Monday, August 30, 2010

Principles of Good Academic Customer Service - 3- Final Installment

This is the third installment on the new Principles of Good Academic Customer Service.
To read the first installment click here.
To read the second installment click here.

Principle 14. Train, trust and empower all employees to do what is right to help students

Principle 15. Give a damn about graduating students; not just recruiting them.

Principle 14. Train, trust and empower all employees to do what is right to help students

In thinking through the list for 2010 one issue became very clear from all the college customer service audits we had done. Good customer service cannot exist unless ALL the university’s customers are served. The most obvious customers, and the ones we spend most time on are the students. But another extremely important customer cohort is the staff.  For us and for good service to the primary customers, staff means everyone. All the employees from the president on up.  And no one employee group is really more important than another though we do have to agree that without the faculty, the heart of the college, someone else would have to teach. And without all the adjunct faculty (read academic indentured servitude) the full time tenured faculty would all have to teach. Considering that the adjuncts are doing most of the actual teaching at so many universities and thus make up the largest part of the teaching faculty, it could then be said that they are really the heart of the college. But a better analogy for adjuncts (read underpaid, at risk employees with no benefits who could make more money on an per hour basis with less responsibility and no degree required at Wal-Mart) is that they are the backbone of the college.

In fact, the following diagram is how we actually see and present the campus body.
  • The faculty is the heart of the college.
  • The adjuncts are the backbone. They support all aspects of operation.
  • Staff are the legs. They make the place run and keep it running.
  • The managers  are the arms. They move paper from one place to another.
  • Administration are the guts of the place. Sort of like an excretory system working to remove all the poo others create.
  • The self-proclaimed curmudgeons are the naughty bits which should never be allowed to be out in public.
  • And the brain should keep a common focus going on the students and their success. They are the reason everyone is there after all.

And everyone together is the campus body. The living breathing, thinking feeling thing we know as the college community. The community does not live as well without any part of the system missing or not doing its job. Not one part can exist outside of the college community either. Even though the faculty are the heart of the college or university, outside of the whole body a heart is just a dead muscle, a piece of offal.  Each part is equally important if it does its job well. Each part is therefore an integral part of the university and needs to be so recognized. The academic caste system does not promote good customer service; just servants. It needs to be removed.

It needs to be replaced with an understanding of the value and then valuing all the people who work at a university or college.  And one of the greatest ways to recognize people is to place trust in them. Trust them to do their job and to help students. Hmmm. To do their jobs and help students. Interesting because we almost always train people to do their jobs even if they have done it elsewhere but we do not train people in an essential function; how to provide good academic customer service. Academic not retail customer service; two very different functions in two very different environments.     

People need to be trained to be able to provide good academic customer service especially since most colleges and universities have a very bizarre notion that they are supposed to treat students as if they were an after thought. We do after all try to “separate the real college students from the ones who should not have been admitted. This is an absolutely incorrect attitude but it does exist People even express the an anti-student attitude with impunity at most schools.  “If only admissions would get us better students… or even worse “this would be a great place to work if it weren’t for the students.” And when people say these sorts of things, others chuckle and there is no sanction placed on the person who uttered the statement.

At a workshop I was providing at one school I even asked the people at the workshop if the school was better in the summer because the students were gone. I received applause for the question. Not much after I finished explaining how without students there would be no college, no reason for them being here and no jobs. But the fact that people thought it was okay to express such a negative attitude toward their customers would have astounding me about eleven years ago when I first started studying customer service in colleges. Now it just provides me and my group work.

These are attitudes that must be trained out of members of the college community. People need to be taught how to provide good service to the university’s primary customers and clients – students. Just like any set of functions needs to be taught so does customer service. It is not something that always comes naturally to people in an academic community. Whether it is as basic as answering a phone to dealing with an angry student, people need to learn the proper ways.  

People also need to be taught the rules and regulations under which they perform their functions, their services to students and the school. Academia is a regulation, rules an procedure driven community so peop0ple need to know all the rules. They also need to understand the expectations the college has on their performance in their job and in providing service. It is not enough to say “just do it correctly” people need to be taught what that means. Just as we realize that students need to be taught in the classroom if they are to perform correctly so must the staff be taught rules, regulations and customer service in their jobs if we are to expect them to do them well.

But then, once they have been trained and taught the regs they need to be trusted to perform them and provide good service. They need to be empowered to do what is right. Cusotmer4 service cannot be done well if people are concerned that their supervisors do not trust their ability to make decisions. They must be taught that students and their needs come first and can never be an inconvenience (Principle 4). Staff must be empowered to do what is right to help students even if that means leaving a desk to walk a student over to another office to try and end the shuffle without getting permission to do so for example. Trust must replace permission. Empowerment to do what is right for students needs to be central to the trust. And the trust to do what is right must be based on training.

Principle 15. Give a damn about graduating students; not just recruiting them.
It should be self-evident that every business would seek to do all it can to keep its customers and clients as long as it is possible to do so; until they simply cannot keep them anymore because they are outside of the business’s focus. Just as a doctorate seeks to keep his clients alive as long as possible because that is the job and if too many patients die early, the business and income are hurt not to say anything about the doctor’s adherence to the oath and reputation.  And in so many ways, college is like a huge medical practice except it does not care if its clients die off.  In fact, keeping its patients academically alive is seen by some members of some colleges and universities as a sign of not caring about quality. That is just wrong. It is just part of the same old attitudes spoken of earlier. The old belief was that if a school failed out many students it must have high standards. But the reality is that not that many schools flunk out that many students. In fact, 84% of students leave a school for customer service-related issues. So that indicates that a college with a high attrition rate and thus low graduation rate is doing a poor job of serving students; not that it has high academic standards.

The reality is that college remains a front-loading business. It is concerned with bringing in new customers all the time. It is a churn and burn business rather than learn and earn.  If it did not have federal and state support either direct through subsidies or indirectly through grants and loans, colleges would almost all be put of business because the churn and burn model is a clear path to fiscal disaster. And what do you know, it is leading many schools into deep red budgets and slashing.

A study we are just completing of the six year average graduation rates as reported to IPEDS of 1450 four-year colleges and universities, public and private, for-profit, not for-profit and not for profit not by choice but not focusing on students shows that if we issued letter grades to colleges and universities as we do students, 1209 would be getting a D+ or less. That means that 1209 are averaging a cohort graduation rate of 69% or less.  964 would be receiving a failing grade for 59%or less average graduation rate over six years. That means that 964 colleges and universities are graduating less than 60% of the students who start at the school!

If these figures do not show a lack of focusing on student graduation rates I am not sure what will. Sure some will say that many students should not have started at the college but whose fault is that? Not the students. The school accepted them. It is the school’s. Once a college or university accepts a student and the student shows up, the obligation is at the very least a shared one. But the schools are failing to fully embrace their share. Students leave college not because they flunk out, nor not necessarily because they can’t afford it. They leave for customer service reasons. They do not feel appreciated; nor well served; nor do they feel they are getting the ROI that was promised; and finally, they just do not feel the effort, emotion and commitment they are called on to make are worth it.

This cheats the student, the family and the college. We have started calculating out the Customer Service Factors discussed in Customer Service Factors and the Cost of Attrition (for a complimentary digital copy click here and ask).  Schools are losing huge sums of money. The last time we did a random sampling of how much attrition was costing a smaller group of schools, the amount surpassed $4 BILLION.

How do you know if your college might be starting to care about retention. First does it have a person and office assigned to retention? Not a committee. That is just a way to say we are doing something while making sure not much gets done. Have you been focusing on academic customer service? If not start.

Serving students better also serves the schools better. Give a damn about graduating students; not just recruiting them.

If you want a copy of the new 15 Principles of Good Academic Customer Service, just ask by clicking here.

If you wish to inquire about academic customer service training with a guarantee that it will increase retention, send us an email at  or call at 413.219.6939.

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