Saturday, December 19, 2009

College Admissions as Metaphor: Lessons for Consultants

As prospective students were learning this week if they'd been accepted early admission to colleges and universities around the country, those same institutions were letting many consultants know whether they'd been accepted as well. I don't remember so many RFP decisions coinciding with early admission season in the past, but for some reason the last two weeks have brought a number of yeas and nays to me and several colleagues.

Because I often team up with other firms I have been in the interesting position of knowing not only how I did but of seeing how other consulting friends have fared. One colleague, a talented golden boy, has been "accepted" by every school to which he applied including the Ivies. Another colleague was wait-listed -- make that short-listed -- at an Ivy, rejected by a little Ivy and accepted by a great public. As for me, I was accepted by an Ivy, rejected by another, and accepted by two top-tier liberal arts colleges. (Yes, I'm pleased.)

Now that the waiting is over, like families whose kids were accepted and rejected, these colleagues and I have been discussing the whys behind the decisions. I've taken away these lessons for consultants:

  • In the end, no matter how talented a consultant is, institutions that want to sell prestige choose prestige. Whether consciously or not, institutions "trade up," choosing consultants who have worked with the institutions they admire. This can hurt you with "reach" schools but also help you identify schools that would welcome your counsel.
  • The old adage about not judging a school by the tour guide works here too. To have a sense of whether you'll win the business, ask yourself if you have a great connection with more than one person at the school. Even if that one person is the dean of admission or chair of the board, it's not enough if you are not a good fit with the rest of the team. You may still win the business but if that key person leaves the value of your work for the institution can erode dramatically.
  • Never let 'em see you sweat. While every institution wants great value, an over-eager or Avis we-try-harder approach can backfire. Especially in this economy, institutions want turnkey results and a sure thing. Rather than instilling confidence, revealing too much of the inner workings of your operation and decision-making can detract from a perception of out-of-town expertise, translating to weakness.
  • If you're going after a reach school -- meaning you don't have similar institutions on your list -- you better have a special talent your competitors don't have. For prospective students that may mean being an Olympic fencer or holding a patent at the tender age of 17. For prospective consultants that can mean having a formula for successful search results or proven social media ROI.
I've often said that families choose schools that strike the right balance of prestige, cost, and outcomes. And so it is with institutions selecting consultants. When I consider the consultant choices made by several institutions this season, inevitably they each chose the consultant whose client pedigree, proven outcomes, and cost was right for them. Four years from now it will be interesting to see how many believe they made the right choice.

The good news for talented consultants, like talented kids, is there are so many fantastic institutions in this country -- a great match is possible for everyone.

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