In separating retail customer service from academic customer service one need only look at point of sale versus points of sale concepts. Yes, point of SALE. In higher education. Yes, we are definitely involved in selling our schools, our images and our seats to students – our customers. That’s what we do. We sell the school to students to bring them and the money they and society spend into the school. That’s how we pay bills and salaries, buy equipment, benefits, heating, cooling, lights and so on. If it makes you feel better to call sales recruitment or enrollment management, do so but the euphemism does not hide the reality. We sell our image, products, services and benefits to students and their families but our point of sale is very different and that helps distinguish academic customer service from retail.
Point of Sale and Customer Service
First let’s roughly divide retail into two categories. Hard/tangible goods sales and soft/consumable goods sales which can include some services. Sales not goods exclusively. We will focus on the processes of providing customer service in the sales process of the goods but not the goods themselves. Thus the definitions are not as fixed as they might be in a strictly economics presentation of hard versus soft goods but not all that different. Hard or tangible good sales include anything that provides the buyer with something hard that is meant to last and be serviceable for a period of time. This can be anything for example from a refrigerator or car to a shirt or underwear (though some would even say these last two are soft goods too). These are tangible and even touchable. Soft goods are ones that wear out or are consumed. These includes cosmetics, food, paper, and I am including softer things such as services performed in the hotel and hospitality (H+H) industry. Some might argue that H+H is really part of the service industry since they provide experiences but the customer service here is very much like that in other soft goods sales. They sell a product during a set period of time that will indeed wear out and is meant to do so.
Colleges and universities are intangible professional product/service providers. We sell a set of component products we call classes, majors, and degrees and the administrative, educational and training services to make them happen. Our final product is an intangible thing we call and education with a durable but not really tangible branded degree and a definitely soft something we call learning that needs to be enhanced over life.
Higher education is different than other professional product/service providers like doctors or dentists though we do share some similarities in aspects of customer service. Doctors and dentists treat a known identifiable and tangible need that has a set outcome such as a treatment, a prescription, a cure or even death. It is also a relationship of client to provider that can change and occurs in a series of encounters most normally with periods of time between each encounter.
Colleges treat an unknown and certainly intangible need we call knowledge and skill and the outcome is not one that can be changed after graduation. Once a graduate always a graduate. One can change doctors after a series of treatments and a cure but not is the same for a graduate of a school. A dentist for example can clean teeth every six months or replace a replaced crown or a patient can get another dentist after the work is completed while a degree at graduation is forever. Once branded with graduation one is a graduate of that school always.
Retail Point of Sale – Hard/Tangible Goods
Retail whether of hard or soft goods is al about the point of sale. The sale must be completed during the period of opportunity or the sale is lost since the period is fixed and finite. If a person comes to a store for a blue shirt if the sale is not made while he or she is in the store, there is no sale at all. The point of sale is therefore fixed and limited to the time in the store. Thus customer service in the retail world is also fixed and limited. Service begins when the customer enters the store and ends when he or she leaves. And it is all focused on the sale itself. Service is to get the customer to buy something.
The usual scenario is the customer enters a store, passes through the decompression zone where he or she might be greeted by an official greeter such as was done well by Wal-Mart years ago. (They have since replaced the official smiling grandma and grandpa greeters with bored apathetic floor workers decreasing their initial customer service interactions.) The customer then goes onto the sales floor seeking the product he or she came to the store seeking. The physical appearance and ease of shopping is a part of customer service. The sales floor is set up in a way to try to maximize sales in a well thought out customer service point of sale store such as a Nordstroms, Whole Foods and many other smart sellers who realize that making their goods look appetizing and desirable increase sales.
The customer finds the shirt he is looking for often with no assistance from an employee. At best, the employee is stationed behind a sales desk with a register. If the customer approaches to ask the location of shirts, the employee does engage in some very low level service. “Hello, may I help you? Men’s shirts. They are over there” perhaps smiling and pointing. Perhaps the service increases a bit when the employee says “come with me” and guides the customer to the shirts.
“What size? Color? Long or short sleeve? Ahh, here we are? May I ring that up?’ Back to the sales desk. That’ll be $xx. Cash or charge? Thank you very much. Thanks for shopping…….Come again” with a smile. This is a level of service often related to a commission sale which can often lead to greater service as well as a suggestion of a tie or pants to go with the shirt. The increased service can thus lead to an increase sale size which can benefit the salesperson in a commission-based environment especially in big ticket items sales such as a car.
On the lower side of service the customer finds the shirt himself. Takes it to the sales desk. Hands it to a bored cashier who asks “cash or charge?” Rings it up. “Thank you. Have a good day. Come again.”
In either scenario as soon as the bag with the shirt is handed over to the customer, the sale ends and so does customer service in most stores. In a high end store such as Tiffany’s a guard greets and checks you out as you enter and leave. Always a wonderful touchy feely moment. Service over.
Retail Point of Sale – Soft/Consumable Goods/Services
There are of course less intensive soft sales which follow the retail pattern discussed above but in an intensive soft sale such as food at a restaurant in which product and service combine there are a few more points of sale and points of sale customer service (PSCS).
PSCS One- The sale starts with parking and entering the establishment as it did with the hard product sale but this is quickly followed with the first PSCS in the form of a formal greeting. There is the greeting as with all sales by a maître d’ or seater who welcomes you and asks something. This is true for all food sales and they range from “Good evening, Welcome to…. How many in your party/your reservation is under….” to “You by yourself? Two?” to “How may I take your order?” The customers are led to a seat where they are told “the waiter will be with you soon.”
PSCS Two Initial Point of Sale – The waiter comes to the table, provides menus and “sells” drinks and appetizers. “Hi my name is Bart. I’ll be your waiter tonight. Can I get anyone a drink? Okay. An appetizer to start you off.” The service is more personal since part of the sale is for Bart to increase the tab while increasing his tip. Since there is a direct connection between the customer’s perception of his service and the pay-off for him, he will, or at least should be more attentive to customer service. So he starts with the Give a Name technique though he does not try to get the customer’s name just a larger tab with drinks and appetizers knowing that the total sale will be the basis for his percentage tip.
PSCS Three Follow-up and Point of Sale – This is when the waiter moves the customer to the entrée for the meal. He will take the order often reassuring the customer that he or she has made a good choice so as not to raise any cognitive dissonance issues in the choice-making process. The re-assuring at this point of sale is an important part in developing a relationship for the tip.
Point of Sale Two and PSCS Four – The soft product, the food, is delivered and eaten. The customer will now formulate his or her definition of the success of the sales process with determining the value of the food itself. The food is the actual product with the waiter’s efforts as part of the customer service essential to secondary valuation of the experience. If the food is not up to expectations, the entire sale will founder. The waiter’s services will depend on the product itself finally. There is no way to fully separate the product fully from the service in a restaurant situation just as they valuing of the food experience will depend on the service and expectations of the product and service as discussed in the section of The Power of Retention on the famous for infamous service but excellent food Durgin Park in Boston.
Point of Sale Three and PSCS Five – The entrée dishes are removed and deserts are sold. If the product and service experiences have been good to this point, the possibility of upselling to desert is better than if either the service or product have been weak to this point. Weak service and the customers will want to leave sooner than if service has been good. Weak product and there is no probability of extending the sale to include desert and increase the tab as well as tip.
PCSC Six- The bill is presented either after or without desert. There may be another minor upsale attempt with “coffee anyone?” but that is normally a signal that the bill is about to be brought. In fact, coffee may be the last thinking the waiter who knows that another dollar or two will not increase the final tip much cares about. The sale is concluded and it is really “cash or credit” to get to the tip time. “Thank you for coming and have a nice day/evening” and the sale is fully concluded with the receipt of the payment, the tip and the customers leaving. Sure the restaurant would like good word of mouth and that is also the result of the service and especially the product but there is not a real expectation that the customer will return for the next meal of the day or even the next day. There will be time between the sales and purchases.
A company that is often pointed to as an exemplar of customer service is Disney. Their soft product sale approach is even easier than in the restaurant and is not really applicable to the academic sale scenarios, academic PSCS that follows. In fact, Disney has a fairly easy customer service to provide. They have a fairly captive audience that has prepaid to use the facilities or they cannot get into the park. Pre-payment helps keep customers in the park even with horrendously long waits for rides. Not only do they not have to worry that one of their lead employees wearing a character costume will not say something that will harm sales because Sleeping Beauty, Goofy, Mickey etc are not allowed to talk, just perhaps hug . And Disney does not have to worry that a character actor will not smile since their smiles are painted on. In the stores, the scenario is the same as above for hard goods with the restaurants like the soft goods. The hotels are a bit different but somewhat similar to food PSCS since they are often pore-paid so customer are less likely to leave and leave their money behind as well though tips are important.
Disney compared to academic customer service and PSCS academic service is not comparable. Disney is easier. Imagine telling a faculty member he had to smile all the time never mind be nice to students and their parents and be out on the campus saying hello to everyone or get fired. Don’t see it happening.
Academic Customer Service and Points of Sale
Let’s make this easier and simply accept that admissions is the initial point of sale with stitch-in as part of the sales process getting the student into the classroom on the first day of school. The points of sale of concern here follow from these and include most every class, process and interaction of student and college. The sale is not one to make more money except at the end of a semester, term or year when a bill becomes due again. The sale is to reinforce of the engagement between college and student based on the students’ appreciation of the faith in the engagement and the academic customer services rendered.
To try and keep this to a reasonable length please realize that the final good of higher education is an intangible we know as education leading to hope for a job and thus a better life that becomes embodied in the only close to tangible thing we provide – a diploma. This good is thus both hard/durable because the tie between college and graduate cannot be broken as well as soft/consumables such as classes and direct services like at a restaurant.
We sell belief and hope in the experience we call college that leads to retention and graduation. We do not as with other professional services fill a tooth or mend a bone, cure an illness or prepare and serve food to be eaten during the sitting. We make promises and then grade our customers as opposed to how most every other businesses does. They have the customers grade the product and/or service. Yes, we have evaluations but they are only responded to in the extreme. We do not produce our products based on what customer want or need but based on what we think we want to give them and what we feel they need (sometimes that means just what we need to deliver to give someone something to do and save budget and positions or because a prof wants to teach a course whether the customer wants or needs it.)
We can do this because our products are intangibles that have been pre-sold as required credentialing required to be able to succeed in a career and society. We have also positioned our business into the position of expertise that is not to be questioned. In fact, question it too much and we will often find ways to fail the customer.
But because we sell a goal – graduation and a job – that takes long period of time to achieve, colleges are exposed to many more points of sale and points of customer service than other businesses. In fact, the sale is not completed at admissions or the first day of classes. Students make “buying decisions” every day, every class, every hour, every contact with the school. In the morning or evening when homework or a set of classes looms ahead, the student must decide whether or not to spend time and effort to buy the classes. Buying in this point of sale is not with money at this moment, that’ll come at the end of the semester but to purchase with effort and time. The decision to go to class, to buy the class must also be made for every single class. Attendance is thus a good indicator of the strength of the desire to continue buying and staying at the school.
Education is an emotional sale that is based on engagement, trust and faith that “if I give myself over to the college it will get me to my goal of graduation and a job”, points of service are each very important since they are all points of reselling the school and its ability to deliver.
The sales are based then on trust and faith. The currency is not dollars but buy-in. These are emotional investments that require constant, continuous and consistent selling to the customer through service and sales after the sale to provide them the belief that there is and will be strong emotional and affective return on the investment of trust if they but buy us one more day, one more class, one more semester.
Thus it is extremely important to recognize that every person, every contact, every interaction with the school from the parking lot through people, policies and procedures creates a point of sale and a point of sale customer service situation. Every person from the president on up needs to realize his or her role as a salesperson of the school. All offices must accept that they are also points of sale and service. Faculty must understand that the ways they sell their subjects, their information and training through lectures, demonstrations, interactions and so on are all points of sale and service and their are the most important services of all. People who answer the phone, the website, cafeteria, housing, maintenance, security, everyone and everything are points of sale. The campus itself needs to sell the school after all the lack of a place to park might very well mean "no sale" for the day as the commuter student drives away in a huff; or poor lighting in the halls can make a student feel unwelcome or even a dirty bathroom can cancel the sale that a the school cares about its students. It is extremely important that all of these PSCS go well to increase sales of the school leading to increased retention and graduation rates.
A longitudinal study of six-year graduation and attrition rates of over 1400 US four-year colleges and universities of all sectors indicates an average of only that PSCS is not going well. The study shows that American colleges are losing an average of 48% of every cohort it starts. Moreover since this is the average over six years of six year graduation cohorts, an average 48% of all students are leaving higher education every year. If any other business lost that many sales, it would likely be out of business a long time ago. Very few businesses, even one that represents 2.6% of GDP can normally exist with such a high level of lost sales and revenue.
Higher education needs to embrace academic customer service and train at every point of sale to retain students through graduation and its own revenue stream.
IF THIS MAKES SENSE TO YOU, CONSIDER BUYING A COPY OF MY BEST-SELLING NEW BOOK ON RETENTION AND ACADEMIC CUSTOMER SERVICE
The author of the article is Dr. Neal Raisman the president of AcademicMAPS, the leader in training, workshops and research on increasing student retention, enrollment and revenue through academic customer service solutions for colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as businesses that seek to work with them.
We increase your success
413.219.6939 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 413.219.6939 end_of_the_skype_highlighting begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 413.219.6939 end_of_the_skype_highlighting
Neal is a pleasure to work with – his depth of knowledge and engaging, approachable style creates a strong connection with attendees. He goes beyond the typical, “show up, talk, and leave” experience that some professional speakers use. He “walks the talk” with his passion for customer service. We exchanged multiple emails prior to the event, with his focus being on meeting our needs, understanding our organization and creating a customized presentation. Neal also attended and actively participated in our evening-before team-building event, forging positive relationships with attendees – truly getting to know them. Personable, knowledgeable, down-to-earth and inspiring…. " Jean Wolfe, Training Manager, Davenport University
“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, CA
“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, Faculty Member, Lincoln Technical Institute
“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-Fort Kent