Friday, July 25, 2008

Customer Service Book; The Power of Retention overview

Customer service is an overlooked aspect in a school’s success. Unfortunately, too many schools have a problem accepting that. They give into notions that customer service is some business concept that has no or little relevance to a college. People in colleges and universities, especially faculty, have a sense that when anyone discusses customer service in academia it is just a disguised call to pander to students, to lower standards, give the students high grades for little work to make and keep them happy. That is not customer service. That is cheating the client.

Colleges and universities are businesses at their core. Granted, unique and idiosyncratic businesses, but service providers all the same. Each and every one of them has its own culture, mores, folkways, traditions, codes—both written and unwritten—and a language called academicese that generate its uniqueness. Yet, common to everyone is a business model including budgets, salaries, benefits, personnel, administrations, strategic plans, marketing, customer acquisition, and so on, which make institutes of higher education businesses. And colleges, universities and career colleges all have clients/customers called students and employees that demand services.

Higher education and its more than 4000 individual colleges, universities and career colleges are distinctive from other business models and so customer service needs to recognize that. This is true whether or not the school is a not-for-profit, a private university or a publicly supported two or four-year college. Though some might think that a proprietary school would be significantly different from a not-for-profit, sometimes the only thing separating their basic operational models is that a not-for-profit college calls extra money at the end of the year a fund balance or surplus while the career college calls it profit. They all must deliver a concept called education to customers called students through product parts called courses and majors that are supposed to lead to a finished product that is certified at graduation that is supposed to lead to a job or career. If they don’t, they lose their market and the revenue needed to operate.

They are significantly different than other businesses since the final product they create (learning and individual intellectual, professional or technological growth) are both invisible and intangible. Cannot hold an education. Nor smell it. Taste it. Feel it. See it. At best, a graduate and an employer or graduate school may intuit it. Or they must accept the transcript as some evidence that a course of study has been completed at an indicated level of success. Rather unlike the product of a manufacturer, the tangible stock of a store, its proucts or even the services provided by say a Disneyland. For the education sector, the approaches of the world of retail, commerce, hospitality and corporations do not always work. At best, they need to be adapted to recognize that the services in a school are not exactly equal to selling widgets or serving a meal. Platitudes will not work either. And unlike most every other business or professional service, colleges have to provide services every single day, every single class. Students make a buying decision prior to every class they take. “Should I go to class today? Do I want to go to math today? Do I wish to buy Prof. X today?”

It’s not like going into a store and purchasing a retail item, taking it to the cashier, getting a smile, a receipt and “have a nice day.” A retail service experience is a one time moment focused on a particular purchase that lasts maybe five to ten minutes depending on the length of the line. It is repeated only when the customer needs or decides to buy another shirt for example.

In higher education, the experience is constant, two to six year process in which every day, every class, every encounter with the school from parking to walking to taking classes and meeting with employees becomes a buying or return opportunity for a college’s customer.

As a result, the concepts of business, corporations and even hospitality companies do not always apply to higher education. What will work is recognition of concepts such as Learn and Earn and using it to assure that students get the returns on investment they seek. Moreover, the employees at a store for example are rather less independent than employees at a college. In a store or restaurant for example, the management can tell employees “this is the way we will address customers on the floor. You will say the following when encountering a customer….” Just try that with a faculty member for instance and you will likely not forget the response. Faculty and other university personnel see the campus as different, detached from business and commercial concerns. If one wants to engage them in a discussion or processes of customer retention through appropriate service that engagement must recognize their needs, attitude and general disdain for a commercial concept such as customer service.

Keep in mind that faculty are not like waiters at a restaurant. Waiters or waitresses just serve what the customer orders and what was prepared for them to bring out of the kitchen. In most every college or university, faculty members are the restaurant owner, executive chefs, maitre de, and floor manager of the eatery called “my class and section.” They own it, staff it and make decisions about it. In their restaurant they are, speaking quite metaphorically, “the soup Nazis” who decide who will get soup, who will be ejected and who will fail their examinations. Administrators might be the landlords but they cannot dictate the menu, serving style or what goes into each course of the meal called an education.

Administrators, trustees and schools must also keep in mind what restaurants must always be concerned with. The core service is itself the final product – the food. A conscientious and considerate waiter can never make up for bad food. But an attentive and pleasant waiter can make good food taste even better and keep customers loyal.

In a school, the product is the education itself. A good education with good customer service will make for greater retention, happier students, and satisfied graduates who will support the school by becoming advocates for it. Perhaps even donating alumni.

And that’s what this book is about. How schools can improve their services to their core clients – students and the college community. The methods are not very difficult to implement, nor are they counter-intuitive corporate concepts. They are ones learned from many years of research on college campuses; studying how we act and interact. The material and reporting also derives from understanding and listening to our student clients and adapting applicable and successful customer service and methods from sources external to academia such as sociology, neuron and cognitive studies, behavioral psychology and what Paco Underhill dubbed the science of shopping in his important book Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (1999) to our unique world of academia. They have been worked out on many campuses all over the country and in Europe where I have had the privilege to consult, speak, teach and train. They are also quite practical, inexpensive and acceptable to the college community. Generally the processes and techniques costs much less than a student or two and repay the school in many more retained students.

For instance, the book will discuss providing quality learning, in an appropriate environment that speaks to actual students and offers them opportunities to enjoy themselves and their learning. The book will discuss methods and techniques to make students want to learn more and wish stay at the school. For example, the discussion will focus on helping the students keep focus on their goals in life and career and how the school will help them get to them.

How to do it? Through concepts such as Learn and Earn; not Churn and Burn. Ideas that focus on retention rather than admissions as a core element of an institution’s success. That can help improve your customer service focus.

Understanding what customer service is for an academic environment and then implementing it at your school. Using the principles of Good Academic customer service. For instance, Principle 1 in my list of Fifteen Principles of Good Customer Service for Colleges is guaranteed to help a school increase its population.

Every student wants to attend Cheers University and every employee wants to work there
“…where everybody knows your name and they’re awfully glad you came…”

Sounds easy. And it can be with some simple customer service training that focuses on the business we are in—schools and colleges.

One quick thought to keep in mind when the phrase customer is used in this book. It is core to the discussion that it is realized that students are not exactly customers, they are more like clients. A client hires someone to study the situation, indicate what is wrong, and then offer the tools to fix what is needed to succeed. Like clients, students come to the experts (school) to find out what they must do to improve and grow so their futures will be successful. Schools need to understand their student clients, understand what they really need and want, then provide them the academic and social services to strengthen and grow. And though some skeptics might believe it is easy grades with little work that students want, it really is not.

What I have found in my studies of and for schools is that most students want three things. And it all has to do with returns on investment (ROI), particularly three ROI’s that relate to the customer in the academic environment. They want to feel an f-roi, a solid e-roi, a full sense of an a-roi. And the book will help you understand and increase your and your students’ ROI.

Though this book focuses primarily on students, most everything said for them can be applied to most everyone else in our campus community – even ourselves. We are all customers of one another after all.

The Power of Retention: More Customer Service for Higher Education by Dr. Neal Raisman will be available soon through The Administrator's Bookshelf. The Bookshelf will also be presenting a series of webinars by Dr. Raisman along with other experts on important and valuable subjects such as enrollment, marketing 2.0 and its technology, website upgrading, coaching for success, what we can learn from for-profits, fitness for desk jockeys, faith-based issues, customer service, retention, admissions and other administrative issues. For more on these webinars, click here.

We are quickly filling up our dates for school opening convocations and workshops in August and September as well as customer service week (Oct 6-10). We would like to be able to help you too so please contact us ASAP for a date.

AcademicMAPS has been providing customer service, retention and research training and 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 413.219.6939

1 comment:

katty said...

Customer service is going to be the biggest thing happening to the business world. Research has shown that the impact of a good customer service experience can boost customer retention and better word-of-mouth. We should never underestimate the power of customer service!
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