Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Complaints Can Lead to Good College Customer Service

A college president called me about having a workshop at his school. They are
looking at a potential large enrollment drop following the end of the first semester. He said he wanted me to only focus on the positive aspects of the school’s customer service. “I always believe in focusing on the good. What we do well. Use that as a basis to build.”

“Ahhh” I replied. “There is part of your problem right there. You need to focus on the negatives. On what students are complaining about. We need to set up a system that encourages students to complain.”

He was aghast. “You want us to get our students to complain? But that will just encourage them to be unhappy and focus on the negatives. Besides, I don’t need more problems. I want fewer of them.”

“Exactly the reason to elicit as many complaints as you can.” I replied. “You cannot fix a problem until you know about it. If you aren’t aware of issues, they sit there, fester, grow and then explode in attrition rates. You need to get as many complaints as you can get. Then check into them.”

“To see if they are valid before we go ahead and fix the issue” the president asserted quite presidentially. “No sense putting time and money into an issue if it’s not a real problem. I mean just because a student says something is so doesn’t make it so”

“NO.” I empathetically responded. “If a student thinks it is a problem, it is. If it is only a problem for that student, it is still a problem even if only for that student. Keep in mind that if that student is unhappy, has a complaint. He or she may well get to the point of saying goodbye. That’s how attrition rates get up there. Individual students decide to leave.”

“But if I send a lot of time on one student, I’m not sure that’s an efficient use of resources. Shouldn’t we do a survey or something and see how a larger group of students feel about things. What if that student is wrong and a change makes others unhappy?”

“Okay, first off, if one student complains about something, it is likely that others feel the same way. They just haven’t said anything. And at the very least, they have heard of the problem and will give it credence since it came from a fellow student. Complaints are Malthusian after all. The complainer tells another and another and the “anothers” tell yet others and so on. So they need to be dealt with.” Then I added “But first you need to develop a way to flush out the complaints”
“I see. We have a student satisfaction survey we’ve used before. Our VP of Students developed it with her staff. We generally do well on it so maybe there just aren’t that many issues out there.”

“Well, maybe there aren’t. Surveys can be used as a starting point but they need to be developed by someone who does not have a vested interest in the answers. Your student services group may be the best in the country but I hope you can see that they could have a vested interest in the results. They could have, subconsciously of course, devised items, topics and issues that would lead to certain types of responses. You need someone who is detached from the results. Who is interested only in getting valid results. I can make some recommendations of good people if you like.” Didn’t want him to think I was saying this simply to try and get some more work.

We discussed some consultants and then went on to some other methods of gathering complaints such as comment cards like the Applegrams at Lansing (MI) Community College, or an email address set up just for complaints, or even better, a blog to discuss issues students have. I mentioned that in any of these or other methods, they should not be anonymous if at all possible.
“But will students give their names?” he questioned.

“Some will, some won’t but if you can get a name, it is always better. First you set up a community. Second, names provide a level of integrity to the issue. And third, you have someone to get back to with a solution or a description of the review and resolution of the issue.” I let the pause of silence by note taking go by and continued.
“You’ll want to always acknowledge the complaint. Best to do so in a way that can let others know of it so they can join into the discussion. But also to let them know you are taking the issues seriously.” I added.

“But that will broadcast any problems. That’ll tell everyone we have issues. Won’t that just multiply the problems and hurt our image.”

“Only if you don’t respond to and don’t resolve the problems. If the school accepts it’s not yet perfect and let’s students know what they already know, you will get honesty points. Then when you resolve the complaint and publicly let everyone know you did and what you did, that makes the school a hero.” His “ahh” let me know to go on.

“The research is clear that when a business, in this case a school owns up to an issue and solves it to the customer’s benefit, you turn a complainer into a supporter. Maybe even an advocate. Let the issue stay out there and fester and you could create a group of insurgents dedicated to hurting the school by exploding their complaints to everyone they can reach.”

For further discussion of the benefits of complaints, contact me or just wait for more postings. If you know of any other complaint gathering ideas or stories of how handling a complaint turned a potential insurgent into an advocate, let us all hear.

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. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Active Listening is a Powerful Customer Service Tool

One of the most powerful customer service tools is simply not used enough nor that well.

“What? What did you say? I’m sorry I wasn’t really listening.”

Right. That’s the problem and the tool. Listening

God in her infinite wisdom gave us two ears and one mouth to tell us something. To listen twice as much as we talk. But we don’t really listen very well or actively. No most of us are very much like doctors who only listen to their patients 28 seconds before making a preliminary diagnosis of what the illness is. That is why so many people end up with incorrect prescriptions or tests. Because the doctor really did not listen to what the problem really I before determining what the answer would be. That also explains the colonoscopy when you came in with a cough…

It is rather amazing how much one can learn simply by listening to another person. So much of customer service is based upon listening that it is a very impressive skill that one must learn and practice in every situation. One cannot help another person until he or she knows exactly what the need or problem is. And what needs to be solved if anything.

The best way to listen is called active listening. Active listening refers to the activity of actually hearing what the other person has to say before preparing a response. It also calls for paraphrasing back with what the individual said to assure him or her that you actually listened to her. Most of the time what we do is listen and focus in on one or two words perhaps a phrase that the other person has used. So we begin preparing what we are going to say based on those words. Active listening requires you to actually not begin thinking of what you will say until the person has stopped speaking and you have summarized or paraphrased what it is that you believe you heard.

The best way to accomplish this in a customer service environment is to actually take notes as the individual is talking. Write down what he is saying is if you were sitting in class listening to a professor provide a discussion on a topic you had to remember for an exam. If you write down what the person says you must listen actively and not start thinking of what you are going to say in response. Once the person has stopped speaking, and we know that by waiting for an actual pause of at least two seconds (one one thousand, two one thousand), you then repeat back to the person what it is you believed he or she was saying. Finish that with “is that what you were trying to tell me?”

If the person says yes, then you can go on to solve the problem.

Too often we are so eager to try to respond to the issue, to solve the problem that we don’t listen to the entire statement the person is making.

People tend to speak about their problems as if they were writing an essay with the classical three part structure. The first section is an introductory statement that often sets the event of a problem within the context which we called the set-up, This is followed by the body of the problem in which the person tells you what the actual issue is, often in great detail This is followed by a request for action such as “what are you going to do about it?’

So if we listen only to the beginning, we only listen to the context and not the problem itself. This almost always leads to an attempt to solve the wrong issue. Or even worse to a statement that “we don’t work on that in this office” and sending the student on to another office creating the shuffle. But if you took the time to listen closely to the entire statement and took notes you will surely get the information you need to be able to resolve the issue.

Active listening and note taking is also a very powerful tool in other situations as well. Just last week a client asked me how I was able to capture so much of the reality of the institution when I had only been on campus for two days. Those two days were spent meeting with a number of groups of individuals and random discussions with students to let them talk through their issues with customer service on the campus. I used active listening which included a great deal of note taking. I did not try to do any problem solving during the listening process. Instead since I had extensive notes I was able to study the notes following the listening sessions and pull together some very clear and compelling issues that were interfering with providing good customer service on the campus.

If I did much more than prompt the people into talking about the situations on campus I would not have been listening actively. I would’ve been participating and that would’ve defeated the purpose.

So the next time you look in the mirror take note that you have two ears and one mouth. Use those ears at least twice as much as you talk. If you do I can assure you will increase your customer service to your clients immensely.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

They are More Like Clients than Customers in a Store

They are not coming to us to buy a shirt, or skirt or an IPhone or any retail goods or anything material at all. They are after an intangible. Students come to school to obtain education, knowledge, improvement and growth. And most importantly, the certification they will need to get to the job or next step in their lives.
They are incomplete individuals who are intellectually weak or ill in a sense. They go to school and classes to learn how to make themselves stronger and sounder. They come to higher education realizing they are incomplete and intellectually weak beings that have to learn how to strengthen mind and body to be able to run and compete in the marathon of career and adult life. As if higher education were a large clinic filled with specialists who will help them find out what is wrong with them. Then provide them answers, remedies and prescriptions that will make them better and stronger. As if faculty were intellectual physicians.
Actually, students and faculty/staff of colleges can fall readily into the patient-doctor/client relationship quite nicely.
Patients/clients come to an expert/doctor to have the expert study their needs, weaknesses, strengths and then tell them what needs to be done and guide them to resolve a condition or improve their situation. We do the same in a college. Just as a doctor will diagnose a patient and then tell him/her what course of action needs to be followed to become healthy and meet the patient’s goals, even if it is bad news, we

do the same in the learning/teaching process. We begin by diagnosing student knowledge and skills. Then determine a course of action and rehabilitation that are designed to help the students become intellectually healthier and fitter for future growth. Then the faculty check on the patient’s progress, chart it and determine what next steps can and should be taken. So faculty are not just doctors in title but in action. Though as my wife so rightly informed me when I received my PhD. “Dr. Walker the OBGYN guy can deliver babies. You? Only speeches.”
So then what does customer service mean for a doctor and a classroom professor? Is there a good side-armchair-manner that PhD doctors should be aware of to be successful with their patients in a class? Yes there is.
Alice B. Burkin, a leading medical malpractice specialist at the Boston law firm of Duane Morris, LLP, has researched what makes a doctor less likely to be sued and more likely to be successful with patients. The major thing the successful physicians do, which also makes them less likely to be sued for malpractice even when they might have committed it, is treat patients as valuable individuals and indicate that they really do care about them.
Another aspect of their personality is an important one. They are not arrogant. They say hello. They listen to patients, listen to their answers and answer all of their questions. They explain the condition or course of treatment in lay terms so patients can understand. They are human and personable. They enlist the patients in the process and care. They indicate to the patients that they actually care about them as an individual and not as a co-pay keeping them from yet another co-pay. And that caring means assessing their real needs and telling them the truth. Even when the truth is painful.
Even when they came in because they thought they had a bug and it turns out be much more than that. If the doctor followed the always right dictum, she would just tell them they were right, “It is just the flu.” I would suppose anyone would agree that this would neither be right nor good customer service especially when the situation is much worse but curable if the patient knows the truth and follows the prescribed remedy. Telling the patient he is wrong and this is what he must do even if he does not wish to do so is an example of what would be excellent customer service.

What is good customer service for medical doctors also works as in- class customer service for professors. Faculty and all members of the community should begin by caring about the students. Do not expect them to all be brilliant and care about your subject or what you do. They likely may not. They may actually be taking the course being taught because they have to take it. Just as we all had required courses we could neither stand nor see as valuable, so will students in your institution. But as the good medical doctor would do, explain to the students why the subject matter is important, not just intellectually, but to them, to their well-being, to their future and life. For example, when I taught composition at a maritime college, I started by assigning the students to write a job application letter. When they received them back and I explained why the XYZ Company could not hire someone who has poor grammar, awkward sentence structure, weak word choice, unclear or awkward sentences because log entries and things like damage reports must be precise and correct or there could be major problems, they started to get the idea.
They were never really thrilled, maybe not even moderately happy about having to take composition but they saw some value and did work at improving their writing. But then, I recognized and accepted that reality as well as the fact that these technical school students actually had very little knowledge of grammar, sentence structure, punctuation or even spelling. But I knew that going in and set my expectations at the same level a medical doctor would when prescribing therapy. They know most patients will not follow instructions precisely, so they overstate hoping to obtain at least enough compliance with treatment to help the patient become healthier. This is especially so if the treatment or the prescription is painful or not all that pleasant. Sort of like learning grammar and structure for my first year mariners.
If a professor would do the same at the start of a class, it may help keep him or her from getting upset when students are neither all that interested nor knowledgeable about the subject being taught. That they are not excited about the course should not be surprising to anyone. They really do not know about it yet. It is the faculty member’s job to get them energized on the topics (okay maybe just attentive) so they will learn the subject. If they knew the information or skill coming in, they would not need the class or the faculty member after all.
This is also true for school administrators or staff. Most students will
never be as excited as you may be about some regulation, procedure or
rule the student has broken or overlooked. Students usually have no

real interest in them as can be seen by how very few of them ever read any of them inside the catalog whose accuracy we sweated over, reviewed and checked before giving it to them. So, be a doctor to them. Explain in terms they understand and resolve a course of action.
And most important, do not be arrogant. It is the arrogant doctors who lose patients and malpractice suits. And it is the arrogant professors who lose their students, their interest and respect. It is only on this issue, response to arrogance that the customer is always right.
Just as the good, less likely to be sued medical doctor, we must be amiable, professionally personable with students. Learn their names. Find out who they are. Get a full write-up on them. Maybe faculty could even start the class each semester as a doctor would with an information sheet to learn more about them, their knowledge in the subject, any anxieties they bring to the class so the professor can teach and remedy their needs even better. For administrators, get them talking. Take notes and use what is said to examine the issue before determining a remedy. And never be like one of the doctors who do not care. Do not stop listening or jump to a conclusion about the case. Just as bad doctors make bad diagnoses from not listening, so will you. That’s how doctors lose patients and schools lose students.
The customer is always right and other failed concepts from business should not be transferred to academia. Customer service must be a priority on campuses today as we work with a student body that expects it. But, it must be done right. And that is quite different from the customer being right.
In order to be able to fulfill their obligations to the patient/student, the doctor and professor must retain control over the examination and session. The patient is there to be helped and must be an active participant in the process but the expert must be in control. If a patient is unruly or unmanageable, the examination will be curtailed and the patient asked to leave. The doctor will neither allow herself to make a wrong diagnosis nor allow other patients to have their care harmed. If a patient checks himself out of the hospital, a doctor will most often suggest the patient not come back to the practice. As for cell phones, most doctors tell patients to shut them off when they come in the office.
   So in the classroom, the faculty member should act like an intellectual/training  doctor. If a student checks him or herself out of the class without authorization, that student is not allowed back into the class that day and maybe in the future. Rude or unacceptable behavior is just that and does not belong. Do not allow disruptive behavior just as a doctor would not permit it in an examining room or a ward, for it will harm the other students. And cell phones are not allowed.
That by the way is actually good customer service. Especially when we accept that the customer is not always right but our job is to make them righter even if the medicine may not taste good.
If this article makes sense to you
you will want to get my new book
The Power of Retention
: More Customer Service for Higher Education
by clicking here

N.Raisman & Associates is the leader in increasing student retention, enrollment and revenue through research training and customer service solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them
We increase your success

Neal is a pleasure to work with – his depth of knowledge and engaging, approachable style creates a strong connection with attendees. He goes beyond the typical, “show up, talk, and leave” experience that some professional speakers use. He “walks the talk” with his passion for customer service. We exchanged multiple emails prior to the event, with his focus being on meeting our needs, understanding our organization and creating a customized presentation. Neal also attended and actively participated in our evening-before team-building event, forging positive relationships with attendees – truly getting to know them. Personable, knowledgeable, down-to-earth and inspiring…. " Jean Wolfe, Training Manager, Davenport University

“We had hoped we’d improve our retention and with the help of Dr. Raisman, we increased it by 5%. Rachel Albert, Provost, University of Maine-Farmington

“Thank you so much for the wonderful workshop at Lincoln Technical Institute. It served to re-center ideas in a great way. I perceived it to be a morale booster, breath of fresh air, and a burst of passion.” Shelly S, Faculty Member, Lincoln Technical Institute

“Neal led a retreat that initiated customer service and retention as a real focus for us and gave us a clear plan. Then he followed up with presentations and workshops that kicked us all into high gear. We recommend with no reservations; just success.” Susan Mesheau, Executive Director U First: Integrated Recruitment & Retention University of New Brunswick, Canada