A serious misunderstanding that exists on campuses is that customer service and treating students with hospitality are somehow evil things. That they somehow are antithetical to academic quality. They are not. They are (or should be) simply part of daily life on campus and in fact they are even if done poorly. Colleges and universities provide customer service and hospitality every day in the classroom, in offices, across the campus and even the campus facilities themselves. These are the services we provide to make sure that the basic needs of students are met. An obvious example is the cafeteria where we actually do serve and provide food services. Even the classroom is also a cafeteria of sorts with a defined menu of knowledge and set of portions of information and training that must be presented in an intellectually tasty manner. The major activity in a classroom is instruction and that is a service after all.
There is no way around the fact that a college is a collection services though there are certainly ways to do them better. That is not so say we do I well as can be seen by the almost 50% of students who do not stay in a college to graduate.
And these are all required services that must be provided to the customers, our students, in the best way possible. We must make sure that whatever we do we do well. We need to provide students with a strong customer service excellence or they will leave the school. Whether that excellence be in an office when a worker stops what he or she is doing to welcome a student and help solve an issue. Or a faculty member who makes certain that she is the last one out of the classroom so she can check with every student to make sure he understood the lesson for the day and make arrangements to help those that may be a bit confused. Or an administrator who interrupts her work to meet with a student and try and see what she needs to make her stay better and keep her in school through graduation. Or even the all-important maintenance crew that makes certain the campus is neat, attractive and all bathrooms are clean and functioning. Everyone on campus is responsible for providing these and other basic services to our customers, hence – customer services.
There is also the allied issue of hospitality; of making a student feel as if he or she is welcome on the campus, in the cafeteria, dorm, classroom and everywhere on campus. Hospitality is the way we make certain that our customers feel appreciated and valued yet we often do not perform even the smallest act of hospitality. Employees march across campus ignoring the students. We do not make students feel as if we care about them. We do not show any welcome that says “you are important to us”. In fact, we too often act in opposition to being hospitable and go out of our way to show students that we don’t care and in fact display an attitude that says “you are lucky to be here so you should thank me for doing anything for you.” This is done by the way we show a disrespect for our customers by not interrupting what we are doing to help them, by not showing concern for their learning or not in the classroom and many other smaller ways such as not saying hello to them as we pass them on campus.
We do provide services and we should strive to make them as excellent as is possible for our students, our clients after all who do have many choices in where to go to spend their educational money nowadays. One way you can check to see if you are providing good services is just to ask the students.. Or you can hire a professional to audit the services and see what needs to make them better. This is something that should be done since poor service and another word/concept we will be discussing in a later paragraph account for 76% of all attrition on a campus and that means a major revenue loss too.
Why Students Leave Your school – Weak Service and Hospitality
The 76% figure comes from the latest 2012 study of why students leave a school. The most significant reason why students left a school was again that they felt the school did not care about them They felt often that the college worked hard to recruit and enroll them but once they were there the college just assumed they would stay and did little to show that it cared about them being there. A full twenty-five percent felt the school let them down in the school’s caring about them and their success.
Poor service accounted for 23% of the reasons why students left. This is of course an allied response to the college does not care about me since the service was obtained, or not, by students who then interpreted the poor service often as the college does not care about me. These two categories together account for 47% of responses. These are both academic customer service and hospitality issues.
The percentages of the reasons why students left are as follows:
College Doesn’t Care 25%
Poor Service 23%
Not worth it 18%
Educational Quality 1%
That would mean that the total for customer service shifted down to 76% from 84% as leaving for finances and scheduling conflicts went up as reasons for leaving the school.
There were two areas that did increase in their significance – finances and schedule. Simply put many students are simply not being able to pay for the ever-increasing costs of college. Students also felt that the increase in tuition and fees plus all allied costs simply did not make college as worth it as the thought it would be especially since the estimates say that almost 50% of all college graduates were not able to find a full time job.
As schools are trying to cut their costs they are cutting sections. The schools usually decide to cut a section they feel is not fully enough enrolled to warrant offering it. This is not always true by the way but colleges usually have some go-no go number like ten students in a section for it to be allowed to be offered. What the schools do is to create some horrid customer service by cancelling the class in the last week or two. When a class is cancelled in the last weeks just before a start of the semester for example that totally disrupts the student’s life. She has planned her whole life around the schedule she thought he had. She has made arrangement for her hours at work not to conflict with her classes. If a mother, has set up babysitting arrangements around the class schedule. Then in the last moment the college cancels the class and her life is turned upside down when she can’t get another class at the same time as the cancelled on. Moreover, if she can’t get another class that fits her schedule and major she may be a section short on being a full time student and that will affect financial aid. She might not be able to afford to go to school as a result of the cancelled class.
Canceling sections can be simply horrible customer service that can tip a student into giving up or at least stopping put maybe not to ever return to the school.
It is important to realize that the percentages are not fully exact since one category often flows into another. Poor service can make a student feel as if he or she is not cared for by the school. The changing of schedules at the last moment can do the same. These are all allied academic customer service issues that colleges and universities need to address to increase retention through focusing on academic customer service and hospitality.
There are no excuses for weak service. If people cannot provide good service they need to be retrained or moved. We hire the most knowledgeable faculty we can to try and assure that they will be able to provide good educational service in the classroom but again that is only part of what we need to consider. It is not just expertise and training that will get people to be hospitable. It is an attitude that needs to be developed and trained for.
What we are of the really talking about is academic hospitality. Just as at a restaurant if the food is great but the service is sloppy, indifferent, even hostile the food is just not going to taste as good. A waiter who just takes orders is not giving good, enthusiastic service. Note how each starts usually be giving his or her name and tries to engage the guest in conversation before the orders are taken if he or she is a good hospitable waiter. Yes it increases tips and may really be perfunctory but it does work as a hospitable gesture. As a good waiter wants to be hospitable to customers to increase the experience and the tip, the goal of good customer service and hospitality on campus is to increase retention and graduation rates after all. Why else is the college there?
A great researcher does not always make a great teacher. A fully competent financial person does not always wait on students well in a bursar’s office. An excellent administrator who can get things done does not always work well with students. An advisor who may be one of the few who knows her stuff but does not make hours to meet with students is not being hospitable to them. Or not having enough advisors to meet with students though they are required to see an advisor is not good service. Students expect and crave basic hospitality as shown in the 2012 results above and will turn against the school if it is not there
It is hospitality on campus that we are often really concerned with even though this is lumped into customer service. How often do people stop and just talk with students to see how they are doing or feel about the place? Does the school evaluate people to see how hospitable they are to students and helping them? Does the school even have a code of service excellence or the sort that states what is expected of each member of the college? Does it say things like “say hello to every student you meet or pass on the campus” and when possible do give a name-get a name to establish closer ties and more hospitable attitudes. Does the campus promote the idea of the student as if he or she were some sort of guest that can decide to leave this educational hotel and got to another?
I am not saying coddle students at all. We must demand from them too because that is what they expect if they are to learn and succeed. What I am suggesting is that we need to check to make sure that all our services are excellent and meet students needed. And be sure our campus is hospitable to our students. Do we make them feel welcome? Do we give them decent parking locations or do we save that for ourselves? Do we make sure that faculty keep office hours when they say they will and make them at times that students can actually come by? (Service excellence audits find that this is often rarely the case). Do administrators have an open door policy to students so they can meet with them and hear the complaints or solve problems? Are employees trusted to make decisions to help students?
· Are students made to feel as if they are really important?
· Are they said hello to as they walk across campus?
· If they look confused does someone stop to help them out?
· Do people in offices treat them as important clients and not just as an imposition?
· Are students made to feel as if someone cares about them and their welfare?
· Do you ask students how the service has been in an office?
· Is there communication in which students are asked how are things going?
· Are they made to feel this is a hospitable campus after all that is the goal along with providing excellent services which are what must be done every day?
· Is your campus and the people in it warm and welcoming to students?
· Are they open to students and their needs?
· Do people seek out students who may need help?
· Does everyone act as if the students are guests who can switch academic hotels at any time?
· Simply put, is the campus friendly to students and one another?
Are the employees treated with respect and warmth too? They are customers also after all and if they aren’t treated with hospitality they will not pass that on to your students.
Hospitality is a Dialogue
It is not just customer service though that is extremely important and must be checked on to make sure it is really happening as you think it may be. Or as customer service rule number 1 says “Make your campus into Cheers University” providing academic hospitality in which “everyone knows your name and everyone’s glad you came.”
Some schools do a good job of delivering services in the classroom and in the offices but they do not always do so with hospitality. Danny Meyers in his book Setting the Table refers to service as a monologue in which the restaurant decides what and how it will deliver the technical services such as the menu, preparing the meals and even serving them to the table. But he says that hospitality is a dialogue that includes the customer. “Hospitality on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on the guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense and following up with a gracious, appropriate response.”
Schools focus so very much on the service side that they often forget about their need to be hospitable as well. They forget to listen to their clients and hear what they need to be able to provide hospitality. This is in part because schools do not focus on the difference between being service providers and being hospitable to their students. They perceive what they think is a problem but do not check with the students to see how to solve it if they even see the problem in service delivery at all. They go about readjusting the service without regard to whether or not the solution is one that the clients feel will work or even with the input of the client students. They leave out the hospitality part. They leave out customer input which is a real mistake.
An example. We recently completed a campus service excellence audit for a large university during which we checked every aspect of service and hospitality on campus which included talking with hundreds of students. We discovered that the school felt it had a problem with its billing process. Students had to wait in long lines to make payments and they were none too happy about it. So the school decided to change its service in a way that really backfired. They closed the office and made all students do their bill paying on line.
Theoretically this could have improved the service but the school did not talk to the students to see how closing the office would change the feeling of hospitality that the students would feel with the closure. The students were quite upset at not being able to see a person on such an important matter as making sure their bills were processed correctly. The students hated the closing of the office. Even if the service could have been made better and with no lines by payments on line, they did not like losing the person to person contact in such an important activity. They felt they were closed out of the office rather than being helped with what was intended to be improved service. They felt as if their needs were not being met and the new service was anything but hospitable especially since the door was blocked with a large wooden drop off box where they were to leave paper checks if they did not want to do on line bill pay.
When the school made the decision to improve the service they did not talk with the students at all and the result was not good. Here is an excerpt from our executive summary from our customer excellence audit and report that further explains the misjudgment in service that led to a real feeling of a loss of hospitality too.
The Treasurer’s Office (which is the current name for the Bursar’s Office) elicited many negative comments from students. They uniformly do not like the fact that the entrance to the office has been shut off to them by a unit in which they are asked to just drop off payments by check. They do not like having to just drop off a payment with no way of verifying that the check has been received and no receipt provided. They want to be able to get a receipt for their payments since there have also been problems with the posting of payments in time to avoid late fees. They also want to be able to interact with someone when they have to discuss payments and late fees which they feel are excessive and set up in a manner to cause extra payments to the University as a result of late fees which they believe are caused by the University’s approaches to billing and some bill paying issues online.
“They want to interact with someone.” That is the essence of hospitality. The ability to have that dialogue even when doing a mundane activity as paying a bill is a simple act of hospitality and not just a delivery of a service. Hospitality is a two-way street and the students need to have that two way communication if they are to feel as if the college cares about them and their needs. Simple delivery of a service is not enough.
Another example is in the classroom. The teacher may deliver the information and get through the material and thus provide a service to the students. In fact this is one of the most important services as school provides. But if the students do not feel as if they have an opportunity to have a dialogue about the material and to be recognized as people and not just numbers in a classroom, hospitality is not exercised. In fact, when we provide customer excellence and hospitality seminars for faculty we go over the issue and provide the following scenario to start a class to improve in-class hospitality.
· The professor greets the students
· Asks how they are and listens for response
· Reviews past class highlights and asks if there is any need to clarify any
· Asks for questions or issues from the last class
· Introduces the topics for the day and
· After the class ends is the last one out the door to make sure that if any students have
· questions or look confused she can help them right then and now.
· We also teach the faculty how to get the students’ names since hospitality does call on developing a name to name rapport with the students. They are not just “whatshisname:” after all.
· Finally we assure that office hours are actually being met. That is where the dialogues from the classroom really take place and if the office hours are not met, hospitality between faculty and student is lost.
Hospitality Includes Talking and Listening to Students
But key to all of developing hospitality is actually entering into a dialogue with students and listening to their issues and concerns. Very few schools so this. They just go ahead and focus on services and forget that hospitality is the key to developing a long range engagement and relationship with their students. It is important to listen to students; to encourage them to enter into that dialogue on what makes them feel wanted on campus and what does not. This is what we do as part of the campus service audits we perform for schools but it is something you can do also. To not just provide services but real hospitality.
You cannot make something better until you know that it is not its very best yet. You need to understand the situation and the way service and hospitality are being delivered on campus to be able to make them better. This is what is discovered when a campus service audit is completed but there is also a simple way for you and everyone else on the campus to start learning what works and what doesn’t.
In the book The Power of Retention Dean Bill Schaar of Lansing Community College in Michigan was discussed and his way of saying hello to everyone he met. He would walk the campus every morning saying “good morning young man/lady” to every student he walked by. This made their day since a man in a suit and tie said hello to me. We added to this hello by asking students how they are and listening to their response. They will most often tell you. That provides an opportunity for any less than positive responses to be explored. This is a good way to start to gauge how students are doing and what they are feeling about the school.
Add to that with another suggestion that will start to unveil hidden issues that students are bothered by.
Get out of your office and walk the campus. As you walk the campus do say hello to every student you see and ask them how they are doing as has been suggested earlier. But now I want you to just go up to random students and ask a simple question.
Introduce yourself with the give a name get a name technique as has been discussed earlier. But then tell the student that you are interested in asking a question about his or her experience on campus. You would like to be able to help make the student experience even better. Then ask this simple question and then listen for the answer. “If you could change one thing starting tomorrow to make your experience at the college better and more enjoyable what would that be?”
The secret now is being patient. This is an issue that many students have thought about but have not really voiced so it may take a minute for them to put words to their issue or concern. So just listen. They also may simply say that they cannot think of anything. This may be because they may not have anything they would like made better though this is doubtful. Or it may be because they are not sure you really want to hear from them. So if they have nothing to tell you at the moment give them your email address and tell them to feel free to email you if they think of anything. You may well be surprised at the number of emails you will get.
If they do tell you something make sure you let them know you will pass on their concern and even get their email so you can let them know if any changes are to be made to maker the issue better.
Using this simple method of talking and listening to students you will start to build up a long list of issues that can be addressed to make both service and hospitality better. In turn you will make the students feel more appreciated and increase retention though to graduation as you make the school better and stay in touch with students.
Hiring the Right People
One simple error that many schools make when it comes to service excellence is they hire the wrong people. They hire people who don’t care or are even antithetical to the idea of customer service. Yet then they want these same service agnostics to be able to provide good customer service. This is a sure way to assure that there will be service issues at the school.
It is important that when hiring people a college realizes that the ability to perform a set of tasks is relatively easy to get in a person. People can learn the technical aspects of a job readily. People can be taught how to answer the phone though we must say that the audits and training we have been doing lately make me wonder if anyone cares about phone service lately. But still a person can be taught how to pick up a phone and provide a positive answer. A person can be taught how paperwork goes from one stack to another. People can be taught most any task even teaching if that is the goal of the school. And faculty who know the subject matter are readily available but faculty who care about customer service, not as readily there.
But having a pleasant personality and a caring concern for the students and the college’s other customers requires more than technical skills. It requires people who have a service-oriented makeup at the very least. It calls for hiring people who care about other people first and foremost. The sort of person who would even perhaps take an extra step or three to make sure that someone is served and treated well. The sort of person who puts others’ needs before one’s own. The sort of person who cares about customers and service to and for them.
So how does one find that sort of person for say an office position? During the interviews. Normally interviews are spent on the technical aspects of a person’s background or ability. But more time should be spent on non-tangible issues and questions of customer service and retention are important to a school. A simple question that one can actually ask is how they view students – as customers or as something different than customers. And then follow that up with a question about what does that mean the student as customer? Can you provide me an example when you went out of your way to help a student or colleague?
You can propose a situation and ask for responses. “Let’s say a student comes to you and he or she is upset at being sent from office to office trying to find something out or accomplish some action he has just come into your office and displays some anger toward you as a result of being shuffled from office to office? How do you handle that? Then you can add to it and even say that he has used some inappropriate language perhaps. What do you do?
Then listen closely to the response. The person should put the student above self in these situations and even show some understanding for the inappropriate language if the student has been given the old campus shuffle. He should be able to discuss how he would make certain that the student would get the service he or she needs to accomplish his goal. One thing to listen for is if the person takes steps to make certain that the student will get a finally satisfying outcome.
For example, the interviewee could start with an example of give and name get a name as a beginning point for creating a personalized relationship with the student. If he or she is not willing to at least share names, then service is not going to be a real concern for the employee. Next he should make sure he really understands the problem and get it clearly written down. Then he would find out who to give the issue to do making phone calls or by getting the student’s name and telephone number so he can have someone get back to the student rather than send him off on another set of shuffles around campus. The employee might say he would get the problem to the correct person and have someone call the student back at a time convenient to the student. These would be good indicators of a person who sees service as valuable and students as the central customers. It is not the only correct response but it is one of the things to listen for to hire the correct people.
Customer service and hospitality are quite easy to provide yet too many schools have not caught on to the relationship between service excellence and retention. They cling to an old incorrect notion that students are not customers with choices to leave the school and go somewhere else. To increase retention and completion rates colleges and universities need to extend more academic hospitality and service to their customers – their students..
If this article made sense to you, you may want to contact N.Raisman & Associates to see how you can improve academic customer service and hospitality to increase student satisfaction and retention.
UMass Dartmouth invited Dr. Neal Raisman to campus to present on "Service Excellence in Higher Ed" as a catalyst event used to kick off a service excellence program. Dr. Neal Raisman presents a very powerful but simple message about the impact that customer service can have on retention and the overall success of the university. Participants embraced his philosophy as was noted with heads nods and hallway conversations after the session. Not only did he have data to back up what he was saying, but Dr. Raisman spoke of specific examples based on his own personal experience working at a college as Dean and President. Our Leadership Team welcomed the "8 Rules of Customer Service", showing their eagerness to go to the next step in rolling Raisman's message out. We could not have been more pleased with his eye-opening presentation. Sheila Whitaker UMass-Dartmouth
If you want more information on NRaisman & Associates or to learn more about what you can do to improve academic customer service excellence on campus, get in touch with us or get a copy of our best selling book The Power of Retention.