Success Advisors know it is important to build strong, quick, trusting relationships with customers, which in our case are students. One key to doing so is taking time to understand the personal challenges the person on the other end of the line, chat, or email is facing. When the service relationship is going to span weeks or months (as in the case of a training program), the other key is keeping that person focused and motivated.
At MedCerts, our customers are students, and we have worked with thousands of them as they balance coursework with professional and family responsibilities. Time management can be complicated. Students are taking online training programs to advance their skills and move ahead in their careers, and for many, this is happening in the midst of keeping up with the rest of their busy lives. How can a virtual school provide world-class advising and support services without meeting the student face-to-face?
Our team has arrived at a good balance in solving that problem. Our team fulfills the critical role of advising students academically while also being a cheerleader who can celebrate with them on their successes. Here are some of our best practices and perspectives that can be used by advisors in any training or upskilling program.
Tip #1: Acknowledge students holistically
Treat every interaction with someone as if it may be only chance to connect. This puts an urgency into quickly establishing a relationship. Use the person’s name while you are talking to them throughout the call. It’s a subtle and direct acknowledgment demonstrating that we care about them. Their success is personally important to us and we want them to know that they are not just a number. When students feel valued by their advisors, they are more likely to be open and bring up more important issues, even personal challenges in ways that we can help. Using their name and taking time to discover their unique situation lets us be more involved and thus, more helpful.
Tip #2: Validate and empathize with challenging moments
Everyone has their own struggles. We want to be there for our students with an open ear for their concerns to let them know their feelings have been heard. While their personal experience is unique, they are not alone. We listen actively and then work to be relatable, which can go a long way in building trust.
When advisors validate the students’ experience and share a piece of their personal lives – especially mistakes they may have made in their college or training experiences – students are more likely to open up. This is a delicate art, so we train our advisors to feel comfortable talking about their own personal experiences in a quick way that conveys empathy without being dismissive or making the conversation about themselves.
Tip #3: Ask cascading questions
We train our advisors on the strategy of cascading questions. Cascading questions intentionally build off of what a person is saying to dive deeper into how they are feeling, for example, “What got in the way of your success? How did that affect you? What do you plan to do next? Where can I provide support? How do you feel after our call?”
In education, students are sometimes hesitant to open up about their progress or problems. Walking through a cascade of questions can effectively overcome that hesitancy because it breaks down a complicated issue into strategized, bite-size bits. This technique works equally well outside of education, including in corporate settings, for example. What matters most is to listen actively and be goal-oriented in getting them to a resolution.
Tip #4: To direct or facilitate? Guide students from where they are
No two people will need the same advice; some don’t need advice at all but rather something else altogether. That’s why personalizing guidance is so practical. Guidance can range from directional to facilitatory. Directional guidance often involves explicitly telling a person the next steps or walking through policies and procedures. This might be a fit for someone who clearly understands what they want to do and needs to know how to get there.
On the other end of the continuum is facilitation. Facilitation is more about being a thought partner, guiding them to their own answer and, ultimately, discovering their agency. This is appropriate in situations where the student knows more than we do, such as their personal life and commitments they might be struggling to juggle. Advisors need to recognize which guidance is needed and be trained in how to support people using both techniques.
Tip #5: Create an outreach strategy
Effective communication in an advising role is paramount to student success, keeping in mind that having a clear outreach strategy is just as important as the outreach itself. Contacting a student within 24 to 48 hours of their enrollment cultivates feelings of support and trust early in their program.
Beyond that initial conversation, it is effective to have planned follow-ups that map out specific milestones on a student’s journey. We are intentional about our outreach at MedCerts. For advisors with ongoing student relationships like ours, we suggest setting the next touch point at the end of every call. Taking this step while the student is on the phone, chat, or video sets up accountability for both parties. Creating standardized communication plans nurtures stronger relationships.
Tip #6: Be accessible and keep records
While planned communication is important, there should also be multiple ways for someone to contact their advisors. Making advisor contact information (email, phone, text, appointment link) easy to find in their program is vital. Make sure that there is another team member to serve as a backup for an advisor when they are away. With this backup system, we ensure every advisor is logging detailed records of the interaction. Students should be able to get help for any instance that comes up. Having a form of notes from every call allows any advisor to assist the student from the previous interaction, no matter who advised them before.
Effective advising comes naturally to some, but training service advisors on these techniques is equally important. When our organization embarked on new training initiatives for our advising team, even veteran advisors recognized that training honed their natural talents so they could create as much value as possible for every student interaction. After all, keeping students focused on their career goals is our primary mission. It is a great honor to be with them when they finish their training and are ready to move into a new career or take on new responsibilities, knowing that we’ve been a positive part of their journey.