Like a lot of businesses, we're finally starting to feel like we've successfully survived the recession. Our business is growing and we feel good about our future. But there's an opportunity now for us to take a hard look at what we got both right and wrong during the tough times of the last 2 1/2 years.
First, what we did right.
1. In January of 2009, I created a financial aid and scholarships seminar for our Collegewise families. I'd always been intimidated by that subject and saw it as outside of our core strengths. But I took the time to learn it and put something together that does what we try to do for everything college admissions-related–take something complicated and make it easier to understand. Today, that seminar is one of the most popular seminars that we offer, and we get great feedback about it from our families.
Lesson learned: Always look for ways to make your current customers happier. Never stop thinking about what they need and how you could give (not sell, but give) them more than you promised them.
2. The bottom fell out of the economy right after our class of 2009 applied to college. We immediately started offering a series of "State of The Nation" group meetings for our senior families. The idea was that the better they understood how the economy would affect the admissions process, the more comfortable they would feel that the strategy we'd used together would still leave their kids with plenty of college options. Today, we continue to do these meetings as "Back to School Nights" for senior families.
Lesson learned: Find ways to show your customers that you understand what they're going through. Show them that they're more than just a customer and that you want to be there to help them with the challenges they're facing.
3. We started offering less intensive, cheaper "package" options of counseling where people could buy bundles of hours and individual help with college essays. Today, those package plans account for 20% of our senior-related revenue, and many of those families ultimately upgrade to our full counseling program.
Lesson learned: You don't always have to come up with a new product to get new customers. Instead, try selling your by-produts. Look at your business and ask, "What else could we sell based on what we've made already?"
Now, what we didn't do so well.
1. As the news of the recession got worse, we wanted to work even harder to get new business. So we invested in some direct mailing campaigns to run free seminars for potential families. It was only moderately successful. In retrospect, I would have taken all that money and spent it on our current customers, those people who'd already given us both their money and their trust.
Lesson learned: Always spend the money and time on your current customers first. Yes, if you want your business to grow, you've got to find new customers. But it's much more expensive, and much less effective, to spend money to find a new customer than it is to delight a current one. Get that right, and your happy customers will do your marketing for you.
2. We had to close our office in Los Angeles because our business shrank almost 65%. That was the worst day of my Collegewise life and it was even worse for the counselors who worked there. I'm not sure we could have done anything to survive that kind of hit. But we might have been able to fight a little longer if our fixed costs, especially our rent, weren't so high.
Lesson learned: Keep your costs as low as you can. I know this is an obvious one, but when times are good, it's easy to think that you should plan for the continued growth that you're seeing. It's a lot less stressful to struggle with managing growth than it is to struggle to pay the bills.