Monday, November 10, 2008

Customer Service in Financial Aid

A new book disproves that you get what you pay for. Tom Rebstock and his group of colleagues at TG (Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Program) have put the results of their important research on financial aid customer service into a very good FREE booklet Customer Service in Financial Aid: Strategies to Engage Students and Make a Difference. It is a booklet that all financial aid departments should read and conduct training around.

TG conducted 56 workshops in 12 states at 4 and 2-year colleges wisely including career colleges. The TG team also led workshops at the NASFAA annual conferences from 2004-2007. They were seeking out “the keys” to financial aid customer service. They wanted to see how financial aid offices were working with students and how they could improve their customer services TG collected over 100 “keys” which were then honed down to a list of 10 principles that are discussed in the bopoklet

Granted, most of the schools were in TG’s primary area of interest – Texas – but the study did include schools in Ohio and Florida. So some research purist might say there could be a bit of regional bias but I have found similar results all over the country, Canada and Europe. The 10 principles they established are also applicable in other areas of student assistance across a campus. They are:

1 – Provide accurate and complete information

2 – Know all policies and regulations – the whole process

3 – Listen, listen, listen

4 – Respond and act promptly

5 – Follow through and follow up

6 - Be accessible and flexible

7 – Exceed their expectations

8 – Project a positive, customer-oriented attitude

9 – Personalize the service

10 – Work as a team.

These are all good and important points that need to be stressed in financial aid. Financial aid is going to remain one of the most important points of student concern. As discussed in the Hierarchy of Student Decisions in the Power of Retention: More Customer Service in Higher Education, the second strongest factor in an attendance decision is Can I Afford It? If customer-oriented service in financial aid does not help answer that question while making the potential student feel good about how he or she were treated, your school has lost a new student.

Financial aid is also going to be the key to 9-13% of attrition in the future as the economy retracts taking student loans and aid with it. If FA does not continue excellent service with early financial aid re-packaging for continuing students, students will leave.

But as The Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation realized without personalized and considerate person-to-person customer service all the backroom efficiency in the world (or Texas) will not do the full trick.

What Tom Rebstock et al have left out from the book is the need for the entire campus to also realize what took me a while to learn. Financial aid officers have a very difficult and challenging job. Not only is the work tough and demanding, the clients and state and Federal regulations are too!

Students and families are not always great at completing financial aid forms on time or even accurately. They may not even know they are APPLYING for financial aid as much as believing it is a right of attendance. I go to school. I GET financial aid whether I am qualified or not. Whether I file on time or not. Whether I supply all the required forms or not, I am entitled to MY MONEY.

And where the hell is it? I filed my papers last week and need MY money for books today. Where is it? What did YOU do with MY money?

At one time, I thought that most financial aid people had been let go by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles for being even too indifferent or mean even for them. They seemed to snap at everyone, even college presidents trying to assist a student.

I was wrong. I was wrong. I was wrong!

Financial aid people are one of the most stressed, maligned and under-appreciated people on campus. They work very hard to help students and parents who can be very difficult, demanding and depressed clients. Not a good combination. These students and families often are embarrassed to have to, as they see it, beg for their money It is a humbling and anxiety-producing experience to realize how deep in debt one has to go just to go to school. This group of FA applicants frequently expresses its feelings through frustration anger and may take it out on the financial aid person who had no role in setting tuition and fees.

Or the clients see financial aid as a right of attendance and act overly challenging and taxing. Their belief is that financial aid is coming to them. They may also believe that they are due the total possible amount available so if they are denied or given less than they believe they should receive; it’s the FA person’s fault. Thus they think it is okay to treat the aid officer as a verbal bunch bag, an F-word drop zone and someone whose very character is open not to question but attack.

Certainly there are nice and calm clients. But they are not the ones who turn good, dedicated people into frazzled and wounded employees. Since there is no way to necessarily know if the next client is a nice person or an ogre, financial aid people build up a suit of armor against potential attacks. It’s no fun trying one’s best just to be sucker punched and left dazed. The best armor they find is indifference and depersonalizing encounters.

And we don’t help. Administrators tend to react to the stream of students who come into their offices to complain about the financial aid person who screwed up my money, won’t give me my money, lost my paperwork or lied to me about how much I would get. We get upset by the same attitudes and attacks from the students and turn around and blame FA too often since that is an easy target. Besides, it’s easier to blame them than argue with the student standing in front of you.

Wrong, wrong wrong!

And the rest of the campus…What does it do to help out? Has anyone reading this ever gone over to say thanks and I appreciate you folks and what you do in the Financial Aid Office, the place in which the final decisions to attend or not based on being able to afford college takes place? Has Admissions or Enrollment Management formally or even informally thanked the FA people for making them successful? Brought in some coffee and doughnuts, lunch? You would be amazed at how effective Capt. Kangaroo-ing helps morale and cooperation.

Okay, after reading this, get up off your ….. chair, walk over to the FA office and just tell them thanks for all they do. Doesn’t matter what you do. We all owe them thanks. That’ll also help them feel appreciated more so can let some of the armor they use toward you slide off so they can better apply TG’s 10 principles.

Oh, and when you finish at FA, do the same for colleagues in the bursar’s, registrar’s, and cashier’s offices as start. You can also stop by IT to thank them for you being able to read this. There are many more stops to make but this’ll be a start. Learn how easy it is to say thank you for all you do and how good it makes you feel.

And for those who don’t always do a great job, thank them for doing one anyhow. It just may start a change them into becoming a better customer service provider. If it doesn’t check out Good Academic Customer Service Principle 15. (BTW, the list of my principles in the Customer Service in Financial Aid book is the older one. Get the newest one by just asking when you click here.)

Do see if you can get a copy of Customer Service in Financial Aid: Strategies to Engage Students and Make a Difference by TG (Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation) It is an excellent work on improving customer service in financial aid.

Jack, I await your comments.


“We had hoped we’d improve our retention by 3% but with the help of Dr. Raisman, we increased it by 5%.” Rachel Albert, Provost, University of Maine-Farmington

“Neal led a retreat that initiated customer service and retention as a real focus for us and gave us a clear plan. Then he followed up with presentations and workshops that kicked us all into high gear. We recommend with no reservations; just success.” Susan Mesheau, Executive Director U First: Integrated Recruitment & Retention University of New Brunswick

“Thank you so much for the wonderful workshop at Lincoln Technical Institute. It served to re-center ideas in a great way. I perceived it to be a morale booster, breath of fresh air, and a burst of passion.” Shelly S, Lincoln Technical Institute

AcademicMAPS has been providing customer service, retention, enrollment 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 services. CALL OR EMAIL TODAY TO SEE HOW WE CAN HELP INCREASE YOUR SCHOOL'S RETENTION


Anonymous said...

You are kidding me. This seems to be another "blame the victim" post. People become hostile in customer service situations often because they have previously been treated poorly or have not been given all the information necessary.

And there are MANY incompetent people working in financial aid, one of the most critical areas any parent or student will deal with.

I am attempting to attend a Texas university which has persistently lost my financial aid paperwork. You did not address the difficulty and anxiety of providing very detailed financial records and information, like bank statements and IRS documents, and how it feels to interact with indifferent, incompetent staff who believe that they are "always right"... ESPECIALLY when they lose that same paperwork, which often has your social security and other material listed prominently.

Anonymous said...

I concur that when people are not competent or do not deliver good customer service they are worthy of anger and blame Sounds like you may have reason for being upset. If people lose your paperwork, you should be angry. Especially such personal information. I would be too.

My defense of financial aid folk is a general one without reference to any specific group of people at a specific location. In general they are very good people who are stressed out by exte3rnal forces. It may be that the people in your FA office are not as competent as they could be or the system there needs some very sincere review. No excuse for personal losing financial information.

What have you done to try to get some satisfaction? If I can help you, I will do so. email me at nealr@greatservicematters and I will do what I can to help you and get some changes made as needed.

katty said...

Delivering a positive customer service experience is the key to building customer loyalty, retention and achieving financial success.
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