Fearmongering as a Recruitment Strategy

After graduating from college, I began work as an admissions counselor at my alma mater, and let me tell you, I tackled that job with all the gusto of a My Strange Addiction subject devouring a box of dryer sheets. I knew it was a blessing that I had gotten the job, and I wanted to do my absolute best. The problem is that although I am quite gregarious, I am not a natural-born salesman, which makes it pretty difficult to convince people to choose your school over the myriad of other options they have.

Regardless, the first two months of the job were relatively easy since I had started in the summer and spent most of my time answering questions from students who had already committed to the school and were making arrangements to arrive for the fall semester. This lulled me into a false sense of security that was dramatically shattered when the autumn travel season began.

I had been given a recruitment territory that included New York, and nearly every state west of the Mississipi River. I was elated when I first heard this news because I pictured myself being paid to scale mountain peaks and stroll along the ocean. This fantasy was soon dashed when I found out that the territory I had been given was one of the hardest to recruit. To put it in perspective, it’s tough to convince people who have grown up skiing in their backyard or surfing every morning to pursue schooling in western Ohio.

The toughness of my territory was further emphasized when I arrived in California, where I quickly experienced the battle that is Los Angeles traffic and, even worse, learned what an apathetic high school student is like in the wild. During my week in California, I was tasked with attending four college fairs and knew I needed to step it up if I wanted to meet my recruitment goal for the state.

Adding to my sense of worry was the realization that I was the least cool person at the college fairs. Other institutions must have used the “when in Rome” mentality when drafting their California recruitment strategies, because most of the admissions counselors I worked alongside were tan, gorgeous, and looked like they were going to run down to the water to surf immediately following the college fair.

Not wanting to be beaten by these other recruiters, my underdeveloped professional brain decided to try an unorthodox approach. You’re probably thinking, “Dan, tell us more! How does your method work?” Great question! Let me explain by using a scenario that played out more times than I care to remember:

Dan (to a student quickly walking by the table without making eye contact): Hey there! Do you want to learn about someplace extraordinary?
Student (being pushed over to my table by their mother): Uh, what?
Dan: I wanted to share how awesome this university in Ohio is!
Student: Oh…I’ve never heard of it.
Dan: Ohio or the university? Haha. Anyway…*insert sales pitch* Do you want to leave your information so I can follow-up?
Student: I think I’m good, but thanks…
Dan: Hey, student’s mom?
Wary-looking mother: Yeah?
Dan: Do you know what state won’t ever crash into the ocean due to an earthquake? Ohio.
Horrified-looking mother protectively grabbing her kid: We’re going to go now.

After reading my blog and seeing my penchant for being dramatic, you may be thinking that this is an exaggeration. Sadly, it is not. I genuinely thought that turning my own fear of a California earthquake into part of my sales pitch would be an effective recruiting strategy. As you can imagine, it was not, and every person I used that line on hurriedly walked away from the conversation without leaving their information.

Thankfully, my psychology education was put to good use as I realized I could observe those around me to see what was working for them. I soon tuned in to what the more experienced admissions counselors were saying when speaking to prospective students, and I worked to implement elements of their pitches into my own interactions. Unsurprisingly, those conversations no longer included predicting the end of California as we know it.

My borrowed strategies must have worked because I ended up hitting my California recruitment goal, and I was able to continue honing my skills as a salesman throughout the remainder of the school year. While admissions recruiting was a foundational part of my professional development, I was relieved when an event planning job opened up across campus the following spring. Once there, I was able to transition into a role where I could utilize my fear of disaster to plan practically bulletproof events for the university.

And as I worked hard to become the Midwest’s most iconic event planner, I looked back on my time in admissions fondly and remembered the painful lesson I learned to not sell through the use of fear-based techniques unless the product is a doomsday cult.

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