Good customer service can be thought of as wrapped up in little, isolated events. Someone answering the phone within three rings and pleasantly saying “hello my name is. How may I help you?”; to a faculty member seeing that a student is struggling and approaching him to offer help; or an administrator who is tied up but gets a student’s name, issue and a good time to call. These and more small actions make up an overall experience that adds up to customer service.
But these all take place within larger contexts; within systems. Even in higher education with all its silos. In fact, the fuller customer service experience is sort of a system of silos that have to interact with one another to provide actions, assistance and thus customer services. Silos that i
nteract? A unique idea but then again academia is a unique environment.
As some of you know I have likened academic silos to castles that wall off offices and activities and try hard to keep students and others who are not part of their castle keep out. But to accomplish tasks, they often have to let down the drawbridge and let some information and actions from other castles cross over them. But as a result of the fortress attitude in offices, people from another castle do not know the people in the other nor are they often familiar with their culture, customs and ways of doing business. This leads to some quite poor service for students who get caught up in the lack of knowledge.
What needs to happen is for each office to recognize the interactions and design ways to connect with one another to help students succeed. This will not necessarily occur spontaneously nor without some pushing external to the castles. Someone, some people or some processes will need to accept the job of forcing offices to work together. And forcing is not a term I use without recognizing that some coercion may well be needed to make the offices work more together in a systematic approach to help improve customer service.
Three Ways to Break Down Castles and Improve Customer Service
Force Cross Training
Offices should all know what one another does to help stop the shuffle from occurring. That’s when a student is sent from office to office trying to get a solution to a problem. Moreover offices should be able to help one another. To accomplish that they need to be not just familiar with but be able to work in one another’s office as well. This is also a particularly good thing to be able to have done since one office seems to get a rush of people needing assistance while others are relatively quiet or even very quiet. If people know what one another offices does, they can help their colleagues out in the rush times.
To have this happen, someone has to decide that cross training will take place. Someone has to make offices learn what the others do and at times even who some of the people are in another office. The results will be very beneficial to all – students and the staff themselves who are cross trained. But again, someone has to make it happen and that calls for a show of will which some administrators are not always comfortable with.
Creating and Sharing FAQS
Have every office keep track of the top ten issues each week that come up from the customers. Write them down and the turn them into FAQs for the students and even more importantly for other offices. Have the offices meet together to go over the FAQs to see if there are repetitions that need to be put into a general all office FAQ. This will cause the offices to work together on the issue and breed some familiarity. It will also generate the FAQs which can be used by the students and the offices.
As the offices share and go over their FAQs people from other offices will learn what the top issues are and the solutions are as well. That way they will have some information to be able to guide students to the right office at the least. They also may have enough information to be able to respond and resolve the issue at the original office rather than sending the students off to yet again another office.
Creating Issue/Functional Flow Charts
The most successful way I have found to getting offices to work together is to have them work together. Don’t mean to sound simple but it really can be if you choose the right project.
Issue flow, or functional charts look at the individual steps needed to take a student from point A the issue to point… the fullest solution. It may not be the student who is actually moving along the flow. It may just be the steps or system used to process a student’s issue or need to completion. For example, if a flow chart were to be created to follow a student in an add/drop. It would involve at least three departments if not more to fully chart the full system and all the offices that could be touched. This is a particularly good topic to start with because it is not only a problem issue for students who think that not showing up to a class ever again is dropping it…it is also an eye opener because of all the stops along the way to completion.
The system starts with a student deciding to drop a course. Then there are the forms. They need to go to the registrar/records office with a possible stop at an advisor’s office first depending on the school and its process. This needs to go into the MIS system. Then the student or the decision have to move to the business office to have the course credits removed from any billing. The decision also needs to go to the financial aid office if the drop in credits changed the student’s full time status. If the status is altered and that causes the student’s financial aid to be changed, the business office needs to be notified as well. The drop needs to also be reported to the academic office so the faculty member can be notified. The student’s advisor needs to be notified so the advisor can contact the student and make sure the program he is enrolled in is not negatively impacted and if needed another course can be substituted. If a course is substituted, the registrar needs to be notified as well as the business office at the least. And all along the way, at some point the student needs to be notified not by individual notifications but in a single summary.
This could all be put together with all the circles and lines of a flow chart to demonstrate how it all works together and how each office needs to work together to do something as apparently simple as an add/drop. It can also be done as simple list, venn diagrams or anyway anyone chooses. The most important aspect is not the chart itself but the process of making the functional flow itself. Getting people together to explore how they work together; how and what they do to accomplish their duties; and how one office does and needs to interact with another. That’s the real work that can break down the castle walls and make the drawbridges contact pathway between and into one another office.
If you found this article had some merit, you may want to read more about how to break down silos and provide great customer service in the best selling book The Power of Retention: More Customer service in Higher Education by this article's author, Neal Raisman.
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