We've been having a great time this spring at Intead. Not only are we hard at work creating great content for our blogs, Insights, inSession eCourse series and conference presentations, we have also had one of our employees serve as an undercover mystery shopper. If you are unfamiliar with the concept this is a frequently used method in the retail industry to explore how a business operates when secretly examined. We had our employee pose as a prospective undergraduate from China. He sent an email through a QQ account requesting information from 30 institutions in the US, Canada and Australia-- popular destinations for Chinese international students. He asked about admission requirements for Fall 2014 and he requested information in Chinese to share with his parents. We were curious about the response rate from institutions as well as the information they would provide our mystery shopper. The data gleaned from our mystery shopper experiment was quite fascinating.
Methodology: As this wasn't a true scientific experiment we can admit that we selected our institutions somewhat randomly though we attempted to get a good cross section of universities in the main categories and markets. We excluded the most highly branded selective institutions in the U.S. We wanted to include Australian and Canadian universities because we know many Chinese students apply to programs in the US, Australia and/or Canada. Of the 30 institutions we contacted, three were in Canada and another two in Australia. Frankly we wanted to see if Australian and Canadian universities were more or less responsive than their American counterparts. While our research was anecdotal in nature it did provide some interesting points to consider. To protect the innocent, we will not be naming the institutions. We will however be sharing the names of the institutions that provided particularly impressive customer service. Hard work should always be publicly rewarded!
Following the initial email, we eagerly awaited responses. Within 24 hours we received an automated and/or personal response from 15 of the institutions. Within two business days four more had sent personal responses. Within the next month, around three weeks after the initial email was sent, three more colleges replied, often apologetically. Seven institutions never replied! This is striking-- seven institutions (six American and one Canadian) received a nicely written email from a "prospective Chinese undergraduate" and they never replied. That's nearly 25%! If our mystery shopper had been a real prospective freshman he would have likely eliminated these colleges from his list. What a lost opportunity for these institutions.
Since we don't want to point fingers and publicly embarrass any of our institutional colleagues, we are going to highlight the best responders. While many of these institutions have well-known, well-funded international recruitment programs, some of them surprised us because of their limited size and resources and yet, their impressive ability to communicate with prospective international students.
The institutions that impressed us:
1. The University of Cincinnati replied within 24 hours with a nicely written email which included a PDF written in Chinese about the university. Our prospective student's QQ email account was identified and through QQ U. Cincinnati tried to become friends. They also invited our prospective student to join the U. Cincinnati prospective student group on QQ which includes prospective students and current international seniors who are able to facilitate discussion. We agreed that the response from U. Cincinnati was the most impressive. Their ability to connect and engage with prospective international students is remarkable. It's no surprise they have had so much success in recruiting international students.
2. The University of Dayton replied quickly and told our prospective student that while they did not have materials in Chinese he might want to contact their branch office in Suzhou for Chinese language materials.
3. Syracuse University immediately replied with an auto-response that thank our prospective student for writing. The auto-response noted that the admission counselors were busy file reading and he should be patient as he awaits a response. A few short hours later he received a personal email giving him information about the school. While Chinese language materials weren't available, we were impressed with the well-written auto response followed by the personalized email.
4. Whitworth University in Spokane, WA really impressed us. We were amazed that a small liberal arts college had a Chinese website available for students and parents. Clearly this institution has made a concerted effort to recruit international students. We give Whitworth two big thumbs up-- one for their incredibly kind and personal response and the other for their Chinese website.
5. Seattle Pacific University sent a very detailed email and then followed up with another email several hours later. The second email offered links to their eMagazine and their virtual campus tour.
6. SUNY Buffalo replied quickly and sent an attachment in Chinese that outlined facts about UB and admission requirements. We were very pleased to receive this document.
7. SUNY Binghamton responded three weeks after the initial inquiry. The staff member was apologetic and offered to connect our prospective student to their Weibo and QQ links. Our student was also offered the opportunity to connect with a Chinese speaking staff member.
8. The University of Melbourne (Australia) replied quickly and enthusiastically marketed their upcoming open house in China. Their attentiveness was appreciated.
So why does all of this matter?
It matters a great deal. Prospective international students have options. They can choose their country of study and then their location within that country. And they have many, many choices. When a prospective student initiates a relationship with a university this is the beginning of an opportunity. Failing to reply to an inquiry effectively ends a relationship before it can even begin. And if the failure to interact with students is pervasive, prospective students will tell their peers which will cause negative feelings about an institution.
Everyone is busy. Every office is overwhelmed in one way or another. The best prepared (and often busiest) offices have devised methods of replying to students through automated methods. Better for a student to receive an auto-response than no response at all. And we were very impressed by the institutions that sent an immediate auto-response and then followed up in a timely manner with a more personalized email response.
A little effort can go along way. Institutions are courting students as much as vice versa. Don't miss out before you even get into the game. Don't be a part of that dreaded 25%.
Check out a video from the ICEF Monitor presenting the findings of the mystery shopper experiment.