Sunday, October 16, 2011

Academic Customer Service and Why Students Come to College

Though it will seem to cause some pain and hurt for some individuals on campus the reality needs to be said. Students do not come to college to learn. They come to get a job. Well, to be trained and educated to get a job. They are not there to learn and grow though they will accede to that as a condition to getting the diploma they seek to get a job.

Students realize that college holds the key to that job. The diploma. Without the diploma they would not be able to get the job they want and by the way, for most of them nowadays that is almost any job in their field.

Sure there are a few who do not know what they want to do and there will always be a some art history and philosophy majors who may not say they are looking for a job but to just learn but they are also job seekers. They want to work in a gallery or go on to grad school so they can finally get a job as a professor. More likely at best a part time prof teaching something other than philosophy or philosophizing while pouring a cup of coffee but a job nonetheless.

Realizing that the students are coming to college to get a job should make us realize that they are going to be even stronger consumer-oriented people. They look at their paying tuition and fees and the like as part of a contract. I pay you money for services that you provide to get me to where I want to be. Want proof? Count the number of times you hear students say something like “I’m paying a lot of money to go here.” Or I pay your salary”. And even if that number is not yet huge just think back and realize that you are hearing it more and more now. That is a sign of a consumer orientation and of the students’ realization of a contract being written between the school and the student.

Students are there to get what they need to get a job. Just think about required courses too. Why are they required? So that students will take them. If they were not required students would not take them in favor of either getting more training in their future field of work or to skip them altogether and get out faster.  The argument here is not whether or not to be a well-rounded citizen students need to take required courses though there is a counter argument that many of them are either useless or just there to make sure some departments have a reason to exist and bring in money. The issue is not to question the value of required courses but to point out that students would not take them if they did not have to as a hoop to jump through to get to their goal.

One other point. Career colleges exist to a large extent because they are career-oriented. The profit sector would not exist in as large a bloc as it does if there were not a string demand for direct school to job training. The career schools pare down the required courses to minimum to get students to their goal in as quick and job-oriented pattern as is possible.  They also succeed because they realize that the job is the goal and invest in career placement activity far beyond what not-for-profit colleges and universities do.

This is not to say the career schools do it well or that some of their placement claims are anything but PFTA thinking. (PFTA? Pulled from thin air. The polite way of saying it here.) To continue being honest, many of the career schools have been questioned on their placement rates but they are not questioned on their focus on careers and jobs for their graduates. And that gives them an edge and a basis for their attraction and growth.

Realizing that students are job-oriented should make colleges and universities also realize that they need to be job conscious too. They need to focus more on career services as a basic customer service for students. They need to have people who do nothing but seek out jobs for graduates as so the career colleges.

They need to give up on the idea that career services just is a job taker when a company calls in looking for graduates to hire. They need to realize that just giving out sheets on how to write a resume is not enough and a simple free class on resume writing doesn’t do it for the current crop of students.  They want and need much more. Granted some colleges and universities are so well known for their graduates that they may not need as much career services work as others but even the top 306 name brand colleges are finding that smaller and smaller segments of their graduating classes are getting jobs after graduation. Also recognizing that the top schools have fairly strong alumni structures with the alumni hiring from their alma mater but even that is changing as businesses are becoming more selective and gaping after the best without as strong a sense of brand loyalty anymore as the available pool of grads grows larger.

When student say they left a college or university because it wasn’t worth it what they are saying is that they felt that the school would not get them to their goal of a job. It just was not worth the time and effort so they quit. Colleges and universities need to take a note from the career schools and expand their placement and career services functions. Considering that 34% of students leave a school because they just don’t think it is worth it should be a enough to awaken schools to the importance of career services as a basic customer service to students to aid retention.

Students also need to interact with career services from the beginning of their careers and not just at the end. They should write a resume each semester/ quarter that adds on the new skills and courses they have taken. This will allow them to have a well written resume after it is reviewed by career services as well as see the relevance of their coursework to the goal of getting a job. They should take interviewing classes to learn how t interview. They should also be taking work in how to be an employee.

This work can be done by providing appropriate decorum in the classroom which is after all their workplace at the time of being in college. Students should be required to act at a level that would be demanded if they were on the job in their area of chosen future profession. For example, on the job if an employee came in large each day he would not lose half a grade, he would lose a job. If an employee answered her phone in a business meeting, she would possibly be fired or at least reprimanded for doing so.  If an employee missed work without calling in and letting the supervisor know he or she were going to be out, that could be cause for being fired.

I am aware of at least one school that requires all its students to wear work appropriate uniform shirts as  a sign that they are preparing for a job. The Porter and Cable Institutes have all their student wear uniform shirts that designate what career path they are in. They also supply the students with a tool bag that has the basic tools they will need to do the classwork and be prepared to do the job when they graduate. And their placement office is always working to find, yes find jobs for their graduates.  This may strike some as a bit extreme. Making them dress appropriate to the job they seek but it is no different than having nursing students or other medically-oriented students wear uniforms or clothing appropriate to their future profession. Porter and Cable also have their instructors all wear Porter and Cable embroidered shirts to indicate they are also dressed for the appropriate job. They and their students are dressed for success.

The classroom is the workplace for students and should be treated as such. Part of the service we should be providing is teaching not just the skills to get them hired but what is needed to be a good employee and keep the job.

Customer service is not just smiling answering phones it is providing all the services the customer, the student, needs to achieve his or her goals. Just as we require courses, we should require good employee skills.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Great Customer Service at Boston University - Boston Globe Article

At BU, a checkup call from the top

Time was, a call from the dean’s office meant trouble, a stern summons to shape up academically, or to cool it on Friday nights. 

But last week at Boston University, first-year students received friendly check-in calls from school staff to see how they are handling the often tricky adjustment to college life. 

With new students wrapping up their first month on campus, school staff and administrators, including the provost and dean of students, spent the week calling all 4,300 first-year and transfer students, an ambitious gesture designed to make them feel at home. 

“It’s about community,’’ said Kenneth Elmore, the university’s dean of students. “We want students to know we’re here to help.’’ 

Many administrators and researchers applaud the school for reaching out to students during the pivotal first semester, a time when they are at greater risk of falling behind and dropping out. Nationally, just 57 percent of full-time students at four-year colleges graduate within six years.

‘It’s about community. We want students to know we’re here to help. . . . We tell them we’re here to help them steer their course.’
Kenneth Elmore,Boston University’s dean of students
“The most productive thing you can do is focus on the early experience,’’ said John N. Gardner, the head of a North Carolina institute that works with universities to improve student retention. “If they go unnoticed and unaddressed, academic problems can become severe.’’

Boston University’s six-year graduation rate is far higher at 85 percent, the highest in its history. Yet Elmore said the positive reaction has justified the effort, and believes students appreciate the concern. “It’s created a great feeling around campus,’’ he said. “We’re all adults here. We should be able to have a conversation.’’ 

The first semester of college can be a difficult time, college administrators say. Most students are living away from home for the first time, and miss their parents and siblings. Many struggle with the increased academic demands, and feel lost socially. Especially at a large, city college, the scope of change can seem overwhelming. 

Elmore hopes that a well-meaning phone call - or even a message - can let students know the school is looking out for them, and that someone is there if they need it. Administrators hope that connection will keep students engaged in college life. 

“We tell them we’re here to help them steer their course,’’ he said. 

Elmore said his calls catch many students by surprise, but he quickly assures them they are not in trouble. 

“I’ve gotten some visible sighs of relief,’’ he said. “You even start getting confessions.’’ 

Samantha Kennedy, a first-year student from Philadelphia, was at her dorm getting ready for her next class when her phone rang. She did not recognize the number. It was the dean. Gulp. 

“Oh,’’ she recalled saying. “Hi.’’ 

Once Elmore explained that he just wanted to see how her term was going, however, she relaxed, and they had a nice talk. 

“He sounded like he genuinely cared,’’ she said. “He seemed very interested. It was nice.’’

Educators said more colleges are adopting “early alert’’ programs designed to identify students who are struggling, then get them help before they fall too far behind. 

BU began the calls last year, and received a positive reaction from students. Last Monday, more than 80 staff members began reaching out to the latest freshman class, in which more than 80 percent of students hail from out-of-state and 16 percent are from other countries.

The callers keep conversation light, asking students how things are going and if they have any questions or concerns. About half pick up and many call back. Others have stopped by the office to say “hi’’ in person. 

Most students say they are doing well, Elmore said. But some have expressed real concerns about feeling homesick, stressed by their classes, or generally adrift. Administrators and staff steer students toward tutoring and counselors and offer to meet in person. 

“It’s a lot more intense of an experience,’’ Elmore said. “Everything moves at a much faster pace.’’

John Pryor of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, said surveys have suggested that students who feel like part of their college are far more likely to complete their studies. 

“A feeling of validation is strongly related to retention,’’ he said. 

Surveys also suggest that the transition to college life is rarely easy. Two-thirds of students report feeling lonely or homesick, and half have problems with roommates. Since the economic slowdown began, financial troubles have added to the strain. 

“Students are coming in stressed,’’ Pryor said. 

That may be why students seem to have appreciated their phone call. On Elmore’s Twitter feed, students thanked him. 

“Feel free to call me anytime Dean!! :)’’ wrote one. 

At least one student was skeptical that Elmore’s call was unbidden, and assumed his mother had enlisted him as a proxy to check on him. Only after Elmore held the phone up to hear the roomful of people making similar calls was he convinced. 

The calls have also shed light on a potentially emerging trend among college students - the abandonment of the phone. Administrators have encountered a number of students who have not even set up their voice mail, so are presumably staying in touch entirely through e-mail, text messages, and social media. Not wanting these students to feel left out, the university sent each one an e-mail.

Peter Schworm can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Redefining retention for Reality and Academic Customer Service Pruposes

I was doing some research into how much money individual colleges and Universities are losing on an annualized basis due to attrition. (Surprise – the numbers are in the millions per individual schools and billions for us all collectively.) The source was IPEDS which is one of the standard sources. I was bothered by one of their statistics, It is the retention rate which they calculate only as the percentage of students who come back from the freshman year.

That is not a retention rate. That is snapshot of freshman- to-sophomore rate as if there weren’t at least three more years to worry about.  Very different. It forgets about the sophomore bubble, the junior jump, senior slide, super senior slipways and all the other times that students leave a school. Calling the freshman to sophomore number a retention rate is very misleading.

When we calculated the actual average six year attrition rates for colleges there were huge differences between the “retention rate” and the actual cohort attrition rate. The real indicator of retention is how many students a school keeps over the full period required for a student to graduate. Until a student graduates, he or she has not been retained.

In fact what we are finding is that the sophomore year is becoming a significant time for students to leave a college.  An equal number and for some even more students leave a college after the freshman year than during it.

Freshman year is not real college? And real college is tough – meant to wean out the weak that should not be in college anyhow. Most every freshman will disagree. It was a tough year. But what she may mean is that in the freshman year students are treated with care, concern and customer service. Sophomore year… Well, screw ‘em? Let them sink?

What is clear here and at most every college is that in the freshman year customer service is considered by many colleges sort of like the Xmas spirit. For a week, people are kind to their fellow man and woman, give donations for the poor, help out those who may need assistance. Then after the holiday, it’s back to WIFM and “hey I gave at the office”.

Now, some people will be kind and helpful all year long and those are the colleges that do not experience the sophomore slump. They pay attention to students, their needs and expectations and provide good customer service throughout the freshman, sophomore, junior, senior and super senior years as if they all mattered.

The solution to the sophomore attrition bubble and after it is easy. Treat students as if they matter every day, every year.

Education is a service industry in which the clients/students make a decision about the level and value of the service every day, and even many times a day. They skip a class for example if they do not feel it is worth going. They actually judge the school’s concern for them every single day. They decide daily if they are currently getting and believe they will get the requisite financial, emotional and affective returns on their investment. If the answers are not at least, "I guess so" the bubble pops right then and there - sophomore year or not.

Then when they have a break – weekends, vacations, semester breaks – they determine if they are going to return on Monday. If they feel they are at Cheers University “where everyone knows their name and is awfully glad they came” they return. Or if they are being forced to attend Dr. House’s clinic where he may be a good doctor but clearly does not give a damn about them, they will seek new doctors.

So IPEDS and others need to calculate retention as a cohort graduation rate and not just a freshman to sophomore rate.

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. 

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Don't Believe in Tinkerbell

Remember the scene in the Mary Martin version of Peter Pan when Tinkerbell is dying because we may not believe in her enough? And Peter turns to us and says “Please believe. Tell Tink you believe!” And we do. Well, maybe more of us need to leave that belief in the theater and not apply it in customer service issues in college.
Generally, it appears too many colleges use a set of beliefs and not facts to form their understanding and thoughts about their students’ knowledge of how the college works as well as how to navigate through it. There are so many assumptions made about the students, their abilities and understandings of what we all know as our college, its rules, and folkways. We assume they will somehow know them too. After all, we do, and aren’t we all at college together?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. They do not know, and we must supply the directions. Having had experience with public educational structures and systems does not mean they know how to be intelligent, competent users of a college. They need clear user instructions not just on the academic and administrative regulations but on everything starting with how to get from the dorm to their classes or to the administrative offices. Just as when you first moved to an area and everyone assumed you knew how to get around. “Sure, the super market. Well, just go down 104. Take a left at State Road 5. It isn’t marked like that but you’ll know it when you see it. And when you see the Catholic Church, take a

left. Now the Catholic Church is near the Last Evangelical so don’t be fooled. If you miss the Catholic Church, you’ll know it because you’ll soon come up on the Jewish synagogue. It’s just after Dave’s on the right. Good hamburgers there by the way. Good luck.”
Uhh, how do I get to 104?
Good customer service demands that the customer, the student, knows how to use the services provided and required. Ever tried to assemble a gift or use new software that had poor or almost nonexistent directions with parts and abbreviations that the technician knew but did not explain to you? Sure you have used an outdoor grill or HTML based webs, but that does not mean you know how to put a grill together or use web site building language. The result? If you were not afraid to look stupid, you asked for help. If not, the grill was returned and the software not used. In any case, you likely became frustrated and angry and swore off, or at, the manufacturer.
Students are no different except they are even more tentative than you or I, and they may not ask for help. They do not want to look stupid after all. They will become aggravated, angry and blame the college thus becoming a potential attrition statistic.
And navigating academic rules? Forget it. Just give it up. Most students plagiarize because they do not know what it really is nor do they understand it is not acceptable. The web is an anonymous research tool so anything there is available for the copying. Moreover, they have, after all, grown up in the Doris Kearns Goodwin/Laurence Tribe/Stephen Ambrose period. The one in which it is okay for some to plagiarize but not others.
Add/drop? Not done at many schools simply because the students are not made aware of the process. Financial problems? A bursar informed me recently students generally are not fully made aware of what all the acronyms mean – FAFSA, Pell, Stafford, and the bursar’s office is too busy to explain to “people who should know”.
But why don’t they know all this? Partially because of the Tinkerbell Theory.

The Tinkerbell Theory is most clearly elucidated in the belief colleges have that their students know how to be students. Actually, too many schools have a misguided belief in Peter Pan and fairy dust. They believe that somehow magic occurs on the stage in the local school auditorium at high school graduation. An immature high schooler starts across the stage, and with him or her walks all the ways of thinking and attitudes ingrained over 12 long years. These are the same very characteristics that made the soon­to-be high school graduate have to prove he or she was capable of succeeding in your college. Then, he or she stops and just as the high school principal hands over a diploma, a small, invisible maturity fairy flies overhead and sprinkles magic knowledge dust on the graduate. POOF!! You’re a college freshman! What was a latent college student suddenly sheds his or her immature ways and is suddenly metamorphosed into a mature college student ready and capable of meeting the demands and dictates of college!
And if for some odd reason the fairy dust did not complete the transformation, the next ten weeks of summer vacation complete the transformation. After all, that freshman is no longer a high schooler. He or she is a freshman at Neverland U and all our students know how to be students. After all, they are here at college.
But this is far from the truth. Peter Pan was fictional and so is the belief that incoming students are college students upon walking on campus.
It is important that colleges educate their students on how they are to be students. How they can become intelligent users of the college. It is not enough to give someone a catalog. A college I work with recently found out from its State authorities that simply because something is in the catalog does not make it automatically qualify as fully informing students. The school believed that if it was printed in there, it was law. Not so said the State. The college had an active obligation to make sure the students were fully aware of the school’s rule. Even worse, the upset students were even stronger in their frustration over a lack of understanding of the rule in question. The State informed the college it was wrong. That led to contrition. Some students became angry and that led to attrition.

Another college posted its dates for registration for the next semester on its student website. Then the school was very upset when some students did not show to register. The college officials believed the students should have known from the website. But they did not instruct students clearly enough on how to get a password, the how to navigate the site and finally the need to check the front page on a regular basis. Besides, the reality was, and is for most all schools, students do not use the portal and if they do, they do not use it as the college or university intended. Students at the college thought the site was just for getting their final grades, checking their bills and other administrative bothers. They were not aware they needed to check it for announcements.
Besides, in high school if they missed a registration date, or even an assignment, they just did it late. No penalty. How would they know the rules were different at the institution if the college did not inform them?
Who is to blame? Not the customer. It was the provider who assumed that everyone knew how to use a website, had a computer and went to the college portal. But that is not a safe assumption. Not every student has that knowledge, and if they do it may be about Yahoo or Google, not your college (which, believe it or not, will lose out to their own email, IM and gaming sites). Moreover, we have found that your college or university portal is not where students start their hours of web browsing every day. The college portal loses almost every time if the student is using his or her own computer.
A major problem in the appropriate use – and thus the effectiveness of a service or product – is that it is supposed the user will understand how to use it or do something because I do. Do not assume the students of a college will understand the institution’s assembly and operation instructions simply because you know them or have them and may have printed them in a flier or brochure. If you believe something is important, it must be explained and made clear if students are to be able to use the college correctly.
Good customer service calls on the service provider to vigorously
and aggressively educate the recipient and/or user of the services
on the proper use and operation of the services. Tell them once.
Then tell them again, and finally tell them you just told them. Then make sure they heard you.
Create a user guide for students. Put it together as if you are telling someone how to assemble a toy or piece of Ikea furniture. For dropping a course for example, it could start with:
1. Determine if this is a course you can drop
a.            Is it a required course in your curriculum?
b.                        Are the skills and knowledge from the course needed in those that follow it?
c.            Can it be taken out of sequence?
Note: If a, or b is answered yes, reconsider dropping the course.
2. Do you have an add drop form?
a. If no go to ______ or get one online at
___________ .
3. Complete the add drop form. Be certain
a.                         The course to be dropped is correct and has the correct course code
b.                        If adding a course, be certain it has the correct course code and the new course fits in your remaining schedule
4. Obtain any and all required permission signatures
a.            To drop: faculty of the course being dropped
b.           To add: faculty accepting you in the new course
5. File the add drop form with the____________ office
by (date)
6. Check with the business office for any adjustments that will have to be made in your tuition and fees.
This is an example, of course. The exact steps at a particular institution may well be different. If so, the How to Drop information will have to be changed to reflect the actual procedure.
This format can be used for almost any administrative or other action students may have to take. Determine what students are doing incorrectly or to their detriment, and create a How to Guide for that situation. Then make certain every student gets the information. One way to do that is to be certain to review it at orientation and information sessions. The information can also be effectively distributed by sliding sheets under dorm doors and hang them in the bathrooms above or in the stalls. Also leave stacks in the entrance area to the bathrooms. Students will read them there.
And to be safe, don’t believe Tink. Do the same for administrative, faculty and staff bathrooms. It always amazes me and others how much we do not know about our own schools.

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