Taking credit Featured

9:27am EDT November 29, 2005
Gary Eyler didn’t need a college degree to figure out that so many others needed help getting or advancing theirs.

He saw that colleges didn’t provide any formal study program for the prerequisite and general education courses students have an opportunity to test out of. Eyler decided to fill that gap.

The College Network produces study materials that cover the entire course a student is interested in testing out of. Consider it Cliffs Notes for a course. The company offers more than 50 guides for classes ranging from freshman composition, chemistry and history to finance, management and ethics.

“Most colleges in the country allow some amount of testing-out credit,” says Eyler, founder and CEO of 10-year-old The College Network.

Under Eyler’s leadership, the company has gone from start-up to owning about 95 percent of the market.

“I have always tried to give the customer what they want, not what I want,” Eyler says. “Through enough market research, we were able to determine this was needed.”

Because the company sells a distance-learning product and has no physical contact with the consumer, it has to make every contact with the customer count. Each time a customer calls, The College Network has to make a difference to that person.

Only total commitment from its employees will enable the company to maintain its dominant market position, so Eyler focuses on making sure it is staffed with the best people he can find and he does everything he can to keep them happy.

Managing growth
Managing growth at The College Network is all about finding the right people at every level and fine-tuning operations to gain efficiencies.

“We have grown with our growth; that’s what you have to do,” Eyler says. “We bring the right people on board. It’s a people business. Yes, we’re a publisher, but it boils down to the people that work here. We have enough people here that we can provide the academic services and the customer service to all our customers.

“We don’t just sell them a book. All of our customers know that they can call us 15 hours a day, between here and our Las Vegas customer service center. And they can talk to academic advisers.”

As the company has grown, Eyler has sought people with experience in education or with experience as an executive. For example, he hired the former dean of the DePaul School of Nursing to help develop the company’s nursing products.

“If it’s an education person, I look to see what they’ve done in the education world,” he says. “We try to hire the best people that we can hire. We can be very competitive. I own the company. We’re not public, so we don’t have the same pressures that public companies have. If I want to spend more money than maybe another company would have spent to hire somebody, if I think that person’s a super talent that could really help us in a certain area, then I can do that.”

Many of The College Network’s clients are second-time customers looking to earn another degree. Many also arrive based on recommendations from former clients, so maintaining a high service level is vital to maintain the company’s growth.

For Eyler, that means far more than just answering questions in a timely fashion. It also means making the company’s services available to everyone.

“For us to continue to grow and get better, we have to have very happy customers in the field,” Eyler says. “Probably 20 percent of our business comes from referrals. That’s a significant number.”

Part of the strategy of maintaining the company’s marketshare is making sure potential customers don’t have a reason to go any place else. By offering preapproved financing ($250 million in financing in the last five years) and a guarantee of special tutoring and exam payment fees if clients don’t pass their tests after two attempts, Eyler is closing avenues the competition could use to steal his customers.

Eyler works with his executive team daily to review the business plan and look for new ways to reach new customers and open new markets.

“From 8 o’clock in the morning until 6:30 at night, I am probably with my executives 90 percent of the time,” he says. “We meet for breakfast. We talk about what happened yesterday and what’s going to happen today and what could happen next week and next month. We go to lunch together. We’re all totally absorbed in the business during business hours.”

That dedication allows the company to fine-tune any aspect of the business to make sure it is as efficient as possible.

For example, much of what The College Network does is marketing. A number of people do nothing but make phone calls and set appointments for the program advisers. Eyler noticed those marketers were spending 80 percent of their time dialing and only 20 percent talking. It was a ratio that screamed inefficiency and limited the number of potential new customers, and thus, growth.

“We are in the process of instituting a very sophisticated dialer system,” Eyler says. “We are using last year’s model, and we have seen that has flip-flopped where now we’re spending 80 percent of our time talking to people and 20 percent of our time dialing. We’ve become more efficient. We’re able to reach out to more people when they’re available, and obviously, it makes the company more money because we have more customers and we’re able to get out to more people that have inquired and wanted information. We’re able to do that the same way with our appointment setting. The phone dialer system has made that a much more effective process for us ,too.”

Keeping good employees
Satisfied customers are, of course, the key to any business, and Eyler sees a direct link between happy customers and happy employees. Keep the employees happy and treat them with respect, and they’ll carry over that good attitude to the way they treat the customers.

“We keep everybody really involved,” Eyler says. “We have a lot of social activities that we do together. We have constant training programs that take place. We have an open-access company. There’s no one that works here that can’t just come to my door and start talking to me and asking questions.

“And I stay involved with all my employees. We have lots of meetings, lots of interaction. The thing that I’m probably the most proud of, our turnover rate is maybe 3 percent a year. When people come to work here, they typically stay. We’ve had very little turnover at any levels of the business including marketing and sales.

“That’s because we create a good culture that people want to work in.”

Eyler makes sure that employees are outfitted with the latest equipment and that salary and benefits packages are competitive.

“If we take care of our people, people will take care of us,” he says. “That’s always been my motto.”

And the company has built-in continuing education opportunities. This not only helps employees personally but also gives them first-hand knowledge of how the company’s programs work.

“We have employees in various stages in different programs (using our study guides),” Eyler says. “We encourage that. We give them our product at cost. We want them to learn everything they can about all of our programs.”

Eyler and his team are constantly tinkering with the company’s culture, looking for ways to make the company an even more desirable place to work. That team comprises more than just top executives.

“We are constantly improving and changing areas that we think we can do much better in and be more efficient in,” Eyler says.

There is a fine irony in the fact that the man who has helped so many get or advance their educations never went to college himself.

“I’ve spent my entire life helping people get diplomas and degrees and certificates in education,” Eyler says. “I’ve probably been responsible for about 400,000 people getting their diplomas and degrees. I personally do not have a chance to finish.”

And as much as he would like to pick up a degree, he simply doesn’t have the time.

“I’m too busy building my business,” he says.

HOW TO REACH: The College Network, (317) 334-7337 or www.college-net.com