Sunday, February 20, 2011

Return on Investment and Student Customer Service Expectations

Return on Investment and Student Expectations
Claes Fornell the director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index Academic writes “regardless of product, there are three general factors that determine how well a company’s offerings correspond to the idiosyncrasy of consumer demand: expectations, quality and price”.[i] Though higher education is a rather different business than most of the companies he works with, Fornell’s overview fits much of academic customer service as well as expressed in three returns on investment (ROI’s) expectations students and the family that supports them bring to a college.  In fact, one might posit that good academic customer service has at its foundation providing the client/student with the means, ability and services to be able achieve three major returns on investment (financial, emotional and affective ROI’s) which are key to the student and family’s expectations of the school to attend and graduate college, and to do so in a way that makes the client feel valued and appreciated.

Academic customer service accomplishes the above by employing a student-centric approach, processes and protocols focusing on teaching, training, and learning in an encouraging environment that acknowledges a student’s personal worth and existence to assure student growth and success now and in the future. It does not assume coddling students or favoring them with unearned or high grades. Academic customer service also does not include faux business concepts such as the client is always right (they take tests and quizzes after all). 

Return on Investment (ROI) is normatively a financial formula. (ROI = Return/Investment yielding a positive or negative percentage indicating what financial return may or may not ensue.) The basic ROI formula concept in academic customer service is here translated not as a financial plus or minus percentage basis, but as a personal psychological formulation comprised of a students perceptions and judgments that the investment he is making is worthwhile. If it is, the student is comfortable, even happy, and stays. If the student does not feel there is at least a financial, emotional, and associative equity between what he  is invest each day and what the school returns to him he will calculate a negative ROI and likely leave. If he should stay, he will slog through bad-mouthing the school whenever the chance arises. If he graduates, he will not contribute as an alumnus. 

The three major returns on investment students and their supporters bring with them and retain throughout their career at the institution as well as after leaving it as drops or alumni in order of most important to less important are
1.    Financial ROI
2.    Emotional ROI
3.    Affective ROI.
Financial return on investment has two formulations. The first, Financial ROI 1, is focused on present day appreciations of money invested and what I get for it now. This focuses on the perception of whether or not, "I am getting my money's worth. Do I feel that the tuition and fees are well spent and spent on me? Is the college using the money to give me what I am here for?"  The second, Financial ROI2 evaluates whether or not the student believes that staying at the school will finally lead to the job and career that he or she came to the school to acquire.
In determining financial ROI 1, the student and supporters judge the value of a number of what might at first seem to be disparate issues from obvious ones such as perceived value of classroom instruction to whether or not faculty seem to care if students understand and are learning. Concerns such as are faculty available for office hours and help, do administrators respond to problems, how staff treat students enter into the computations. Even what might seem to some as ancillary issues under the category of objective correlatives[ii] such as facilities, parking, lighting, and so on. These figure in strongly in formulating a financial ROI and have some importance in the calculation of an affective ROI as has been discovered in retention audits of colleges conducted by the author.

Financial ROI 2 is a prediction of future career returns on the investment; not immediate direct out-of-pocket financial investment through tuition, fees, books, etc. The core of the calculation is in the belief that the school will or will not lead to and help obtain a good job. Students must believe that the college will not only assist in preparing and certifying them prepared to go out and apply for jobs, but that the school's reputation will make obtaining that job possible. If a college has good, available and publicized career services that help prepare for applying for jobs or, even better, if the school has an active outreach to students on careers and assistance in locating possible jobs, the financial ROI 2 will stay in the positives. If the college can also point to a history of success stories for its grads this too strengthens financial ROI 2.

Emotional ROI refers to the personal investment that a student and family make in the school. When a student decides to attend a college, that person is making a commitment that is somewhat akin to an engagement. The decision to attend a college is like saying a student and the college will not date others. Trust, attachment, and commitment between the student and college arise in the student's mind and feelings leading to a pledge that he expects will be returned. That pledge is, "I will trust you to do right by me. I will put my education and thus my future in your hands. I will trust you to treat me fairly and provide me an honest opportunity to learn and get that job I want." 

If that vow is not reciprocated by an institution’s actions, the student does not perceive the emotional investment being returned by the school, the student falls out of love with the college. Students cite two major negative perceptions of why they end an engagement with a school. First, they come to believe that "The school only cares about me for the money they get." This statement sees the school as setting money as more important than the student (too many adjunct faculty, not enough sections of courses, poor scheduling, canceling classes at the last minute, not enough staff, aggressive bursar and collections letters). Or second, the student feels the school does not reach out and show it cares about her as an individual with personal needs (can't find faculty during office hours, can't get extra help when needed, faculty do not seem to realize students have lives too, administrators don't care or solve problems, staff are cold or rude, no one smiles, students get the run-around also known as the shuffle, issues go unresolved or with just a decision that is unexplained, etc.).  Any of these can and will lead to a student formulating a weak emotional ROI.

The last is associative/affective return on investment). Associative ROI is calculated on the sensation that attending this college says something about a student, his values and character. Valuations such as “attending this is an investment of my reputation, self-value as well as social position as its name defines me through association. Is that good?”  The student is also calculating whether that “being part of this school will make me feel good. Will being associated with it improve my value and recognition?” 

The ROI on association can be a strong one if the student feels that the school is well known and respected in the community. If it is not, the school can create strong associative value by providing excellent service to the student, who will then takes pride in attending since this reinforces the emotional ROI as well. A college can overcome lack of current recognition in for example the US News and World Report if its services are strong enough. Strong service and personal attention can build a student’s desire to be associated with the college. Lose the student's belief in the school by ignoring the students or by negative reports in the news.  When that happens, the associative ROI can be negatively impacted so the student does not want to be associated with the school. 

One way a school can judge if its associative value is up or down is by counting the amount of logo- or name-laden clothing that is sold in the bookstore. When students wear college branded clothes it is done to make a statement to the world about the wearer. Wearing a brand-name college such as Harvard, University of Michigan, or another high recognition school is a statement meant to associate the wearer with the strength and value of the name.
 (excerpted from Vol 3 of The Business of Higher Education p111-114 "Academic Customer Service" by N. Raisman)

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