Monday, September 19, 2011

The Telphone and Poor Customer Service

We have been auditing the customer service on campuses for quite a while now and it seems that telephone use is getting worse and worse. Telephone use and protocols are becoming a real problem for schools. Simply put, people do not know how to use the telephone anymore nor do they do very well with voice mail. They don’t know how the telephone is a marketing and customer service tool not just something that gets in their way when it rings.

Schools can lose 12% of potential enrollment when potential students make their first actual contact with the college. That’s right. Your school loses students who are interested in attending when they take the steps required to make a positive decision to enroll.

This should not surprise anyone who ever heard about first impressions or has read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. But oddly enough, when I talk with school administrators, “12% off the top” comes as a surprise. Until they objectively look at they call into to an office on campus.

I have been getting plenty of calls lately from administrators who have been getting complaints from callers to their schools, staff members and trustees. There are numerous issues people call and complain about. But a recent common theme has been complaints over phones being answered in a rude, indifferent, and offensive manner. It seems that people answering phones have been doing so while distracted, angry or apparently annoyed at having to answer the phone. And these attitudes clearly affect tone, and voice style.

I don’t know but I guess there is something offsetting about a person answering the phone with “Yuh. What?” or with a very bored and indifferent NameofCollege WhatCanIDoForYuh?” And the tone that accompanies that is so often very negative telling the caller that he or she is disturbing the answerer. As we call around to schools to test the customer service on the telephone last week, we hit the best response yet. The person picked up the phone and just said “What?”

And little tells a person he or she is unwanted than being “dissed” on the phone. If a student gets the feeling that he or she is not wanted from an early or first phone call, it can be an uphill battle to retain the student’s interest in attending the school. And it is so simple to assure that people answer the phone in a friendly manner.

Here is one quick and inexpensive customer service solution. Mirrors.
Yes. Mirrors. Go to a local craft store and buy simple, small mirrors and double-sided tape. Give the mirror with the tape to everyone who might answer a phone. Have them tape the mirror to a spot level with their face or where they could easily see their face when they go to answer the phone. Then have everyone look into the mirror and smile before picking up a phone. All they need to do is retain the smile when saying “hello, how can I help you?” Problem solved.

It is a simple fact that when a person is smiling, he or she cannot answer the phone with an angry or negative tone. In fact, the caller will hear the smile come through in the voice. This may not eliminate all the phone protocol issues a school will have but it will certainly help.

Another telephone customer service solution TRAINING
Training. People do not use the phone well anymore and need to be trained how to answer it. They need to be taught how to get their mind into a mellow welcoming tone before answering the phone. They need to learn a set response such as “Hello, this is (name) Thank you for calling (school name). How may I assist you?” This answering script gets a number of things right. It incorporates give-a-name get-a-name and then goes on to offer assistance.

They also need to be taught to answer the phone before it rings for the fourth time. Four rings is the limit on how many times a phone should ring. After four, it is often voice mail or the person hangs up thinking it will go to voicemail.

And voicemail!!!!! It is actually there as a tool for the caller. It is not a default situation that allows the answerer to ignore the call. People really do not care for voicemail too much believing (quite often rightly so) that it will not be responded to. This is the situation we have found at many schools. People let phones go to voicemail so they are not disturbed but do not return the calls. And if they do more than 24 hours pass.

Voicemail logs must be cleared every day by actually getting back to the callers. At the very least, a voicemail should be returned within 24 hours. Not everyone can be Southwest Airlines which takes the number of a caller in the queue and gets back to him or her within ten minutes or less but any school should demand and make sure that people return voicemails within 24 hours or less.

If this article has value for you, you'll want to get a copy of the best-selling book The Power of Retention by clicking here.

N.Raisman & Associates has been providing customer service, retention, enrollment and research training and solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them since 1999. Clients range from small rural schools to major urban universities and corporations. Its services range from campus customer service audits, workshops, training, presentations, institutional studies and surveys to research on customer service and retention. N.Raisman & Associates prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s services. 

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Assessing On-Line Education Customer Service to Increase Retention

Studies have shown that 84% of a college’s attrition is due to either real or perceived weak customer service for both on-line and brick and mortar schools. Of that, 34% is directly related to employee service and 30% to indifference to the student as an individual which is an employee-related issue. Therefore, an improvement in academic customer service could yield a significant increase in retention and graduation rates. These studies have looked primarily at brick and mortar schools, but initial review indicates that these numbers will hold as strongly with online education.

What this means is that individual schools are losing millions of dollars from attrition caused by poor customer service both off and on-line. And the amounts of money they are losing is significant.

Online Customer Service
In looking at issues on customer service in online learning environments one needs to begin by realizing there are two major segments to be explored. The first is encounter satisfaction which looks at the service provided or not during transactions between students and the learning environment and personnel. The second is overall satisfaction with the services which is the cumulative effect of a set of discrete service encounters and the service provided over a period of time like a term or semester. 

Overall satisfaction with services leads to the decisions to stay or drop out of an online learning program. The experiences make it “worth it” or not.  The decision of worth here is not necessarily a rational one and is often counter-productive to the student when he or she drops. The overall satisfaction is a result of the encounter satisfaction. The satisfaction level results from the individual encounters with online faculty, support staff, the call center, and the educational interface itself.  Do these provide good experiences or shocks to the sense of the level of services and support being provided? (Academic and technical support are indeed online services.)

To test the individual encounter satisfactions as well as the accumulative overall satisfaction it is necessary that the following four environments central to online learning be tested:

1)     System infrastructure. This is the online program and delivery system. Are they really set up to help students? Do they work with ease? Are they really user-friendly? Do they make the online experience easier or more problematic than it needs to be? Is technical support adequate?

2)     Online field interactions.  The exchanges between the faculty member and the student. Are they written properly? Using the right tone, language and interpersonal tenor? Are they frequent enough? Are they on point? How much time elapses between a student’s initial communication and the response? Are there faculty initiated “reach outs” to maintain contact and a sense of value/appreciation in the student? Is tutoring and extra help made available?

3)     Centralized support.  How are calls answered by the call center or advisers? Are the tone and language correct? Are calls answered promptly, and are the appropriate services provided, or do students get shuffled from one person or office to another? Are there FAQs available to help supply answers and solutions?

4)     Marketing.  Marketing before the sale and after the sale need to be representative of what the student experiences. How are students approached? What does the marketing material say and promise? Does the institution deliver on those promises.  What marketing is done after the sale?

Proposed Customer Service Audit and Solutions
When N.Raisman & Associates audits an on-line education delivery system and its components we look at online customer service practices to identify gaps in service delivery.  We do thi9s so we can select and implement appropriate solutions for improving customer service delivery based on industry best practices.  We test the following environments with the following approaches to identify customer service issues:

1)     An online, web-based survey. Through a brief web-based survey NA Raisman & Associates assesses clusters of issues that are causing customer service issues with or for students. The survey of current and past students will be analyzed to determine what customer service issues need to be addressed. The issues will be used to guide follow-up study and to lead to solutions to the customer service issues. The survey will study both encounter satisfaction and overall satisfaction. 

2)     System infrastructure assessment. Shopping the system by actually using it and testing it to see if it meets student needs and expectations. The shopping of the system will identify customer service issues or problems that the system may be causing.

3)     Online field communications review.  By looking at examples of online interactions between students and faculty we will be able to determine the tone, approach and appropriateness of the customer service provided. By testing the times between an email to a faculty member and the response we will be able to test encounter reaction time to see if it is in tolerable limits for students. This review will be supplemented with information from the online, web-based survey and interviews with students.

4)     Centralized support evaluation. Testing the centralized support will be accomplished through mystery shopping of services to test response time, response satisfaction, and the level of service delivery being provided. 

5)     Pre- and post-sale marketing analysis.  Frequency, message, and method of both pre-sale and after-sale marketing will be examined to determine the impact of these encounters on students. A review of the marketing materials from pre-sales will determine the service expectations they create and thus commit the school to delivering. A review of the after-sale marketing will determine who is making contacts and the quality and value of those contacts.  

These are approaches we use and you can employ similar ones. What is absolutely clear is that on-line customer service needs to be audited as well considering that the dropout and persistence rate for on-line education is not as strong as it could be. There are millions of dollars being lost and no school can afford to lose that money and few students who start can afford to invest time and money in a future they may never achieve when they stop out or drop.

If this makes sense to you and would like to learn more about customer service audits of on-line and of brick and mortar colleges to increase retention, contact us at or 413.219.6939.

Get a copy of Dr. Raisman's best selling book The Power of Retention: More Customer Service for Higher Education today by clicking here.