Monday, July 16, 2012

Academic Customer Service is not Necessarily Hospitality Too

There is a significant difference between providing services and hospitality. Services are actions we take to allow our customers, students, to get done what they need to do. They are obligatory. Hospitality is making students (and the general college community) feel welcome and valued. These are different in not just function but in form as well.

Services are provided by the offices and institution to allow students to get their required actions done such as paying bills, registering for classes, getting their tests back and the sorts of everyday functions that the institution and students are dependent . Hospitality is the smaller yet equally significant actions we take to make people feel they are happy on campus. Things such as saying hello to everyone we encounter; making eye contact, smiling at people and just doing what needs to be done to make people feel welcome on campus. In other words as Principle 1 of the Principles of Good Academic Customer Service states Every student wants to attend Cheers University and every employee wants to work there!  “where everybody knows your name and they’re awfully glad you came” (If you want a copy of the collected 25 Principles of Good Academic Service just email me by clicking here.)

Let’s try a graphic example of the difference. The picture below is from a campus service excellence and hospitality audit we did on a major university. It is the treasure’s (bursar’s) office entry door where students once paid their bills in person.

Note that the entry door has been blocked by a large structure that will not let anyone enter the office. This structure is a device intended for students to drop off their checks without having to go into the office. Here’s some of what we said about this new “service” in our report to the university.

Treasurer’s Office
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 that 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 left. 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 boiling and some bill pay issues on-line. Furthermore they are outraged that if they owe money their school Cards are shut off leaving them without access to some services and even the ability to enter their own dorm which requires the use of the school Card

We agree with the students a do not understand why the Treasurer’s Office has become off limits to students. By making it a self-service operation it limits the customer service that students have come to expect and want especially when it comes to something as important and sensitive as their bills and payments for the University. Granted the University is trying to move students more and more to the web and bill pay online as well as trying to shuttle them off to one stop Solution Center but we do not believe this is working well or to the benefit of the University’s service level. The most obvious message from the blocked entrance to the Treasurer’s Office is a clear statement that the University or at least the Treasurer’s Office does not want to provide some basic service in a person-to-person format which students want when it comes to their payments. We do not understand at all the University’s decision to block off the Treasurer’s Office from student access and strongly recommend that it be reconsidered. It sends a terrible anti-customer service excellence message and blocks students from conducting a basic service in which they feel a need to interact with a person. Some of the staff that work in the Treasurer’s Office did comment that they are not at all happy with the situation either and feel they are giving students short shrift on service. They also are not happy being the object of so many student complaints and wish to be able to meet with students to help them.

The new drop off center does provide a service but does so very poorly. It is still a service center but it is certainly not a hospitality center. Hospitality is blocked from being able to be delivered in fact. Moreover, the blocked doorway says that there is no welcome available or any real customer service as well. There is no one there to provide the hospitality and services that students want and expect. Many times students want hospitality even more than the service. What makes them feel welcome on campus is a person smiling and offering help as we see in the reasons why students leave a campus.

The drop off  box might make for quicker “service” for students since they will not have to wait to see a person, be welcomed (we can only hope) and complete their business., But quite often it is the hospitality of service that students crave even more than the service itself. In this case, students need to feel they have actually paid their bills so they have an added feeling of comfort that there will be no problem. That calls for someone in a bursar’s office to greet the student, meet with him or her, look over the bill and payment and assure the student that all is well. That is an example of the service being provided as well as hospitality.

There are many other examples on every campus in which services have taken over for hospitality. Let’s just look at the example of a faculty member passing back papers or exams. The usual way papers and exams are given back is they are handed to each student at the end of a class. The giving the assignment or test plus correcting is the service. The way they are handed back is the hospitality and another service. Normally the service is finalized when the names are called, the papers are handed back and the class dismissed. The service is completed but not the hospitality.

The hospitality comes in when the faculty member goes over the exams with students and offers extra help to understand the answers. Additional hospitality is extended when the professor hands back the exam and if the grade is not as high as possible, the faculty member asks the student getting the exam if he or she could use some extra help. The offer is an example of hospitality. The extra help when provided is the service. The offer is as important to the student as the service received. The offer says the faculty member cares and wants to help. The student receives a message that he or she is important since the faculty member has taken time for a personal comment beyond what is on the paper or exam.

The personal contact and offer are examples of academic hospitality and when the students want and need. If a student did not do well on the paper or exam he or she may want extra help but even more the student wants a recognition and offer of that extra help.

All campuses provide services. (Some much better than others.) But most every campus should know how to provide hospitality and service. Every campus can begin by doing simple things such as smiling at students, saying hello to them as they pass by and rethinking all their services to assure that they also provide hospitality as well as a perfunctory service.

Moreover, every service should be reviewed to make certain that it does not just provide a mechanical function as the treasurer’s office above but increases the contact between student and the school.  This is certainly true for the use of technology to replace services that were provided by a person.

Too many schools have embraced technology to provide basic services. Some are good and helpful such as some on-line registration systems but too many others have put the web between students and people to the deficit of hospitality. Too many technologically-based services cut out hospitality and replace it with perfunctory service. That is not good. More on this later.

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