Secret (Education) Agents' Cover Blown!

Courtesy of Robert Canfield, Dribble

Spying in the Education Industry: Room for Improvement?

Maybe some company staff have more time on their hands because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its decidedly adverse impact on the economy, including the education industry. Or maybe they simply don’t have enough to do. Whatever the reason, I’ve seen an increase in the number of spies posing as students trying to collect information. The problem is they’re not very good at their assigned task. No need to name names here. We know who they are and they know that we know. Some are people who should know better but, alas, they embrace the notion that the end justifies the means, the end presumably being success defined as more revenue and greater market share.

For example, one young woman said she was an 11th grader. (You can fool Westerners, who tend to underestimate ages here but not Vietnamese or foreigners who have lived in Viet Nam for over a decade.) It was easy to find out by looking at her Facebook account(s), photos and all, who her employer was. Duh.

In another case, a young woman mentioned the word “commission” in her conversation, a dead giveaway. (Maybe they should but the reality is that real students and parents don’t mention this in a conversation with education agents.) Many spies tend to use words that only someone in the industry would use.

Some are excessively eager to learn about our business, including contracts and service fees. Novice spies tend to ask a lot of questions at the same time while students will ask them one at a time. I don’t know. Maybe they’re nervous and don’t want to forget their lines. It’s not like they can bring a script or write it on their hands. Some will forget the information they made up and get caught in their web of deception. For the vast majority, it’s amateur hour.

In another case, a spy from a well-known company called a few times pretending to have a brother looking for a university in Country A. She fabricated information about his “health condition.” Maybe she really had a case like that and wanted to receive free advice. (While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it can be annoying and a waste of time.) Someone else called her number pretending to be a student and asked whether she was an agent. The woman said “yes” and promptly invited that person to her office for a consultation. A quick search for the address confirmed that it was indeed Company B. Duh revisited. Busted!

Since you’ve read this far, indulge me while I share one more example. One of our advisers received a call on our landline, the preferred means of communication. It was an inquiry for a Master’s marketing program. The “client” claimed to be born in 1993 and supposedly had three (3) years of professional experience in that field. At this point, the inquiry seemed real. Either that or the spy was well-prepared.

Things went downhill from there. The adviser asked which subfield the potential “client” was most interested in. She didn’t know how to answer the question. When our adviser offered an example, e.g., digital marketing, she took it like a drowning person grabbing a lifesaver. Like so many others, she made the mistake of asking too many questions at once in the spirit of time is money, I guess.

Memo to competitors: Please send your staff to “educational consulting company spy school” (ECCSS) so they can learn how to misrepresent themselves (and you) properly, stay cool in a high-pressure situation, and not embarrass themselves and you by revealing their/your identity. (Maybe a new business idea for some unscrupulous individual who believes that success without integrity… is still success rather than failure?) It’s not a job for everyone. I hope they are more professional and competent in their work than they are at spying but I have my doubts.

On a serious note, company directors and CEOs, some of who have studied abroad themselves, including at highly selective institutions in the US, why not consider doing good and doing well by following a code of business ethics and requiring your employees to do the same? While tigers cannot change their stripes, you can.

For the copycats among you, (re)read this February 2014 article entitled “Why copycats are the best thing to happen to your company” by Brian Wong. He puts a positive spin on this trend – not unique to Vietnam – by noting that “what is a copycat business other than evidence that you’ve created a solution that taps into and services a real need?”

He also reminds trailblazers about “the importance of concentrating on the road ahead, not who’s lurking in your rearview mirror. Copycats have no visibility into the inner workings of your company or what you have in store. No matter what, you’ll be ahead of the curve because they can only replicate what you show them.” (As quoted in Walking the walk – Ethical agency-based recruitment, 12-14).

Shalom (שלום), MAA