How to find a good ESL agent: Tips from the trenches

One question that comes up time and time again is, “How do you find a good agent?” I think that part of the answer is to avoid wasting your time with unproductive potential agents. Sound harsh? It’s not, really. If you’ve ever been in the classroom, chances are that you’ve had a student who wants to monopolize your time in ways that don’t contribute to the overall lesson or are just plain distracting or even bothersome.

As teachers, we learn how to handle students with all kinds of personalities and motives of their own. We learn to set boundaries with them while keeping the lesson focused and hopefully avoid too much disruption in the classroom. We call that good class management. We try to achieve this without embarrassing the student, if possible, while making it clear that as the teacher, we’re the one in control of the class and that’s the way it should be. In fact, if we don’t do that as teachers, we may lose others respect and not be taken as seriously.

The same idea applies to business relationships, particularly when it comes to others outside your school who want to work with you or represent you. The larger your program grows, the more people you will have knocking on your door wanting to work with you. Annoying though it may be, this is a good sign. It means you are being noticed and your image is one of success.

One of the ways that businesses get more business is to let the world know who their partners are. If an educational agent or tour operator can say they are working with ABC Language School and that school is well known in the community, either locally or internationally, then it lends them credibility and prestige.

That’s precisely why you want to take your time establishing new business relationships. It just may be that you don’t want your name associated with that business.

One tactic that I learned while managing a university ESL program was to ask prospective new “business partners” or agents for a package in writing. Sometimes if the person was in the same city as me, either living here or just passing through, they would insist on a personal meeting first. I would gently but firmly state, in every case, that it was our policy to consider written proposal first, before a meeting. The reality was that the first few times I said that, I was fibbing. We didn’t actually have such a policy. Having said that, we quickly created an internal policy that stated we had to receive all proposals in writing before a telephone or an in-person meeting.

Once everyone in the office knew the policy, we all stuck by it, asking frontline staff to help prevent such calls coming through to us. One polite way for a frontline staff member to do this is to say, “If you send the written proposal to my attention, I promise that will hand-deliver it to our manager to ensure she receives it.” Anyone who took the time to send a proposal – even a one-page, detailed letter – would gain our attention, at least long enough for us to review the proposal.

If they couldn’t deliver, we would gently but firmly apologize and move on. I was able to stop wasting time on agents and others who may or may not have had good intentions.

That was the first step. From there, we would ask for references and examples of previous work done. If this caused our prospective business partner distress or caused them to become uncomfortable, we eliminated them from our list of possibilities.

Sometimes, the prospect would say, “Oh, well… our partners are located in a foreign country and no one here speaks the language.” We would always reply that we were prepared to hire professional, accredited translators to check references. Very rarely did we ever hire a translator to check anyone’s references.

The steps we followed were:

  • Insist on a written proposal first.
  • If you receive a form letter or pre-made package, request more details on how exactly they would propose that you work together. Get this information in writing.
  • Insist on references. If they can’t or won’t give these to you, the process ends there.
  • Arrange a phone or in-person interview during which they do most of the talking. Ask about the history of the business, the person’s credentials, and examples of experiences they have had working with other language schools.
    • Close the meeting saying that you will consider their proposal and you will get back to them within a fixed amount of time (usually not more than one week, unless you’re about to leave on a trip). Never agree to anything on the spot.

Part of the process involved abiding by our policies and the next step was to gauge the reaction of our prospective partners at certain points along the way. It became like a behavioral interview.  If the other party wanted to bend our rules from the very beginning, insisted on doing things their way instead of ours or if they became frustrated, aggressive or unwilling to cooperate with us at any time, we knew we didn’t want to work with them.

In the end, there can be any number of reasons why you would choose not to pursue a business relationship, including (but not limited to):

  • The relationship may not be mutually beneficial.
  • What the prospective agent wants to provide for you is not something you need at the moment (i.e. not a “good fit” from a business point of view.)
  • The timing of the proposal is off. This can happen if you are undergoing changes in your organization. You can always ask the other party to check back with you again in six months.
  • Your gut tells you that working with the other party would be a bad decision.

Although we sent some policies and procedures in place for dealing with prospective new business partners, the bottom line was for us to feel comfortable with the new person. You want your business partners to respect how you run your organization, be willing to provide you with what you need and be as interested in your success as you are.

Remember the 80/20 rule. 80% of your business will come from 20% of your clients. You want to ensure you have the time and energy to cultivate strong relationships with your top 20%. Part of being able to do this is to avoid those who have big ideas and good intentions, with no way of ever realizing their goals or yours. Be polite, be considerate and be firm.

© Sarah Elaine Eaton

Related posts:

Tips for finding ESL educational agents

Tips for success at educational trade fairs

Finding an ESL agent – A open discussion (with link to webinar recording and slides)


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

One Response to How to find a good ESL agent: Tips from the trenches

  1. Hello, I am Latha Prakash and I am an ESL Instructor. I am most impressed by the info provided by the author. Great work!!!

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