Thursday, January 03, 2008

The DIY Movement in Customer Service Training

The DIY movement is making it into customer service. I have recently been receiving a large and increasing number of requests from colleges for information on how they could plan and conduct their own customer service workshops and training. So far today, during break time for many schools, I received six such requests.

This is both heartening and from a selfish point of view, discouraging on two counts. The heartening aspect is that after years of promoting customer service and retention as key issues, having a best selling book on the topic, sending out articles, writing my blog and talking at numerous conferences a year, it seems that people are getting the message. That is wonderful. It is also great that people feel they can turn to me for help and guidance.

The somewhat disheartening aspects are that

  1. it has taken so long to get some schools to realize that academic customer service is important;
  2. many have not yet gotten the message
  3. schools want to try and do it on their own rather than hire a wonderful, informative, helpful, very experienced consultant with a Boston accent who wrote the best selling book on customer service, has done most of the research and writing and makes sure all training sessions are fun, reasonably priced and worthwhile for the school.

Okay, I got that self-serving comment out of the way so now I can tell you what is important if you are going to try and do it on your own.

At Least 5 Things To Consider When Planning Customer Service Workshops

1 Determine your definition of customer service?
Just what are the behaviors you will be seeking to have your audience perform? Are they ones that will achieve the goals of the institution whatever they are? It is a set of behaviors, a group of continuing processes and actions that are customer service. Not a result as too many of the commercial books try to propose. You are not simply seeking to make a customer think about your college as a place to come to for an item or a single service or two. You need to develop a definition that recognizes that students “buy” the school everyday, every class. And what they are purchasing is not a simple object but a totally intangible concept we call education, skills needed for another even less concrete unknown called the future. They are buying not one class but an entire on-going experience that demands they invest not simply money but emotionally and affectively.

Any definition you use needs to be one that encompasses the entire community. Service is not just for staff to provide. Most schools think that “front line receptionists, clerks and the such need to be concerned with customer service. The reality is that this is a trap. If there is not real buy-in from the president on up, there will be a full breakdown in delivering service to students and the college community itself. So the definition and goals must be more universal than just for front line personnel.

2.Figure out how to overcome the resistance to customer service as an idea Academia has real problems with the idea of customer service. Faculty, administrators, and even some staff will believe that a college is different than a retail business and they are right. But they will then conclude that retail and business ideas have no place on a college campus. Academia is different than commercial enterprises. We don’t sell anything. Students aren’t customers. I am not a sales person. Admissions is important perhaps but trying to please students to keep them…Isn’t our job to separate the wheat from the chaff, real college material from those who don’t belong?

It is necessary to have an approach that helps your college see that academic customer service is not the same as what is found in a store. For example, they are correct that the customer is not always right at a college. If they were, why bother with tests and quizzes? Why would they even be attending the school if they were always right? They would not have a wrong collection of knowledge, actions, thoughts to be explored, corrected and replaced.

It can be pointed out that we are engaged in a business after all. You can use my analogy as quoted in University Business (March 2003)

"Colleges are starting to see higher education in business-like realities. They are realizing that revenue depends on selling the college (recruitment) to its customers (students and parents). Sales (enrollment) are made based on the college's brand (image), product (courses, programs, degrees), and creating a connection with the customer (customer service)."

You can also remind them that it takes revenues to make up a budget. The budget pays for salaries, benefits, raises, equipment, technology, marketing, fixed capital costs like offices and all other expenditures to keep the business…I mean college running. Among those who will argue that college is not a business and it is not there to make or worry about money, there probably aren’t too many people at the school that work for the pleasure of it alone. Paychecks count for something.

But the argument needs to be made carefully and through analogy if you are to keep from setting off a spark that will explode the entire training program you wish to provide. You might want to check out some of my blog entries for help here.

3. Move discussion from student as customer to student as something else. The idea of a customer is one that will just bring your audience back to the college is not a business problem. So shift the language. That also shifts the discussion. By using a different term for students, I like clients, you alter the traditional argument. As a college VP I worked with said too often, he who defines the terms wins the argument. So find a new term and definition for students and shift the dynamics from the old language and approach of student as passive receiver of information to something closer to what they really are now – people who wish to be involved in the process and even control it at times.

4. Understand the problem areas and Issues Issues It is a simple reality that you need to start somewhere. You may as well begin from knowledge of the customer service strengths and weaknesses at the campus. Find out what bugs students the most. What areas are least customer service-oriented. For example, when I do a workshop or training sessions for a school, I always want to come to the campus at least one day ahead. That way I can walk the campus(es), talk with students and members of the campus community and look for problems. I learn a great deal that way and use that information to focus the work.

It also makes it all more relevant. Most people on campus know the problem spots. They hear about it from students or have experienced it themselves. Few surprises? Except in many areas they have all become so used to that they do not see the problems any more. These surprises that we uncover during a mini or full campus service audit are usually from what I call the worn rugs phenomena.

You know when you look at someone else’s house such as when you are house hunting. You may see that the people who live there have worn paths into the rugs as they make the same trips every day. But when you mention that the rugs may need to be replaced, the homeowners do not see it. That is because they have worn then rugs down incrementally, day by day, trip by trip. The owners wore them down slowly, millimeter by millimeter so they did not see the problem develop.

In the same way, people get into habits of behavior they do not realize they have fallen into. It was not a big change so it was not noticed until perhaps someone else looked. Even co-workers have gotten use to it so they may just see that as “that’s who he is. Always been that way and no problems really.” Or it could be a policy that began in making something better but as it has been used over the years, or as its implementation shifted imperceptibly, it now hurts, not helps students. Or it is a procedure, a process or form that we all know so well that we expect everyone knows it. So we don’t even bother telling students about it or explaining it so it is really understood. Like add/drop procedure and forms at most schools. Or the school FAFSA code. Or where some out-of-the-way office is on campus. Or who now does what Dotty did after she retired. If we know, they should to. Right?

Or it could be buildings that once looked bright and welcoming but have been allowed to get dingy and cluttered over the years. A smudge on the wall here. A few too many posters there. A light out and replaced with lower wattage over back there. A door that is hard to open. Offices changed location but no signs let people know that. Bathrooms with graffiti, leaking faucets and broken stall doors. Trees whose limbs have grown huge and old that could fall onto benches right under them. Small shrubs that have grown into tall and thick bushes that bock signs and provide cover for someone who might wish to do another harm. Walkways that are cracked and so uneven that people trip. Or student lounge or study areas that have lost their chairs and tables and then ones still there are dirty and shabby.

These and much more are physical customer service issues we have found in our audits and workshops. So, you may want to look at all the service issues, human and objective correlative. Here’s a list from our brochure of what we look at when we do a campus customer service audit to give you some guidance.

We recommend you audit

Reception Areas



Financial Aid





Review these areas as well as every level of customer service such as:

wait time - how promptly people are recognized and served

acknowledgment of student presence and manner of the recognition given,

welcoming and comfort level generated,

how courteous your people are,

how questions are responded to,

requested information provided promptly and graciously,

accurate directions given,

general demeanor, and attitude toward customers,

availability of information at point of contact,

point of contact knowledge of college and/or where to get it if not available,

accuracy of information,

use of campus jargon or argot versus standard language,

language use, attitude, syntax, grammar, tone,

customer-first attitude,

time to completion required for successful interaction,

helpfulness and accuracy of written materials at points of contact,

location and availability of media,

processes used with customers,

orderliness of the interaction and area of interaction,

telephone protocols used by customer contacts to aid or detract from service to campus callers,
general telephone skills

Audits also look at the environment provided for students in these areas and offices from layout and space through lighting and clutter as they affect the customer's sense of reflected value and service from entry to the campus through moving through it and finally the exiting experience.

AcademicMAPS studies everything then provides realistic solutions to increase enrollment and retention.

The issue for you then becomes one of how to bring these service problems, human. policy, procedural and physical forward without ticking off too many people. You do not want the training to suffer through resistance due to feeling as if you picked on an area. Nor, maybe equally important, you certainly do not want to become the enemy because they just might decide to get you. You know how academic politics and infighting can get. As the old joke goes, why are academic battles so vicious and nasty?....Because there is so little to be won.

So you will need to determine a strategy through which you can bring out deficiencies without angering or hurting someone or just leaving some important examples and problems to the side so as not to get you or the program destroyed. I do not have great ways to do this since as a consultant I don’t have to worry as much about bothering someone. I will be able to go over the issues without causing as much danger since I do not know these people and I will be leaving by design. Moreover since there will be others who will see the issue and agree with me, they often help me make my point since I am an outsider and cannot be picking on people I do not know.

5. A Retreat is not Running Away One way you might think of offsetting some of this is to run part of the workshop as a retreat to identify customer service issues on campus. After you define customer service in academia, set up the paradigm for discussion of students and service on campus, gotten some people to understand the value of engaging in customer service you may want to consider running an early session of the training as a customer service retreat during which everyone will get involved in determining what steps and actions can be taken to improve retention on campus.

There are many ways to facilitate a retreat of course. But, the retreat must start with some basic information, definitions and identification of issues and problems on campus. When Susan Mesheau, Executive Director of U First: Integrated Recruitment and Retention at the University of New Brunswick, Canada wanted to introduce greater focus on customer service and retention of students, she had me come and facilitate a retreat with faculty and administrators. Susan wisely realized she had to get buy-in and direction from principal campus colleagues to achieve her retention and service goals. And what better way for her campus than having the future implementers involved up front. She understood her campus and wanted to get them to own part of the process. It was a long and at times tough day, especially when we almost lost support over some of the arguments mentioned earlier but I was able to keep the focus and forward motion. The results were impressive and shared. Two factors that should help UNB move forward.

I hope some of these ideas and information might help do-it-yourselfers plan and then carry forward their objectives and training sessions. These are not all the considerations and issues of course but I believe they are a start. It is not easy to present and convert academics to customer service in higher education. But then, that difficulty has provided me a base for my services and success. I hope you will have similar experiences.

Oh yes, do a lot of reading. There really isn’t much out ther5e on customer service in higher education so I do not feel self-serving in recommending my best selling books Embrace the Oxymoron: Customer Service in Higher Education and/or What Does Customer Service Have to Do With Enrollment? Frequently Asked Questions for Higher Education Administrators. But you can also obtain a solid amount of information without spending anything by reading them over 80 entries in this blog

Feel free to call me 413.219.6939 or email at . If I can help you overt the phone or email, it will be my pleasure. If you want to discuss my doing a workshop, retreat, audit or whatever you need, I will be very happy to discuss that.

AcademicMAPS has been providing customer service, retention and research solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them since 1999. Clients range from small rural schools to major urban universities and corporations. Its services range from campus customer service audits; workshops, training, presentations, institutional studies and surveys to research on customer service and retention. AcademicMAPS prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s services. 413.219.6939

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