Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
The following interview is with Lisa Verma, director of custom and on-site programs at Louisiana State University Continuing Education. Verma has spoken and written about the challenges of serving both as an institution and vendor in the corporate training and non-credit professional development marketplace. In this interview, Verma discusses how she balances those roles, and what kinds of strategies she implements to compete and succeed in the highly competitive and volatile non-credit professional education market.
1. What would you say is the most critical element for a provider to offer when competing in the non-credit corporate training marketplace?
I think some of things you need to offer, the key critical elements to offer are, first of all, to have a product and to know your product. What is it that you’re best at? What is it that you focus on? It’s good to know that because, a lot of times, we’ll have a request that we can’t do everything that they’re asking, but then we’re able to refer people to the right places if it’s not something that we have.
I think also what’s critical in offering and competing in the non-credit corporate training marketplace is the people, our people — the staff, our instructors that we have — and making sure that we have the infrastructure and the resources available to be able to provide the services that we’re asked to provide.
The other thing … we need to compete in it is to have some marketing; to understand your marketing, understand your marketplace, understand your potential customer or your potential student and to have the marketing to help correspond with [them], whether it be our course catalogues, our website, our ability to email information to people and just, really, to get the word out of what we do and how … we may be able to provide a service to them.
And back to the infrastructure; one of the things to have is the software needed. We have a lot of things that help us when competing in a corporate environment. We have some customer relationship management (CRM) software as well as strategies. We have a registration system so that we’re able to keep data — all data for anybody who’s ever taken a course with us — we are always able to access that if they’d like to know what they’ve worked on with us before. … And then, of course, our website and web design and web development — when it comes to that, to make sure we have an easy place for people to find. Those are some of the key elements.
Some of the other things are beyond that. The traditional things are things like being a good listener; what are they looking for, what are their true needs? Are we able to construct an appropriate response and are we able to have quick responses? Are we quick and accurate when we respond to our clients?
I think a critical element to provide in a competitive marketplace is that we’re able to bridge multiple partners. If there’s the state economic development, or our state workforce commission department of labor, or it might be our [veterans’ affairs] office, that we’re able to bridge some of those partners and work with a corporate entity as well as some of the other public entities that provide training.
2. What are some specific advantages of being a university in this marketplace?
I think there definitely are some advantages. One thing at a university — I’m in a public university, researched-based university — is that we’re not just selling something, and that we do want to strive for meaningful relationships with our corporate partners because we want to be their partner in education. … We do want to make sure that we have a meaningful relationship.
Also, some specific advantages to the university, especially at my end with LSU, is our research. And we have a lot of research available to us, … a lot of data is collected throughout the campus on any number of subjects, and that’s always very available to us [not only] through our faculty interaction but just through the different colleges on campus, so I think that’s very important at a university.
Having that data and having that research helps us blend our teaching in our classroom. We’re providing … fundamental principles in subjects, but we’re also offering real solutions, solutions they can take back to the workplace. It’s not just a theory or it’s not just a philosophy that’s out there that’s not practiced. So there might be a guiding principle, but then we’re able to turn that into real solutions for them and help them. …
One of the other things that we’re able to do is that we are designing around best practices. We learn from our peers and we design around standards, and those standards might be standards established by the university — our own university or other universities — [or] they might be standards provided by a non-profit organization. So, basically, standards and best practices in any particular subject is what we try to gather as much information from. In a university, we just have a lot of opportunities to have that information readily available to us.
And we do commit to building and supporting successful partnerships and alliances with the right organizations that might have some of this information that we need outside of the university.
3. By the same token, are there any specific disadvantages that come from competing against private vendors of corporate training?
Sometimes at a university, or at least as well as LSU Continuing Education, we don’t employ full-time faculty and instructors. So, nobody is a full-time faculty person or a full-time staff person that is teaching for us. So we are always at the mercy of the availability of faculty on campus. Although … to turn that to advantage is, we do supplement our instruction with consultants and practitioners. So, folks that are out there doing the work, they have done the work as another consultant or they are actually still working out in some of these corporate environments and they’re coming in as additional connections with the universities and they are doing something they think is meaningful, they’ll come teach for us … We do struggle not having full-time people on staff, but I think the advantage of that is we have a nice variety of people we can pull from any number of areas of expertise, so that does really help us.
As a whole, being a state institution at LSU — and I’m sure that other state institutions come across this as well — we do have some processes and some policies and some things that we must adhere to because we are part of a state institution, we’re following state law and, in some cases, federal law. And so, with that said, some things can become slower or take longer to go through than a quick, “Oh yes! That sounds great!” [and then] we all sign off on a contract. That doesn’t always work at a state institution, I guess in particular, the disadvantages but, as a whole, LSU has worked very closely with LSU Continuing Education and our purchasing office and our accounting office to really streamline some of the things that we do, and they have a really good understanding of what we do in continuing education. We really work hard to make sure that the client actually doesn’t see a whole lot of that. We tell them upfront that the contracting process will take a certain amount of weeks and the University works really hard to remain within those weeks.
So, I think those might be some of the disadvantages, but if you’re a continuing education unit and you have a good relationship with your accounting and purchasing offices at the university, then I think you can really minimize any kind of negative impact on a client.
4. How has LSU differentiated itself from competitors in this field? Who would you consider your competitors?
I just think people are doing the same thing in the marketplaces; there’s private training providers that are providing training that is similar to ours, so we know who they are and, in many cases, we sometimes work with them, because if we don’t have something readily available we want to be able to provide a resource to that client and then we know some good resources that we can point them in that direction.
I would say that some of our other competitors are … other continuing education units within our state and within our region, there’s the community and technical colleges [that] are doing some training, in some cases, that overlap with us. But LSU is able to differentiate itself partly because of how large we are. We are the state flagship university; we have a big name so I think that differentiation — just the fact that it is LSU and you’re getting a certificate from LSU — actually does prove to be a very high value for people.
I think differentiating ourselves also in the market is, we’re not overpriced on things — we’re not underpriced, I wouldn’t believe, either — but we have a really good, strong market read on what the cost of some things are and we’re trying to provide the best value for their dollar. We’re very concerned about that and I think LSU can differentiate itself in the sense that … we need to recover our costs on things but clearly we’re a non-profit public institution. We’re not out there to make a profit; we just have to cover our costs. So, we’re trying to provide the best value. So, I think we can differentiate ourselves on that.
In some cased, our differentiation would be through programs that we’ve done for a long time. We have a very strong management leadership portfolio of courses. One course in particular, in 2014, we will have been conducting it for 50 years, and it’s still very popular and it’s still in demand. … So I think we differentiate ourselves in the sense that, in that case, we have a long history of providing high-quality training and that just transcends over time. We make adjustments to the course, the participants are different, the corporate environment is different and we have been nimble enough to be able to change as we needed to throughout the course, but maintain its integrity and its history. …
We’re very clear at LSU to separate what’s consulting and what’s training at LSU, and that’s very important. It doesn’t mean we can’t do consulting with continuing education, and it doesn’t mean we don’t in small batches. But we are very clear that we provide training.
So, the consulting side, sometimes they ask for training but it turns out that they really need some consulting on the front end. … If they have a consultant in mind, they can go to that consultant or we can point them in the direction of some folks that we know might help them on that. Sometimes that just means the coaching and the executive coaching that people are looking for, sometimes it’s doing full-blown needs assessment on the front end and that’s kind of consulting area or it’s designing a performance appraisal system, and we consider that maybe more on the consulting side.
So, we really try to make sure that we differentiate what they’re looking for and what we deliver and we know what we’re good at is face-to-face training and we know we can do a little bit of consulting but we have to make sure that … they have a resource. … So, we’re very clear that if they come up to us with something we don’t think we can handle, we will definitely find a, hopefully, a resource for them to find that. And I will go to my competitors in that instance and find the ones that I think might be the best fit for them
5. What are some impressive strategies you’ve seen offered by other providers in the non-credit training sector?
I definitely think some of the impressive strategies are those that are able to … provide some of those consulting things I’ve just talked about, the consulting efforts. Things like providing full-blown needs assessment, having needs assessment tools and then providing the needs assessments.
Having advisory boards, I think, is an impressive strategy I’ve seen got offered by other providers, even by institutions in particular. Well, they’ve done a really good job having a corporate advisory board. When I say corporate or industry, really, what I mean is that that board might be comprised of large corporate, for-profit companies, it might be small business representatives, they might have non-profits on the board, they might have publicly-traded companies or [be] privately owned. You have a nice variety of folks that maybe come together two to three to four times a year that give you advice on what’s really happening in the corporate world and what’s helping you determine what are your next steps and what kind of training to provide. And I think that’s really strong advice that those boards can offer, and I’m impressed by some others that have incorporated those strategies and certainly look to incorporate those at LSU Continuing Education … when we have the infrastructure and the time to do that.
The other thing is, really, on the lot of corporate training providers are asking for now, so we’re all looking to try to provide information on this form, “What are the learning outcomes?” So after they have been to the training they fill out an evaluation and they fill, “These are the things I thought I liked best about the training, this is where it could be improved, this is what I’d like to see you offer where I don’t see you are offering now.”
So, you can gather that data and have some really good information about how you can move forward. But, I think, even beyond that, if you could go back to them in three to six months and having a strategy behind asking them and doing an assessment about, “Now how do they feel about it?” They went to this training, three, four, five, six months ago; what have you been able to implement, what have you been able to change and how you do things. Do you believe your behavior has changed? Asking those important questions to really try to put a measure, not only the quality of the training, but, really, impact and the value that the training provided. So, I think those are impressive strategies that others have, I think, have done a really great job at. So, I don’t know that we’re all the way there but that’s where we’d like to go.
6. Is there anything you’d like to add about competing in the highly competitive non-credit professional education market and your lessons learned over the years; the do’s and the don’t’s?
I think, in the end, you just make sure that you’re a good listener, that you get back to folks quickly, that you provide them value for what they’re paying and that you provide a lot of impact so that they see that there’s results.
So, I think results-based and data-driven are important to us.
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
Author Perspective: Administrator