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.

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