after the Sale

This is where many car dealers lose repeat business, because after they sell the car they abandon their customers or try to gouge them in the service department. You absolutely want a student’s repeat business, because in earning the degree, he or she will come back and buy course after course from you. That repeat business is where you really make your money, because you’re no longer spending money to attract the student you already have. You need retention systems and user-friendly administrative processes to minimize your students’ frustration and make their degree pursuit as smooth as possible.

According to the car sales blog, following this sales process makes it easy for the salesperson to overcome obstacles and produces happy customers who refer their contacts and come back in the future. This is particularly critical because the sales rate among previous customers, referrals and those who make appointments is 10 times higher than with walk-ins.

In case you missed it, that blog mentions referrals. There is a common phenomenon in distance education where, once you have one happy distance student, you tend to gain more. Why? Because students talk with friends and acquaintances and recommend your program. You really, really want that conversation to be about their happiness with the program, not a gripe session about you.

All of us should realize these are outcomes we want when marketing to students. We want to assess their needs and find solutions to their objections; we want repeat customers as students continue their degree program and purchase multiple courses; and we absolutely want students to feel good about their educational program and refer their friends to us.

What it boils down to is this: good marketing and sales works in all fields. Sales is not a dirty word; it’s the process of matching our product with the needs of our customers. By learning more about how we assess customer needs and carry out an effective sales process that results in students getting into the programs they need, we create benefits for both our program and our students.

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[1] Noel Walsh, “Seven Steps to Sell a Car,” CarStory. Accessible at


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