For private counselors: how to build a (better) website

If you're a private counselor hoping to grow your business, you've probably thought about building (or have already built) a website.  The good news is that the rules for making good websites for small businesses have changed.  You don't need to
spend thousands of dollars to build a one  You don't need flash
animation.  You don't even need to be fancy (Google is the most popular
website in the universe and it has a ridiculously simple

But the bad news is that it if you don't give people exactly what information they came to find, and make it easy for them to find it, you're going to lose them.  Today's web surfers have short attention spans, and most people aren't going to spend ten minutes on your site trying to find what they need to know.  They'll spend maybe a minute and then move on.  So if you're looking to build, or improve, your website, make sure you make it easy
for people to find the answers to these five questions:

1.  Who are

It's surprising how many private counselors have websites
that continuously use words like "we" or "us" but never come right out and say who's actually helping the kids.  Instead, they say things like, "Our expert advisers have a wealth of experience and have
guided countless students to admission to the nation's finest
universities."  What does that even mean?  Who are you?  If I enroll my kid, who is he going to be working with? 

If you
don't feel comfortable putting your name and a real bio on your website, you might consider not having a website at all.  Instead tell people who you really are.  Be proud of your background, even if you're still relatively new to this profession.  And don't say "We" if you
really mean "Me."  There's no shame in working by yourself especially if you're
good.  Families don't care if you're a big company or a one-person shop. 
They just want the right counselor for their kid.   

2.  What
do you do?

Be clear about what services you offer and what kind of student tends to match well with you.  Are you good with kids who have learning disabilities?  Do you know a lot about athletic recruiting?  Are you particularly knowledgeable about a few specific colleges?  Don't try to sound like you can help everybody (none of us can).  Instead, come right out and tell people what they can hire you to help with, what you do well, and maybe even what you don't do. 

3.  Where are
you located?

We got this one wrong on our own website for years.  We made people navigate all the way to the "contact us" portion of our website to find out where our offices were.  Big mistake.  Put your office location(s) on your homepage. Tell people right away where they'll need to go to work with you.  Don't worry about losing customers because of geography.  If that's going to be an issue for a family, you might as well tell them upfront; don't make them call you to find out what "Greater Los Angeles area" means.          

4.  How do I contact you?

Do you have an office phone
number?  An email address?  Do you care which one people use?  Don't
make people sift through your website to figure out how to get in touch
with you.  Make your contact information blatant and easy to find.  Put
it (or a link to it) on every page. 

5.  What do I do next if
I'm interested?

Don't put your prospective customer in the awkward position of having to contact you to ask what the next step is.  Come right out and tell them what you want them to do.  Do you offer an introductory consultation?  How do they schedule one?  And don't make the visitor fill out a long online form to request an appointment.  That's like forcing potential suitors to complete a long questionnaire before they can even ask you what your name is.  If the information really is important to you, have them fill it out after they've scheduled the appointment.        

Everything else on a website is secondary and probably more important to you than it is to your potential customer.  You can always add more pages and information later if you get repeated questions about testimonials, a newsletter or whether or not you have a blog.  Give your visitors what they’re looking for when they first find your section of cyberspace, and more of them will become your customers later.  

PS:  I've
learned a lot about websites and marketing from Seth Godin.  If you
want to have an effective website up as soon as possible for very little
money, check out his blog post here.  If you've built a website and want to make
it better, check out his book "The Big Red Fez."

PPS:  Our own website could do an even better job of making it easy for our visitors to find the information they want.  So we're making those changes now.  I'll share them here later next month when we're finished.   

More for private counselors: fire your worst customers

Not all customers are created equal. 

I don't think the customer is always right.  Sometimes the customer is wrong.  Sometimes a customer is predisposed to be unhappy.  One bad customer demands the time and attention of three good customers (for the revenue of one).  They don't become fans.  They don't spread the good word.    You might satisfy them, but you'll never delight them.  And worst of all, those customers drain the morale from you and your staff.  They take time and attention away from people who are more likely to appreciate and benefit from what you're doing.

So, why would you spend all your time trying to make those customers happy.  What would happen if you fired those customers in a supportive, nurturing way, acknowledging that you liked their kid and wanted things to go well for her enough to give them their money back and refer them to someone else. 

Paddi Lund, a dentist in Australia, fired half his customers so he could spend his days with patients he enjoyed working with.  His business actually grew because of it.

Sprint once sent a letter to over 1,000 customers who were calling and complaining too much (up to 25 times per month). 

And we do it here at Collegewise. We work with great families.  We don't have to let a customer go very often because we try to choose our customers carefully.  But we do it when we need to, and believe me, it makes a difference.  We don't assign blame.  It's not that they're wrong and we're right.  It's just that we don't feel good taking their money if we don't think we can do the job they want us to. 

Imagine how much happier you could make your best customers if you didn't have to spend time trying to please your worst ones?

Tip for private college counselors: choose your customers

The most successful businesses know what kind of customer is most likely to like what they do, to spread the word, and be a loyal fan.  The smartest businesses spend all their time trying to please that particular customer.

Appleguy If you’re looking for cheap electronics that get the job done without being flashy, you’re not an Apple customer.  Apple is as much a fashion company as they are a computer company.  If you don’t care how flashy and cool your new phone is, Apple’s not trying to win your affection.  They want this guy who will raise his sleek new Iphone like an Olympic medal.  This is who Apple is built to please.

Southwest airlines doesn't hide what they do well.  If you want the cheapest ticket and you don't care about your seat selection, a meal or a movie, (and if you might be amused by singing flight attendants), Southwest is your best bet.  They’ve built their entire airline to delight this particular customer.  They don't pretend to be anything else. 

Trader Joe's doesn't try to earn the business of the shopper who wants to buy motor oil at the grocery store or who wants 10 varieties of Ragu spaghetti sauce to choose from.  It exists to delight people who rave to their friends about the wasabi peas or avocado salsa or peanut butter filled pretzels they found at Trader Joe's.  Trader Joe's doesn't find new customers for its products; it finds new products for its customers.  And its fans won’t shut up about it!

If you're a private counselor who's just starting out (or if you're already one and want to grow), think about who you want to please.  What kinds of students/families do you work best with?  Who seems predisposed to appreciate what you do best? 

What would happen if you engineered your entire practice to attract and delight only those kinds of customers?

At Collegewise, we know what kinds of families tend to be happiest with us.  And we built our programs to make those families happy.  We're not the right choice for everybody, but we're OK with that.

If you want to build a business that delights customers, start by choosing customers that are most likely to be delighted by what you do. 

For counselors: time to rethink your PowerPoint presentation?

At most of the conferences we attend, presenters feel compelled to use PowerPoint as part of their presentations.  But the truth is that PowerPoint isn't really improving most of the sessions.  It's not making the presentation more compelling, or helping the audience understand information any better.  If anything, it's sometimes even more confusing to see a list of ten complicated bullet points up on a screen than it would have been if the presenter just explained the most important idea she's trying to communicate. 

I'm a big fan of Seth Godin, and he's got a helpful guideline, for free, that made me rethink how I use PowerPoint, and even made me reconsider whether to use it at all.  If you'd like to use PowerPoint to make your presentations even more memorable, it might be worth a read.

For private counselors: our hidden camera concept

One of the criticisms of many private counselors is that they help too much, that they write essays and polish applications and take over the process from the person who needs to own it–the student. 

It's important for all of us in the private counseling community to set a good example for kids and for others in the profession.  Most of the private counselors I've met are good people who just want to help kids.  But sometimes it's not clear where your professional obligations cross with your ethical obligations.  When that happens and you're not sure what the right thing to do is, we have a concept here at Collegewise that helps us; we just imagine that there's a hidden camera in the room and that an
admissions officer from the student's favorite college is watching us.

Of course, it's important to use good common sense.  We don't need a formal policy to tell us that it's not OK to write an essay for a student or to encourage a kid to lie.

But whenever we're in a situation where we need reassurance that we're doing the right thing, the hidden camera concept is our way of asking,

"Would an admissions officer applaud what we're doing?  Would she thank us for taking good care of that kid, for keeping the process honest and even making the college's job a little easier?  Or would she see a violation and think, 'This is what I don't like about private counselors.'?"

Here's an example.

A student tells us she wants to write her essay about volunteering on a blood drive.  After discussing it with her, it's clear to us that she's picking that story not because it was important to her, but because she thinks it will impress the admissions office (bad idea, by the way).  It's our job to advise that kid without taking over the process. So we imagine the hidden camera, and say…

"Absolutely–you can write about that.  You've also got lots of other things you could write about, too, things that you seem a lot more excited about when you talk about them.  It's up to you, but those could be good stories, too.  What do you think?"

I think the admissions officer would applaud that.  She'd probably think, "Thank you for protecting me from yet another cliched, 'How a community service project taught me the importance of helping others'" essay.

But if the kid comes back and says, "No, I want to write about the blood drive because community service is really important to me," we're at a crossroads.  We're being paid to give good advice, and we know this essay isn't the best choice.  So we have two options.

One option is to respond, "If community service were really that important to you, you would have volunteered for more than just one blood drive.  You need to pick a different story if you want your essay to help you get into selective colleges."

But any admissions officer watching us on the hidden camera would throw a red flag.  In this case, we're not letting that student make her own decisions.  We're injecting perspective that the student doesn't have on her own.  The hidden camera tells us that stopping a student from writing what she wants to write is a violation, even if the advice is good.

The hidden camera tells us what to do.  In that situation, we'd respond,

"OK–then that's what you should do.  Maybe you can tell me more about that experience and what made it so important to you?"

Now we get a thumbs up from the viewer.  Chances are, that student will realize on her own that she really doesn't have that much to say about the topic.  But if she forges ahead anyway, we can keep giving her good advice–we'll tell her to include lots of details, to write in her own voice, and not to worry too much about trying to impress the reader–and will do it without actually taking over the process. 

If you're just starting out in private counseling, you should read the NACAC Statement of Principles and Good Practice.  It's the industry guideline for counselor and admissions officers. 

But when you're in one of those situations where it's not necessarily clear what the right thing is to do, the hidden camera never lets you down.

Redesigning our testing calendar

I've been working (again) with Arun Ponnusamy from Open Road Education on several projects we'll be rolling out together over the next six months.  One of them is to work together with our counselors to improve the Collegewise materials, and to start licensing those materials to high schools and private counselors. 

Here's an example of something we've been working on.  Every Collegewise student gets a customized testing calendar to plan when to take the PSAT, SAT, ACT, etc.  Here is a screenshot of that document with Arun's comments:


Counselors typically circle the chosen test dates and make a copy of the document for the student and parent.  Arun pointed out that if we made all the blank spaces for data like "Name" and "Date" electronic fields, a counselor could save each student's calendar as a PDF and then email it to the student and parent.  We also decided to move the PSAT section to the top since it comes first chronologically, and to insert links that would allow students to click and be taken directly to the testing registration sites. 

Here's a shot of the the first try at our revamped version.  


We're also working on second page with information on fee waivers, test prep options, Score Choice, advice on SAT vs ACT, advice on how to send scores, etc.  There's more to do, but it's a good reminder that everything we make can always be made a little better.  

For counselors and companies: the importance of the first day on the job

People talk a lot about how employees need to make a great impression on the boss when they begin a new job.  I think it's even more important for the organization to make a great first impression on the new employee.

The last job I had before I started Collegewise got off to a bad start.  I'd moved across the country to take the job, and when I arrived for my first day of work, my boss was in meetings the entire day.  I had no computer, no phone, and no access pass to get to the meeting rooms on the second floor.  It took me almost a week to get all of the things I needed to actually start doing any work. 

I had been excited about the opportunity, but the first day–and the entire first week–showed me that I was working for a disorganized company and a frenzied boss.  That first week killed my excitement and any motivation I had.  So it's not surprising that we do first days a lot differently at Collegewise. 

New employees at Collegewise arrive to work with everything they need to get started.  The desk has been stocked with office supplies.  The computer and phone have been set-up.  The office is decorated college posters, and we get them a coffee mug from their collegiate alma mater. 

They have keys and a corporate card, and their business cards have already been printed.  We have all the forms they need to fill out ready.  We give them a Collegewise jacket and make sure their fridge is stocked with water and drinks.   

We give them our version of an employee handbook we call "Life at Collegewise" where we talk about everything from how to expense a trip to where the best lunch spots are near the office.  We proudly announce their arrival to all of our current families so they know who the new face in the office is.  Then we start them on our 40-hour training program to learn how we do college counseling.  And we've written a 14-page guideline called "Preparing for Your New Employee's First Day" to help our other offices do the same for their new employees. 

When you make your new employees feel welcome and give them everything they need to start doing good work, it shows them how much you pay attention to details.  But more importantly, it communicates that you expect big things from them, that you have expectations that they'll start making contributions right away.  Now any good employee will want to show you that your expectations haven't been misplaced.

Sure, it can't stop there.  You've got to make sure your employees have great second, and third and 303rd days, too.  But while you can't control everything that will happen during an employee's tenure, you have total control over the first day.  So why not make the most of it. 

Tip for counselors: how to get the most out of a conference

The counselors from our Irvine office are attending the annual WACAC conference this week.  Good counselors and admissions officers spend a lot of time at conferences, so it's important to feel like it's time and money well spent.  Here are a few tips we've picked up during our conferencing years that might help.

1. Don’t be afraid to pick a session based on the speakers rather than on the subject.

Some of the best sessions we’ve ever attended at conferences discussed topics that had surprisingly little to do with our jobs.  But we know when someone like Bruce Poch from Pomona College or Paul Kanarek from The Princeton Review speaks, we always learn something.  Great presenters make for great sessions.  So don’t be afraid to occasionally pick a great presenter over a session whose subject matter might be more relevant. 

2. Try to have meals with people you haven’t met. 

If you’re here with colleagues like we are, it’s easy to huddle with familiar faces during the group meals.  But there are a lot of great people to meet here, and meals are a perfect time to do it.  In fact, some counselors are here without colleagues and will welcome the company.  So get to know new people during the meals. 

3. Attend the social events.
We do love a good conference social event.  It’s a great time to relax and have fun with both current colleagues and new friends who know that several hundred counselors and admissions officers coming together to discuss education makes for one heck of a party.   So no matter how inviting a quiet night in your room may be, spend a little time, well, socializing at the socials.

4. Be on the lookout for tips, information and advice you can use when you get back.
This is something we learned from conference veterans.  It’s great when you can leave a conference excited about new ideas that you can implement into your job.  Experienced counselors know this, and they spend most of the conference on the lookout for those insights.   They enter every session hungry for one piece of information, or one suggestion they can take back and use.  They think not just about what they’re learning, but also what to actually do with that knowledge when they get back.  So feed off that tendency.  Ask questions.  Write down your ideas as soon as you think of them.  Talk with your colleagues not just about what you learned at a great session, but also how you’re going to apply that knowledge back on the job.

5. Remember that you’re here for you, too.
We all go to conferences for the students that we serve.  But it’s also important to use conferences as a chance to have fun, to commiserate with colleagues about the challenges and joys of our jobs, and to recharge our batteries so we can do an even better job with our students when we get back.  If that means that you skip one session to connect over a beer with some new counselor friends you’ve just made, we think that’s OK.  

Advanced essay training

Last night, three of our veteran "essay specialists" came back for some advanced training in the art of helping students find and tell their best stories, and how to do it ethically so we don't take over the process.  If you work with students to help them with college essays, here are a few of the tips we taught.

1. Before you jump in and brainstorm, spend five minutes getting the kid to relax a little bit. 

Dentists do this before they start drilling.  They ask you questions about where you’re vacationing.  We do the same thing with kids.  Before you start asking a student which activity meant the most to him, just chat for five minutes.  It will help the kid relax and be more open about his stories.   

2. Always ask the kid if he’s got any ideas about what he wants to write. 

It's the student's essay, not ours.  Just because we have a great process to help kids find their stories doesn't mean we should ignore whatever ideas a student already has. So ask. 

3. Don’t just sit in silence while you read the student’s responses. 

Our students type long responses to our 20 brainstorming questions.  It takes a while for us to read through them before we discuss them.  But while we read, we don't want the student to feel like a teacher is grading her test right in front of her.  So ask questions, or even just say, “Oh, that’s good.”  Give some feedback as you go to let the student know he's doing fine.

4.  Don’t hold back when you like one of their responses.
Enthusiasm is contagious.  A student will feel encouraged when you get excited and say, “What a minute.  You're on the football team AND you play the tuba?!?  I've never heard of that before.  You've got to tell me more about that." 

5.    “Forget the essay.  It’s just you and me talkin’ now…”

If a student seems reserved, or if you can sense that he's more enthusiastic about a topic than he's letting on, take the essay reins off and say,

"Forget the essay.  It's just you and me talkin' now…” 

Physically set your notes down when you say it.  Watch how much more enthusiastic and relaxed the student gets.

6.  When you see an example of great writing in their brainstorming responses, highlight it, show it to them, and explain why it’s good. 

We want students to understand what good writing looks like.  When you're reading their brainstorming responses and you see examples of good detail, or funny lines, or just a great turn of phrase, circle it, point it out and explain why it's good.  Then tell him, “That’s what I want you to do in your essays!”

7. Ask the student to explain the stories back to you. 

We don't want to tell the story for a student.  So rather than say, "In the second paragraph, you can describe how your coach got angry when the starting fullback quit, and how he asked you to take his place."  Instead, ask the student, "So, tell me again what happened when that player quit…" Make them tell the story and recall their own details.

8. Warn kids that “Track changes” makes things look a lot worse than they are.

We love the "Track changes" feature in Microsoft Word.  But most students are used to associating markings on an essay with errors.  The first time a kid opens a draft with changes marked, it looks a lot worse than it is, especially given that even your positive feedback looks like red-penned editing.  So warn a student.  Tell him, "Don't be alarmed when you see the draft.  The track changes looks like a blood bath but a lot of what I've written is to comment on what you did well!"

9. Don’t be afraid to use the “Show, don’t tell” concept in your comments.

We tell kids that good writing is descriptive.  So are good comments from editors!  Sometimes the best way to explain something to a student is to show him what you mean, but use examples that the student couldn’t just lift and use himself.

    For example, a student writes:

"Now as a senior, I am taking AP psychology and I find myself engrossed in the course.  The “theory of the fundamental attribution error” and the “foot-in-the-door phenomenon” are now phrases that have been incorporated into my daily vocabulary." 

    And the editor comments:

"Great example!  Can you give one or two more specific examples of how you use or think about these concepts?  It’s more believable if you say something specific like (and I’m totally making this up because I don’t know what these concepts mean AT ALL!), 'I used to think that the reason my brother lied to other kids I and told them I wet the bed until I was 12 was just because he was mean.  Now I know that he’s not only mean, but he’s also possibly suffering from fundamental attribution error.'" 

If you're trying to get a soccer player to give you more detail, write a sample for him…using a golfer or a poker player as an example.  Just don't use a soccer playing example because the kid will want to use what you've written. 

10.    Don’t forget to insert praise in your comments, too.

We're not just editors here; we're also teachers.  If all you do is point out what needs to be changed, improved or revised in an essay, it's discouraging for the student.  So always include some sincere praise.  Show the kid what he did right.  Insert the occasional “I love that line” or “Good example!” into your comments. It will keep the student engaged and leave him more inclined to accept your constructive criticism. 

Counselor tip: Try this at your next student/parent meeting

When we know there's a lot of material to cover in an appointment with one of our Collegewise families, we'll start the meeting by saying,

"I have my list of things I want to cover in the next hour.  But before we start, what are the things you want to make sure we talk about today?" 

Then we write down whatever they say on our agenda.  If we think the topic would be better handled at a different time, we can say so, explain why, and ask if they'd be OK tabling it for a future meeting. 

Starting meetings like this helps you get a sense of just how much you'll need to cover in the allotted time.  It also lets the other people know that you're not just here for you; you're here for them, too–in fact, the first thing you're doing is asking what they want to talk about. 

They'll know you're not just going to wait until the end of the meeting to ask what questions they have. 

It sets a good tone of collaboration for the meeting and makes everyone feel comfortable that they'll be heard.  You'll know right away if there are any contentious subjects that you need to address. 

And most importantly, it demonstrates that you're prepared for the meeting because you've already composed a list of the things you want to discuss.  They'll know you're not just winging it and that they shouldn't be, either.