academic customer service, retention, student success, attrition, enrollment, academic customer service, student retention
Eight Academic Customer Service Concepts Guaranteed to Increase Retention
1. Focus on Objective Correlatives™
2. Enrollment Ends at Graduation
3. End the Shuffle
4. Attend to Attendance
5. Mentor Each Student
6. Deliver on Promises
7. Train Everyone in Academic Customer Service
Any one of the seven can be accomplished separately and will have a positive effect on retention. But the greatest benefit to the college is in engaging in and actually implementing at least two. Three is better and all seven have been proven to have very significant positive effects on student retention, campus morale and community cohesion. Keep in mind that when a school gets its community to become further engaged in providing better service to students it ends up providing one another better and more civil service as well. Customer service gives back to the provider as much if not more than it does for the customer. Helping another makes the helper better for the help provided. And in a college or university that will always lead to increased positive interactions and workplace morale leading to greater productivity and revenue.
Providing good service to another is sort of like smiling which we recommend everyone in the community does at all times, at least when in public. Even if a person is not really happy, smile anyhow, people will think you are happy and eventually, you will be. When a person smiles at another, the “smiler” produces positive hormones like endorphins and serotonin and reduces the level of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine and adrenaline.
Customer Service Guaranteed Retention Increase 1: Focus on Objective Correlatives™
One of the most significant reasons why students leave a college is that they just do not feel the institution provides an appropriate return on investment. Two of the ROI’s students expect are easy to understand. They are financial ROI– will I get a good return on the investment of money and time, i.e., get a good job? – and emotional ROI- do I feel that my emotional investment is being returned? The third major ROI students seek is an affective ROI –do I want to be associated with this place? Does it make me proud and happy to be here? The affective ROI can be measured in how many students feel enough of a connection to the college wear school branded clothing versus that of other schools or businesses.
One important affective roi comes from the way the campus itself reflects the value of the student. Do the buildings, the grounds, the physical aspects of the campus which do include the way campus members dress –the objective correlatives - make me feel as if I am valued and safe? Do they look like a place I want to be a part of? Are the facilities clean and impressive or old, uncared for, rundown, dated or make me feel the school does not care? What do the school’s objective correlatives say about me if I were to show a friend a picture of me in front of a campus building? And do they make me feel safe and secure on campus?
During this period of budget retrenchment deferred maintenance has been allowed to climb at many colleges. Repairs have been pushed back. Painting and cosmetics have been postponed. The grounds have been let to grow a bit unfettered. Trees and bushes have not been trimmed. Lawns go an extra week or two to save on mowing costs. Flowers not planted or replaced when dead. Halls are being swept a bit less often. Cafeteria crews are cut back so dishes pile up and tables stay littered a bit longer. These are service errors that lead students to downgrade their affective roi and take one more step toward going out the door and not returning..
When I was a dean our college was suffering financially due to an economic downturn in our regional service area. Revenue was hurting since fewer freshman students were enrolling. The president told the cabinet that he was going to spend additional funds on the campus’ appearance and cleanliness. We thought he was being foolhardy to spend on appearances and not on more important academic areas. He stated that the way to recruit more students was to look and act like we did not need any more students; sort of a if you build it they will come scheme. If the college looked successful, students would assume it was and enroll. So buildings were painted. Trees, flowers and shrubs planted. Halls were all cleaned and polished. And he announced that the college was looking to add a new technology and science center on campus. All this while other competitors did cut their grounds and facilities budgets.
He was right. They did come. Fall enrollment was the highest in many years. So was revenue to make the academic improvements we needed. He knew the benefits of objective correlatives. Campus customer service audit experiences working to assist schools turn around attrition also show the value – negative and positive – of objective correlatives on campus.
One college we worked with was only graduating 24% of its incoming students. It appeared to have a very good academic program. When we spoke to students who had left and those on campus, one concept kept coming to the front. “It’s a dump.” Students felt the college was in disrepair, dirty, run down and simply not a place they wanted to go to. They were right. Of significant concern were the bathrooms which were not as clean as students wanted them to be. In fact, a third of them were dirty, graffiti-laden, under supplied, dank and generally objectionable. The picture below is the male student bathroom in the student union. It is easy to see how it would be a negative for students. When the college
repaired, painted and followed other decorating solutions along with focusing on other initial academic customer service solutions provided through an audit, retention rose eight percent immediately.
Many schools are trying to reduce energy costs by lowering lighting wattage as well as the number of bulbs being lit. This is an error especially for the second college of evening students. The preponderant evening population is composed of adults who are more aware of safety and security issues than the daytime more traditional age student population. Dimmed lighting creates an environment that can be fraught with a sense of danger and lack of security as in the photo below from college service audits.
The area in the first photo went to a rear door and out to a parking lot but was very little utilized because people felt unsafe walking through there after evening classes. Students actually walked a longer distance out a side door to avoid waking through this dimly lit area. Evening college‘s retention rate rose by two and a half percent once additional lighting was added to al halls and outdoor areas.
The parking lot speaks for itself. Not only was it extremely under lit but to save money, plowing and shoveling of walkways had been reduced. Spring (which we all know starts in the winter) term at this school had suddenly jumped the year we were asked to find out why. One major source turned out to be that female adult students in particular felt very unsafe having to get to their cars in the large poorly lit parking lot. Moreover, the cutbacks in plowing left the lots with snow that became slippery and thus could be dangerous. When calculated, the savings from turning down the lighting and cutting back on snow removal equaled just about one-third of a tuition for the term. Clearly not an intelligent savings since the result was many more drops in the term. Reinstating the snow removal budget and stronger bulbs to light the parking lot led to a greater sense of safety and affective roi. The attrition bump was reduced.
A university simply halted all renovation, repair and improvement projects. Whatever was not completed would stay that way until it found out whether or not enrollment would meet goals. This was a move to save money. When the campus was audited, it was found that one project, the installation of a fountain, was left with the electrical connections left exposed. It was also noted that a very old tree had a quite large cracked limb about thirty feet in the air just over a bench where students often sat. It was pointed tout to the school that if a student were to be electrocuted or crushed by a large limb, that would not help retention goals – at least by two students. There were also some walkways in which large slabs of concrete had lifted up from frost heaves. They created a likely tripping or fall generating situation. Students who are hurt on campus often leave to take care of medical issues and consult with their lawyers on the lawsuit.
These and many other physical situations from poor signage to dirty corridors create negative affective roi’s for students. Attending the objective correlatives of a campus has been shown to increase retention an average of between two and four percent depending on other academic customer service factors at a school.
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Customer Service Factors and the Cost of Attrition
More discussion on customer service factors, additional articles and a list of the six year average attrition rates at 1450 four-year colleges and universities.
The author Dr. Neal Raisman is the leading presenter, researcher and consultant on customer service for retention in colleges, universities, community and career colleges in the US, Canada and Europe. He and his associates have provided retention solutions for over 300 schools and businesses that want to work with higher education. Dr. Raisman is the author of over 400 articles and four books including his latest bestseller The Power of Retention; More Customer Service for Higher Education available from The Administrators' Bookshelf in hard copy and digital editions.
His firm AcademicMAPS/Center on Retention, is the leading provider of campus customer service audits that increase retention, morale and revenue for universities, colleges and community or career colleges. If you would like to discuss a retention issue or see if he is available to come to your school or business for a workshop, presentation or other retention solution such as a full customer service audit,
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