customer service for colleges, student retention, student success, academic customer service, attrition, increasing student retention
Academic Not Retail Customer Service
Colleges and Universities are quite unique professional service providers that do not respond well to retail customer service notions. And they should not. Retail customer service is about providing veneers of service at the point of sale for a tangible product. In fact, retail customer service is all about the brief point of sale moment which runs from “may I help you” to “cash or charge and come again” and handing the customer a purchased item. And even if the piece of clothing a clerk helped a customer buy is the wrong size, the consequence of that poor service is not significant. The item can usually be returned or a badly cooked meal sent back for another and the employees.
Even the combined retail-service situations of a restaurant or a vacation is a limited, time bound occurrence even if it may have more than one encounter. A customer comes to a restaurant for a meal or to a hotel for a limited stay. The customer may encounter more than one point of sale/service provider; for example, a maître d, waiter and busboy or bellhop and front desk personnel and perhaps even a person in a cartoon character outfit but these interactions are very limited both in time and singularity of experience even if a person may come to the hotel again in the future. And none of the encounters will have a lifetime effect on the customer.
The academic community is also significantly different than a store. There are managers called administrators but they do not have full, or often all that much real power to enforce their decisions on the community. In retail for example, a manager could decide that her department will only sell white shirts and everyone will wear white shirts with the name of the company embroidered over the pocket. Employees might feel strongly that selling only white shirts is a dumb idea but they would not have say over the ordering of the merchandise. Employees might grumble about the decision but if the company supplied the shirts for free, they would be called on to wear them.
In academia the faculty would never allow any manager or administrator to ever even think of them as employees never mind actually calling them that even though in business terms everyone is an employee of the college. The administration could never decide that the faculty will all teach one course for example. In fact, the administration really has little say in what will be taught, who will teach it and what the course content will be in most colleges especially those with regional accreditation. That is a faculty prerogative and decision and a very dangerous area for any manager/administrator to enter. And as for telling everyone including staff and other administrators what they will wear and how they will dress…Enough said.
Of significant difference is the reality that in the college community it is accepted to actually believe that some customers should not be there and it is the job of the faculty to actually weed out, to remove customers from the school even if they have the funds to pay full tuition. It would be unheard of in retail for employees to say and have accepted a position that the customers just are not good enough and we need to get rid of those who are not “store material.” The idea that a customer would have to apply to a store to be allowed to shop there is a notion excessively foreign to retailers. Or, if an employee in a store was overheard to tell a customer that “this is something you should have known before coming into the store so I am going to have to tell you to leave until you have the appropriate level of ability to buy this shirt” he would not be employed for very long after that.
Retail customer service just does not apply directly to college. Pone major reason is that the academic community is not a retail environment. Its “customers” are more like clients of a consultant or patients of a doctor than buyers of commodities. As a consultant and trainer4 for example, I am called upon to access the needs of a college for example and then let the client know what they are and how to address them. If I do not do so, I am not be honest and could lose the trust of the client school. I am expected to provide the good, bad and even the ugly to the client as well as provide solutions to issues causing poor or weak customer service leading to attrition and lowered morale. If the client chooses not to follow recommendations that is the client’s prerogative. This is also similar for a doctor. The patient goes to the doctor for a reason and expects the professional physician to be honest and complete. If the patient needs to exercise and lose weight for example, the doctor needs to tell him or her and it is then the patient’s decision to do so or not. If the patient chooses not to follow the instructions of the doctor, or a student chooses not to read the text, he or she will not do well on the next exam, physical or collegiate.
Colleges or universities, no matter if two or four-year institution, are all providers of professional services all of which have significant effects on an individual’s life. Though some believe that the sale ends in admissions that is not true at all. Unlike retail establishments, colleges and universities have multiple points of sale every interaction with the school, every hour, every class, every day, week, month and years. Students decide after every contact whether or not the school is really providing the services he or she invested in, paid for with tuition, time and effort. Every one of them, every contact can become a decision point for a student. Students decide each and every class whether or not they will go to a paid for class today, tomorrow or ever again. Or if he or she “buys into” what the professor is “selling” in class. Or if they “buy” that the school really cares about me as an individual. Or if they credit the day-to-day service they receive in encounters with staff, administrators and faculty as worth the cost of the effort and emotions they have to expend to obtain assistance they believe is due them as customer students.
Academic customer service recognizes that what the school sells it will deliver. It accepts that every contact with the institution from the campus and web to professors in the classroom, staff in offices and administrators anywhere provides an opportunity to “resell” the college and tie the student more strongly into the school. Or tell the student this school does not care about you, you are not important making the student less engaged and readier to “quit this place”. Academic customer service is in everything we do from advising to scheduling courses needed to move on and graduate, returning calls and emails and yes, it does include smiling and making students feel wanted and valued. It does not believe that the customer is always right however. We have quizzes that tell students that and rules and regulations we must follow. Moreover, academic customer service is not about making students happy but realizing their investment and that does call for some strictures on behavior and having to follow rules or suffer consequences. Academic customer service is not just about the point of sale but preparing a student for the career and life they come to a school to prepare for.
When done well, a student might not always be happy at the school but will believe that the investment is worth it. When done well, retention increases. When not done well, attrition is high causing revenue to run low and budgets to be cut happens as most colleges and universities. If academic customer service does not seem important, recall that 84% of students leave a school due to poor service and take their tuition and fee dollars with them.
7 Academic Customer Services 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
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.
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 servicing audit,
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