Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Creating a Campus Culture of Customer Service

Building a campus culture of service requires a focused approach. It is not something that can just be put in place with a memo. It requires a cultural shift and action on the part of the college. There are three steps to start building a service culture that will improve customer service, retention, completion and success at the institution.

First analyze every point of academic customer service that already exists. What do you do to provide customer service to students? And to what groups of students do you provide the services? Interestingly enough you will find that your services are a diminishing return system that starts with providing the most services for freshman with perhaps transfer students in second place. That is you give these groups the most attention.

The first year of college has a concentrated grouping of activities and service in the first term or semester because we still believe that retention is the number represented by the percentage of students that stay from first to second semester and then from freshman to sophomore year. Interestingly enough if a school compared that percentage, often in the seventy percent range and up to the final graduation percentages the college would realize that the freshman to sophomore year numbers are poor indicators of a real retention number. The reality is in fact, students are leaving in large number in the sophomore year and even in the junior, senior and super senior years. That is the diminishing return. The retention to completion numbers decline from the freshman year as do the services that are provided.

An example, a university we did a customer service audit for had really great numbers for retention from the first to second year. They had an annual average retention rate in the high 80% range each year. They were able to develop activities that bonded the freshman as a class that saw itself as needing to stay together to survive the year. It was in fact a military-based university which put the freshman class through a rigorous training program and provided a lot of attention and focus. The class was divided up into battalions that needed to support one another to make it through the training and hazing (which was not officially sanctioned but nonetheless occurred). They did together went together, ate together and were put through all sorts of physical and mental tests together In addition to being made to act together, the university focused services such as advising and leadership upon the freshman class and its battalions.  They even had special hours to register for courses that were theirs alone.

But the freshman training period ended at the tail end of the freshman year and the battalions were broken up into new formations. But they still had really strong numbers for freshman to sophomore year retention. Sophomore year came and the cohesion that the freshman year experience created was lost. The students were now grouped by major and had less to do than in the freshman year. The services that were provided through the various offices and the cadet leadership were gone. They were as one student said “cut loose and nobody seemed to care anymore.” And that feeling of being cut loose led to a feeling of being separated from the school. They were no longer provided extra services as many schools do during the freshman year experience programs. Tinkerbell had flown. They were just “college students” now and had to fend for themselves in the wild of the campus where many of the services were directed to the new freshman.

That led to a feeling of being adrift, alone and no longer important enough to get the services they once had.. They lost the bonds that had joined them to the school. Even the pizza parties were for the freshman and potential students; not for them anymore. They no longer felt a full part of the school as the services the once had now felt gone.  And the school had no idea that they had focused so much on the one class and left three others adrift after smothering the first year class with services from extra help at registration to even being dressed down by a corps cadet officer for not having every aspect of the uniform correct. The feeling expanded by the way as the students felt that the corps, the military unit and life had been taken away and they were now just “students”.

The result of the services being focused so strongly in the freshman year? Good year to year retention but the sophomore bubble really popped in the first semester sophomore year and the school lost large numbers of sophomores. The juniors, seniors and super seniors until dropped out until their graduation rate was close to 50% in six year for a cohort. From the freshman/sophomore year to graduation they lost almost 40% of their enrollment.

Those who stayed said that they did so simply because it would get them to the position they wanted in the military or a military-related work position. They judged that though they did not feel all that connected to the school it was worth it finally. But they did not express a string alliance with the school as shown also by a 13% alumni donation rate with most of that from alumni who graduated well in the last. Alumni give rate is a great indicator of how well the school provided services that tie the students to the school.

In this case, and in many other school that focus heavily in a freshman year experience create their own problems when freshman year ends and the extra services provided are “taken away” as another student at a university with a strong freshman year program said.

A review of all the services provided at a school would disclose whether or not an institution is creating a situation in which students feel they lose something once out of freshman year. That the services are too finely focused on one group of students.

Wouldn’t it be nice and actually quite fulfilling in terms of mission and completion rates which translate into more revenue if everyone received extra services to help them realize the college cares while bonding the students more firmly into the school? Take the example of athletes at a college who get a range of special services including course sections and times to assure they can make training and practice schedules. It is not a surprising situation when it is seen that athletes in total often graduate at much higher numbers overall than the rest of the school population. As an example, one division 3 school I am aware of had an athletic graduation rate of 94% while the rest of the population graduated at a 64% rate. Why? One reason was that had so many services focused on them all the way through to graduation to help them stay in school and perform on the field.

So maybe we should treat all students as if they were freshman or athletes.  I would even bet it would pay off in increased alumni donations since there would be more alumni and more alumni who had a good experience at the college.

The place to start creating a college in which all students get the services they deserve and pay for is an audit of the services. Review all the services at the school and to whom they are provided. A college cannot strengthen it services to students until it knows what they are. Here is a link (CLICK HERE) to how to perform a service audit to learn what services the college or university does provide.

If this piece had value for you, you will want to get a copy of The Power of Retention by clicking here NOW 


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