Life has been good on college campuses for many years with rising enrollments, healthy athletic department budgets, and a large pool of student-athletes vying for athletic scholarships. In a flash, college coaches now face a recruiting environment filled with uncertainty. Coaches in all sports will be challenged to adopt a new strategy to navigate the quickly changing recruiting landscape.
Let’s start with the new realities of college athletics. With the abrupt and historic downturn in the U.S. economy and the ongoing global health threat, college enrollments are projected to decrease dramatically. Some estimate a decline of 20% is possible. Athletic department budgets are being slashed and many coaches are being asked to take salary cuts and reduce expenditures in all areas, including recruiting.
The economic shock waves from this “instant recession” will force many graduating seniors to seriously consider delaying college or attending a junior college. Several factors will influence their decision whether or not to choose an alternative path to higher education.
If institutions decide to offer only online learning in the fall or some sort of hybrid course curriculum, the negative effects will be widespread. Parents may question why they should pay for expensive online classes at a four year school when their local junior college offers the same introductory courses at a fraction of the cost.
Lower team budgets, combined with the challenge of allocating money for graduating seniors in spring sports who were granted another year of eligibility, means less scholarship funds earmarked for incoming freshmen. Parents and players count on this financial assistance to ease the burden of college tuition.
The stress to college athletic departments is expected to affect all sports for the foreseeable future. Now is the perfect time for coaches to use this crisis to develop new recruiting skills focused on developing meaningful relationships.
A New Approach To Recruiting
I offer personal engagement and relationship training workshops for companies looking to develop deeper relationships with clients and employees. Since I’m also a college hitting coach, I decided to tailor the content for college coaches. I call this workshop Relationship Recruiting.
Over the past two years, I have been invited to lead this workshop for college athletic departments to help coaching staffs evolve from a “transaction-based” recruiting strategy to a “relationship-based” focus. The majority of coaches who have attended these workshops eagerly incorporated what they learned into their strategic recruiting plans, but change is difficult for some coaches.
Before this crisis, I noticed a good number of coaches had the attitude, “We really don’t have to sell our program very hard. It usually comes down to geography or the financial package we can offer. Recruiting is more of a process than a marketing program for us.” Unless they adapt to this altered world of college athletics, many of these coaches will find it difficult to compete for the recruits they desperately want.
“I’m a coach, not a salesperson!”
Many young college coaches are not equipped for the interpersonal requirements of the recruiting process. Some may have majored in Business Administration, but most never received any formal marketing or sales training.
At the beginning of my Relationship Recruiting workshop, coaches often reveal they are apprehensive to be in a “sales” workshop, so I make a bold promise–“I will try to convince each of you that even the most introverted person in this room can be as effective at developing deep relationships with your recruits and convincing them to join your program as a highly trained sales professional.” This usually brings a smile and big sigh of relief.
The reality is the best salespeople in the world don’t actually sell. The best companies in the world also don’t sell. Think about the companies you are loyal to. Do they reach out to you every day to sell you? No, they do all the right things, so you have no choice but to buy their product or use their service.
The Relationship Recruiting Model
The strategy for attracting recruits to join an athletic program is the same approach companies like Southwest Airlines, Amazon, Patagonia, and Chic-fil-A employ to attract customers. These successful companies are masters at building rapport with their customers and are always looking for new ways to better understand them. They work hard to gain the trust of their customers and they prioritize effective communication by crafting and delivering unique messaging. Most importantly, they provide value to their customers differently than their competitors.
This is the model I encourage coaches to implement. This holistic approach will result in more recruiting success, deeper relationships with current players, happier parents, and more cohesive coaching staffs.
The first step in any relationship is to build some level of rapport. Building rapport is often erroneously associated with small talk. Discussing the weather or favorite binge-worthy shows is small talk. Conversely, building rapport is asking thoughtful open-ended questions to quickly identify areas of commonality. When people realize they have common interests, experiences, values, and even acquaintances, the foundation is set for the relationship. We all can point to meaningful conversations in our lives that started innocently, but turned out to be life changing.
Throughout the recruiting process, coaches should continue to ask questions to uncover the needs and priorities of the student-athlete. Many studies have confirmed a direct linkage between asking questions and likability.
Asking the right type of question in the appropriate sequence is called “Question Sequencing”. Too often, coaches don’t spend enough time strategically asking questions to understand what is really important to recruits, their parents, and other interested parties who may influence the decision. Instead, they default to spending too much time listing the features of the school and the success of the program.
Surveys continue to show that one of main reasons student-athletes choose a school is the level of trust they have in the coaches. Selecting a school and an athletic program is a big decision, filled with risk and uncertainty. Playing time, financial assistance, team culture, and coaching style are just a few of the variables that recruits place their faith in before arriving on campus. Coaches who are effective at building trust are typically optimistic, honest, authentic, collaborative, consistent, and ethical.
Communicating With Recruits
College athletic programs have clear rules for engaging prospective student-athletes. This makes it important to ensure every interaction is meaningful.
Building rapport, understanding recruits and their parents, and building trust is most effective in-person. The best recruiters know face-to-face meetings are critical to the success of any program. Studies confirm that in-person meetings are much more effective than texting, emailing, or speaking on the phone.
During a campus visit or a home meeting, coaches can make a personal connection with recruits and their families. They can use both verbal and non-verbal cues to quickly develop a bond. When a recruit can experience the sincerity and passion of a coach firsthand, the messages being delivered are more impactful and convincing.
When meeting a recruit is not possible or permissible, it’s important to know when to use the right communication vehicle. In my workshop, we discuss when to send a text, how to craft an effective email, and making the most of phone calls. Relying on only one or two types of communication vehicles is a common mistake coaches make.
I also stress how important it is to write personal notes to recruits. We all love to receive notes and cards in the mail. Unfortunately, writing personal notes is a lost art. However, coaches and business professionals who write person notes as a habit separate themselves from their peers.
What Is “Real” Recruiting Value?
Building rapport, truly understanding recruits, developing trust, and effectively communicating with them is not enough. Coaches still need to deliver value.
Here are a few questions coaches should ask about the value they offer to recruits. What is really different about my program? How is the way I coach different than my peers? What is unique about our team chemistry? Why would other coaches want to join our staff? It’s critical for coaches to be honest when answering these questions. If other coaches can make the same claims about their style, culture, staff or program, then any competitive advantage disappears.
The best companies in the world are obsessed with providing value to their customers that is indisputably different than their competitors. College coaches should do the same by continually challenging themselves to find creative and innovative ways to provide real value to prospective student-athletes.
Recruiting Without Selling
If coaches build deep rapport with recruits, if they truly take the time to understand them through research and by asking the right types of questions at the right time, if they develop a strong sense of trust, if they communicate effectively verbally and non-verbally, and if they offer unique value, they will never have to sell. Coaches won’t have to sell themselves, their program, or their school. Prospective student athletes will have no choice but to choose their school and current players will cherish their time in the program.
Relationship Recruiting is effective in any economic environment. Coaches who adopt this recruiting model will enjoy success on and off the field during these challenging times and will be positioned for even more consistent success when the world finally returns to normal.
About Paul Petricca
In addition to writing this hitting blog, Paul is a college softball hitting coach and the author of the book Hitting With Torque: For Baseball And Softball Hitters. He also provides unique customer engagement training through his company Torque Consulting. Paul teaches a Customer Relationship Management class to undergraduates at Wheaton College (IL) and MBA candidates at Loyola University Chicago and the Benedictine University Asia Program.