When once a day adds up

For private counselors looking to grow your businesses, what if on every workday for the next year, you committed to doing just one of these items from the list below?

  • Call or email a customer just to check in.
  • Write a blog post sharing free advice.
  • Record a video sharing free advice.
  • Invite your three strongest competitors to lunch.
  • Learn more about a relevant topic that you don’t know much about.
  • Learn even more about the topic you know a lot about.
  • Create a workshop on admissions, financial aid, or study skills and offer it at a local library.
  • Start reading a relevant how-to book and commit to changing at least one thing based on what you learn.
  • Sit at a coffee shop for one hour and write down ideas about how to improve your counseling or your business.
  • Train an employee or business partner to do something you do well.
  • Write a thank-you note to a customer who’s treated you well.
  • Write a thank-you note to a vendor who’s treated you well.

No single item done once is likely to substantially change you or your business. But there are roughly 200 workdays in a year. Imagine what would happen when those daily actions start adding up.

Unspoken, unexplored, or unresolved

Counselors, if a family believes that attending a prestigious college is a necessary precursor to success (or if they believe the corollary—that attending a less selective school is an inherent life disadvantage), chances are, it will be difficult for you to change their minds. No matter how many statistics, studies, or anecdotes you may bring out, it will likely be difficult to change their minds. It’s not unlike debating politics or religion—those beliefs are strong, and for better or for worse, many people are simply not inclined to change their minds.

If you’re helping a family who’s in that camp, you might not only consider these questions, but also discuss them with the family.

Do you agree with their approach?
Not everyone shares the same approach to the college admissions process, and there’s room for different, equally valid points of view. But if you’re not on the same side of the prestige question, it’s worth honestly and respectfully addressing that potential dissonance as soon as possible in the relationship.

If not, can you change their minds?
Asking a family, “Are you open to adding less selective schools to your list?” can reveal a lot about your potential work together. Some prestige seekers are also realists who understand how slim the chances of admission really are. Others want to play the admissions lottery or simply ignore the math.

If you can’t change their minds, can you still help them in some way?
Even a fundamental disagreement about the approach doesn’t always mean that a counselor and a student/family can’t work well together, especially if you agree to disagree about some components of the college application process, and willingly join forces in others. But you’ll need to have those conversations early and honestly. And all parties need to agree on who will be held responsible for which outcomes. For example, some families hire our Collegewise counselors to assist them with their applications and essays, but not to help them actually create the college list. We have open discussions with those families so everyone understands that we share responsibility for the quality of the submitted work, but not for the potential match or admissions feasibility of the chosen colleges.

In counselor/family relationships, disagreements cause the most disruption when they are any combination of unspoken, unexplored, or unresolved. Bring them to the forefront, talk about them, and then decide together if you can work around them.

For private counselors: How much should you charge?

One of the most common questions we get from people who are considering becoming private counselors is, “How much should I charge?” And built into the question is often an underlying, even more complex one—“How should I structure my services (hourly, yearly, pay-as-they-go, etc.)?”

There are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers to any of those questions. In fact, I think part of the learning in entrepreneurship is figuring out the answers to questions about things like pricing, not taking a shortcut or just trying to out-copy your competition.  So here are a few pricing guidelines to help you make that decision for yourself.

1. First, sell one hour of time.
The best place to start is to pick a price for one hour of college counseling and then go try to sell it to someone. If a family is willing to pay you for one hour of time, it means they trust you enough to see value in what you’re charging. But if you can’t sell even one hour, you’ve got a problem, either with the price, the offering, or both. Offer more, charge less, and see if you have more success. But start with one hour. If that works, you’ll already have at least one customer who may be willing to come back for more. And you’ll have a starting point for your pricing and your programs.

2. Remember that you’re choosing more than a price.
Your price isn’t just a number—it’s a signal of what kind of business you want to run. Do you want to be the most expensive private counselor in town, the cheapest, or somewhere in between? Whatever you decide, choosing a price means that you’re also choosing what type of customer you’re likely to draw (and repel) and what they’re likely to demand from you in return. You’re also deciding how many available substitutes there are in town, the number of clients you’ll need to enroll to hit whatever your budget is, and how much time you’ll need to spend on billing and looking for new clients. You may not have perfect answers to those questions if you’re just starting out. But it’s worth thinking about—and revaluating—those choices as you test your pricing.

3. Remember that price isn’t permanent.
Many budding entrepreneurs get paralyzed by the pricing decision for one reason—they’re afraid they’ll be wrong. But remember pricing isn’t a permanent decision. There’s no law that says you can’t change your mind later. Sure, you’ll have to treat your current customers fairly and make sure you don’t offer tomorrow’s customer the same thing for much cheaper than the customer who paid you today. But all the market research and business planning in the world still isn’t as infallible as actually testing a price, seeing what happens, and then changing it if necessary. And this is a lot less scary when you remember that pricing isn’t permanent.

4. Charge what feels right.
Would you pay this price for your own services? And more importantly, would you feel right asking a customer to pay that price? At some point, you’ll need to look a potential customer in the eye and say, “Here’s what I charge.” Make sure you feel good about that number. I won’t define what “good” should feel like. But “bad” can be everything from feeling embarrassed that you’re not really worth what you’re asking to feeling taken advantage of because you’re charging too little for too much. The way your price makes you feel may change with time and experience (in which case, refer back to #3). But find a number you feel good saying out loud to people. You can’t control how they react when you quote your price. But you get to decide how it feels to you when you quote it.

5. Remember the value of your value.
If you test a price and nobody buys, it’s likely because they don’t see enough value in what you’re charging. So lowering the price is just one option; increasing your value is the other. What change or impact are you offering to them? How do they and their kids feel when they interact with you? Do you inspire trust and confidence? Do they believe that you’ll keep your promises? If they can get the same thing someplace else but cheaper, they’re not going to choose you. But if your customer decides (and they get to decide) that your value is one that can’t be matched elsewhere, your price will become less important to them than your value is. And a superior value is much harder for your competition to match than your price is.

For private counselors: managing families vs. leading them

Marcus Buckingham is the author of several best-selling books on management and leadership (two of the best are here and here). One of his insights is that management and leadership are not the same thing. Great managers turn each employee’s particular talent into performance, and they recognize that what works for one person may not for another. Leaders, on the other hand, rally people towards a better future. To do that, they need to cut through the differences and tap into the few needs that everyone in an organization has in common.

That’s why the best private counselors are both managers and leaders.

A private counselor must help each individual family achieve their goals. Students have different college dreams, different qualifications, different strengths and weaknesses. Parents hire counselors for different reasons, from advising students how to improve their chances, to acting as a project manager for the application process, to navigating sometimes complex discussions between students and parents. A successful outcome means recognizing that what will make one client successful—from their college list, to their essay topic, to interactions you have between the student and parent—will not necessarily work for every family.

But the best private counselors are also leaders. They rally their collective caseload to a better future by speaking vividly about it. They tell stories to help their potential followers clearly see the path they are being invited to walk down.

At Collegewise, we tell potential families that they can enjoy their college admissions process together. We tell them that there are plenty of wonderful colleges out there for A students, C students, and everyone in between—and we promise to help them find them. We tell students that we can help them take charge of their college future and offer their parents the opportunity to step back. And we illustrate that future with real examples. For example, we tell families that they will have the opportunity to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner together knowing that all of their student’s college applications have been submitted.

Not every family necessarily wants to realize our particular vision for a better college future. But those who join Collegewise know exactly where we’re promising to take them. And that future resonates with them.

What do all of your clients want out of their college admissions process?

Most parents want to see their children happy and fulfilled. Most kids want to attend colleges that excite them. And most families will appreciate the opportunity to lessen their anxiety, to avoid mistakes, and to enjoy the comfort of knowing that they’re making well-informed, smart decisions.

But the better future for your particular client base might well be different depending on what you offer them (and why they chose you), your customer’s demographics, or other factors that they and you best understand.

If you can recognize what unites your families, if you can clearly articulate the better future that you’re promising and then offer to lead them there, you can then focus on managing each particular client in the way that will best help them get to the better future you’ve described.

For Counselors: Common App webinar

The Common Application folks are hosting a free webinar on August 16 for counselors interested in learning about the latest updates and changes to the Common App, including new features in the system for letters of recommendation. All the information, and the link to register, is here.

For counselors: your best season yet?

Counselors who will soon be helping the Class of 2018 apply to college have a lot of changes to contend with this year—a new SAT, the Coalition Application, and the Prior-Prior-Year for the FAFSA, in particular. Considering how dedicated most counselors are to their students, it’s no surprise that so many of the counselors I interact with personally or within our various social media groups are anxious about all the upcoming unfamiliar territory. All of us seem to want more information, more answers, and frankly, familiarity with a landscape that seems to keep changing no matter how fast we scramble to keep up.

But if you’re a counselor who’s unsettled by what’s ahead, please remember that your students have the wonderful advantage of a counselor who cares enough to be concerned.

It’s unsettling not to know exactly what lies ahead. And it’s frustrating when changes like these unravel your previous systems and create more work for an already overworked counselor. There’s no cheerleading around that.

But the fact that you care enough to be concerned, that you’re reaching out to colleagues and comparing notes, that you’re scouring our social media groups, collecting whatever information is available, and considering how to best help your students—all of those things are a sign that your kids are in good hands.

The most veteran counselors have seen big changes before, from the advent of online applications to the introduction of the Common Application, and previous big changes to the SAT (which seem to happen every 4-5 years). They were unfamiliar at first. They concerned you on behalf of your kids. They created frustration and additional work. And somehow, you got your students through it.

It’s not the easiest time to be a college admissions counselor. But your kids are going to need you even more this year than ever before. And given that kids are the reason that we all got into this business, that just might make this season your best one yet.

P.S. Nearly 400 counselors have signed up to be notified when we release our first batch of counselor training programs this fall.  Click here if you’d like to be added to the list.

Recommended reading and viewing

Here are a couple reads (and one viewing) worth taking in over the weekend.

For students and parents, Denise Pope of Challenge Success and her interview with Frank Bruni, author of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, is well worth the hour of your time.

For counselors, Patrick O’Connor, high school counselor extraordinaire, offers his recommended approach to the significant changes we’ll see in this year’s admissions cycle, like the new SAT, the Coalition Application, and the Prior-Prior-Year for the FAFSA.

For private counselors:

Warren Buffet has a surprisingly simple 3-word secret guaranteed to make your business succeed. And here’s Basecamp’s Jason Fried with some thoughts on how to say you’re sorry (hint: “We apologize for any inconvenience” is not it).

Have a great weekend.

Evaluate your counseling program

Last month, I recommended that private counselors debrief their most recent admissions season. For high school counselors looking to do the same, Patrick O’Connor, one of the best in your business, just shared some of his own advice, along with specific questions to consider.

If you’re looking for more detailed advice, Patrick’s book is a great read. And we’ll be launching our own training programs for counselors later this summer.

When infractions and applications collide

Many college applications ask questions about whether or not a student has (1) been suspended, disciplined, or put on probation at school, and (2) charged with, or convicted of, a misdemeanor or a felony.

Parents, if your student ever does something while in high school that would constitute a need to check “Yes” for either of those questions when they apply to college, please read this past post of mine (maybe bookmark it now, just in case).

And high school counselors, since you’ll also be asked these questions about your applicants, check out Patrick O’Connor’s excellent advice here on how to handle these situations.

Lessons learned in Chicago

I mentioned earlier this week that I was traveling to Chicago to take a class with Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp (formerly 37signals), on how they run their company. I’ve always admired and respected the way he approaches everything about work and business. While Fried’s company builds web-based software, which is not at all similar to what we do at Collegewise, he has customers. He has employees. He wants to be proud of his organization and what they produce. And I think his approach has a lot of application not just for companies, but also for students, counselors, and parents who work in groups to get things that they care about done.

Here are a few of the lessons I took away. To be clear, this workshop’s purpose was to reveal their approach, not necessarily to suggest that these are all appropriate for any organization.

Your company should be your best product.
Your company is the product that produces all the others, so you should operate your company with as much love, attention, and care as you put into building products. Whether you run a private college counseling shop, a high school counseling department, a PTA, or a high school club, they’re all like companies. And even if they don’t sell products, they exist to do something as an organization, whether that’s advising students, unifying parents to help better the school, or producing a high school yearbook. And you can’t expect to produce great results without a great organization.

[If you’re not in charge, see this past post about creating a pocket of greatness.]

Share new ideas with only a few people.
If you have an idea you’re excited about, don’t share it with the entire group right away. Instead, share it privately with a few employees, colleagues, or members. New ideas tend to die in big groups. Too many questions about details that don’t matter yet. Too many worries about problems that haven’t happened yet. Too many “Here’s how we’ve always done its.” A big group slows down the progress before an idea even has a chance to develop. Instead, pick a few people to share your idea with. Have an open but focused discussion and really listen to their feedback. If you can’t get these 2-3 people excited, chances are, your idea wouldn’t have found life in the group anyway. But if 2-3 people have a chance to flesh an idea out first, you might be able to present it together, and do so more effectively.

And here’s a Collegewise alternative—if you don’t need the group’s approval, you might consider our “Here’s what I’m doing” strategy.

Approach big projects in six-week cycles.
A project should always have a deadline to ship (complete it). But big projects have lots of little projects within them, things that need to get completed along the way. When you assign specific deadlines to each piece, you’ll fall behind (and lose momentum) before you know it. Instead, try working in six-week cycles. Once a group agrees to take on a big project—a fundraiser, a new marketing plan, a revamping of an existing system, etc.–start with a six-week cycle and decide what to work on during that time.

For example, a senior class might need to plan a prom. There’s a fixed date when that prom is going to happen. But there are lots of things that need to get done in the months that lead up to it: finding a location, deciding on music and decorations, fundraising, promoting it, selling tickets, etc. It’s a lot to consider at once. So start with a six-week cycle. Decide on the most important things to focus on and who will be responsible for what (more on both of those decisions below). Then dive in and get going. At the end of those six weeks, your project won’t be done yet. But you’ll be surprised by how much progress you’ve made in such a short time. Progress creates momentum. And you’ll be fueled by plenty of what Fried calls “Quick wins.”

And here are a few ideas to try during one of those six-week cycles:

Assign pieces of the large project to small teams of 2-3 people.
You might need a lot more than 2-3 people to pull off a senior prom. But 2-3 people can focus on finding the location. Another 2-3 can focus on fundraising, another small group on promotion, and another on ticket sales, etc. Small teams work well together. It’s easier to communicate and harder for dead weight to coast on the others’ work. And best of all, multiple small teams focused on their own important pieces and parts get more done than one large team focusing on the same thing.

Use the inverted pyramid to decide what to work on now.
Journalists use a method called the inverted pyramid when writing a story. The most vital parts of the story come first. Every subsequent paragraph should be less important than the one before it. Start with the big stuff, then get to the details. If an editor needs to shorten a story, she never has to guess which part of an article to cut out. If your small team is in charge of promoting an event, what are the most important things you need to get done (it’s what Fried calls “Starting at the epicenter“)? Deciding on a date, time, and place, maybe? That’s the top of the pyramid. The color of your poster board for signs doesn’t matter at all if you don’t have an event to promote, so it goes towards the bottom of the pyramid.

I’ve also written about how this concept can strengthen your college applications.

Fix time and budget, flex on scope.
Projects are unpredictable. Not everything will go as planned during your six-week cycle. But a small team never gets to demand more money or time. Instead, they can trim parts of the project off, move them to the next cycle, and finish the remaining portions well, on time, and on budget. This is where the inverted pyramid comes in—you’ll know what to clip and punt to the next cycle. Fried calls this “scope hammering.” It helps you focus on the things that matter. It keeps progress moving and prevents the less relevant details from grinding progress to a halt. A small thing done well, on time, and on budget is better than a large thing done late, beyond budget, or poorly.

Separate by scope, not by role.
If you’re producing the high school yearbook, don’t put all the photographers on one team together for six weeks. Sure, they’ll take lots of pictures, but they won’t know or be able to affect how the rest of the yearbook is coming together. Instead, assign the necessary people to the appropriate project piece. For example, the sports section might have one writer, one ad salesperson, and one photographer—that’s a three-person team. They know their job, they know what each member must contribute, and most importantly, they never have any doubt about the status of the project—the sports section itself—as they approach a deadline.

Take a short breather.
At the end of each six-week cycle, take a breather for a week. Not to sit back and do nothing, but to focus on polishing or improving what you’ve just released. Then jump into your next six-week cycle.

If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend Fried’s books, especially Rework.