Monday, November 26, 2007

Strengthening the Arms. Legs and Organs of the Collegiate Body

Orwell’s proposition ten in Animal Farm with Snowball’s amendment, “All animals are created equal – but some are more equal than others” is alive and well today. Probably right at your campus!

As a customer service consultant, I have found the following to be rules of behavior at most every college and university.

The people who do the most primary customer service contact work
  • get the least amount of training at the school
  • get the lowest pay although great responsibility
  • need the most resources to do their work often get the fewest resources
  • as well as the least adequate, often oldest equipment.
  • are key to the institution’s success get the least recognition for their work,
  • are the ones who also receive the smallest amount of concern for their happiness.

They also have a primary responsibility for customer service, enrollment and retention. They are often the ones who have first contact with students as well as the most recurring interactions outside of the classroom. They are also the people who serve everyone else at the institution and therefore are among the most important people at the school.

We are talking about the staff. The people who come to the college every day, greet and meet students, take care of their primary needs from registration and billing to eating and sleeping. The people who solve or cause student happiness and/or distress. The people who can make or break an institution’s enrollment and retention numbers. The people whose love or hate of their jobs will make your job a delight or living hell.

Staff at colleges are in a arduous role. They are among the hardest working people at the college and, except for adjunct faculty, the lowest paid. Faculty have numerous rights, privileges and perks that should make them feel valued, but too often make too many them act imperious to the staff. Faculty and some administrators can see the college and the staff as if they were there for them. Since so many administrators come from the faculty, they too often have not learned how to work well with staff.

And yet, the staff are most often overlooked or simply taken for granted at colleges and universities. Granted, it may be true that the faculty are “the heart of the college” as I have been told many times. But without the arms, legs and vital organs of the staff, the heart is a dead, lifeless piece of offal within the body of the school.

Overworked, underpaid and under-recognized staff have always been those who do the work to make others’ lives easier. The are the front line service providers to students as well. They are also the ones who keep the institution moving. Try a couple days without them and see what happens. Not a pretty sight. They end up doing the same essential work day after day for which they gain little status or real recognition. That can easily become tedious and unrewarding.

A depressed staff leads inevitably to weak, apathetic, even poor customer service. Yet, most colleges do little to either formally or informally recognize and show staff members that they are valued as individuals and professionals. Certainly some colleges have a program to “recognize” a staff member or two for contributions over many years. Maybe a special parking space for a week or a plaque at pre-graduation ceremonies. but these do not address the day-to-day feelings of inequality in recognition, perks and pay that lead to staff malaise.

Customer service audits I have done for colleges found that a great many customer service issues have their have roots in staff malaise. People who feel unappreciated, over worked and on the periphery of an organization do not feel a part of it. It has been found that staff do feel frustrated, unrecognized and discouraged that their hard work goes unacknowledged while others who they feel do far less, claim the glory and recognition.

Colleges need to establish a partner relationship with staff, their significant internal customers. One of the critical aspects of establishing a partnership relationship is including everyone on the team in the flow of information. In academia this is extremely important since the coin of the realm is information. Generally, staff are not included in the information flow and are thus left outside of the partnership. They are not seen in their singularly important role with students. In most every case, staff members who answer telephones, greet people at desks, man the registration and bursars windows, etc. are the real point of contact between student and college. Yet, they are so often the last to know about changes in college policies, curricula, and other information that affects their interactions with students.

Okay, how to get staff in the loop. Start with involving them on college committees – and not as secretaries. Staff often know the college better than anyone else. Their work touches every aspect, every form, and every policy, just about everything at the college. They have a massive amount of real information and advice to bring to the table. For example, at one college, it was taking so long to register a student that many were simply walking out the door. When I called higher level administrators together, they suggested they would study it and get back. In other words, they did not have an answer.

So I assembled a group of staff people who worked in the enrollment/registration process. Within an hour we had identified poorly written and redundant forms and activities, forms and instructions, unnecessary information being requested, poor staff assignment practices that slowed things down and conflicting rules and directives. We had also decided what we needed to keep, what could go and rewrote directions. The time and frustration of the registration process was cut by 34% starting the next day. Staff began to feel as if they really were a part of the college with something to contribute. Customer service also improved overnight.

Simple lesson. Staff are people with extreme value and ability.

They need to be recognized for what they do – and do well.

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