A college president called me about having a workshop at his school. They are looking at a potential large enrollment drop following the end of the first semester. He said he wanted me to only focus on the positive aspects of the school’s customer service. “I always believe in focusing on the good. What we do well. Use that as a basis to build.”
“Ahhh” I replied. “There is part of your problem right there. You need to focus on the negatives. On what students are complaining about. We need to set up a system that encourages students to complain.”
He was aghast. “You want us to get our students to complain? But that will just encourage them to be unhappy and focus on the negatives. Besides, I don’t need more problems. I want fewer of them.”
“Exactly the reason to elicit as many complaints as you can.” I replied. “You cannot fix a problem until you know about it. If you aren’t aware of issues, they sit there, fester, grow and then explode in attrition rates. You need to get as many complaints as you can get. Then check into them.”
“To see if they are valid before we go ahead and fix the issue” the president asserted quite presidentially. “No sense putting time and money into an issue if it’s not a real problem. I mean just because a student says something is so doesn’t make it so”
“NO.” I empathetically responded. “If a student thinks it is a problem, it is. If it is only a problem for that student, it is still a problem even if only for that student. Keep in mind that if that student is unhappy, has a complaint. He or she may well get to the point of saying goodbye. That’s how attrition rates get up there. Individual students decide to leave.”
“But if I send a lot of time on one student, I’m not sure that’s an efficient use of resources. Shouldn’t we do a survey or something and see how a larger group of students feel about things. What if that student is wrong and a change makes others unhappy?”
“Okay, first off, if one student complains about something, it is likely that others feel the same way. They just haven’t said anything. And at the very least, they have heard of the problem and will give it credence since it came from a fellow student. Complaints are Malthusian after all. The complainer tells another and another and the “anothers” tell yet others and so on. So they need to be dealt with.” Then I added “But first you need to develop a way to flush out the complaints”
“I see. We have a student satisfaction survey we’ve used before. Our VP of Students developed it with her staff. We generally do well on it so maybe there just aren’t that many issues out there.”
“Well, maybe there aren’t. Surveys can be used as a starting point but they need to be developed by someone who does not have a vested interest in the answers. Your student services group may be the best in the country but I hope you can see that they could have a vested interest in the results. They could have, subconsciously of course, devised items, topics and issues that would lead to certain types of responses. You need someone who is detached from the results. Who is interested only in getting valid results. I can make some recommendations of good people if you like.” Didn’t want him to think I was saying this simply to try and get some more work.
We discussed some consultants and then went on to some other methods of gathering complaints such as comment cards like the Applegrams at Lansing (MI) Community College, or an email address set up just for complaints, or even better, a blog to discuss issues students have. I mentioned that in any of these or other methods, they should not be anonymous if at all possible.
“But will students give their names?” he questioned.
“Some will, some won’t but if you can get a name, it is always better. First you set up a community. Second, names provide a level of integrity to the issue. And third, you have someone to get back to with a solution or a description of the review and resolution of the issue.” I let the pause of silence by note taking go by and continued.
“You’ll want to always acknowledge the complaint. Best to do so in a way that can let others know of it so they can join into the discussion. But also to let them know you are taking the issues seriously.” I added.
“But that will broadcast any problems. That’ll tell everyone we have issues. Won’t that just multiply the problems and hurt our image.”
“Only if you don’t respond to and don’t resolve the problems. If the school accepts it’s not yet perfect and let’s students know what they already know, you will get honesty points. Then when you resolve the complaint and publicly let everyone know you did and what you did, that makes the school a hero.” His “ahh” let me know to go on.
“The research is clear that when a business, in this case a school owns up to an issue and solves it to the customer’s benefit, you turn a complainer into a supporter. Maybe even an advocate. Let the issue stay out there and fester and you could create a group of insurgents dedicated to hurting the school by exploding their complaints to everyone they can reach.”
For further discussion of the benefits of complaints, contact me or just wait for more postings. If you know of any other complaint gathering ideas or stories of how handling a complaint turned a potential insurgent into an advocate, let us all hear.