Sunday, June 30, 2013

Students are Customers by Any Name

Colleges and universities are quite unique professional service providers that do
not respond well to retail customer service notions. And they should not. Retail customer service is about providing veneers of service at the point of sale for a tangible product. In fact, retail customer service is all about the brief point of sale moment which runs from “may I help you” to “cash or charge”, “come again” and handing the customer a purchased item. And even if the piece of clothing a clerk helped a customer buy is the wrong size, the consequence of that poor service is not significant. The item can usually be returned or a badly cooked meal sent back for another.

Even more the combined retail-service situations of a restaurant or a vacation is a limited, time bound occurrence even if it may have more than one encounter. A customer comes to a restaurant for a meal or to a hotel for a limited stay. The customer may encounter more than one point of sales/service provider; for example, a maître d, waiter, busboy, bellhop, front desk personnel and perhaps even a person in a cartoon character outfit at Disneyworld but these interactions are very limited both in time and singularity of experience even if a person may come to the hotel again in the future. And none of the encounters will have a lifetime effect on the customer.

The academic community is significantly different than a store. To begin with, most members of the college do not even accept the idea that students are customers. Inevitably, while working with a school, we will be told that “Students are not customers.”

That statement came out loud and clear while working with a publically-assisted university that was experiencing an average 52% attrition rate each year for over six years.. Fifty-two percent!!! Each year the university was losing over half its student body which meant that it was also losing over $6 million in tuition a year. Not good any time but in the current downturn in the economy and the underfunding of colleges and universities, losing that much revenue could be a financial disaster.

While I was discussing academic customer service, I referred to students as customers. A faculty member jumped to his feet and yelled out the statement. “Students are not customers.” There was some applause.

“Okay. If they are not customers or clients of the college, what are they?” I asked.

The professor thought for a moment and retorted that “They are students.”

“Ahhh. Then students are students?” That brought my philosophy courses into play. “Isn’t that an absolute tautology? Defining a term by the term? If so, isn’t that also a logical error that does not define what students are.” So I asked for a better definition.

“Students are people who come to the university to learn from us.”

“Okay. Are there any conditions placed on them to be able to do so?”

“Yes. We must accept them to the university first.”

“Do they then get to come here for free?”

“Paying does not make them customers. Their tuition does not even pay for half of the actual costs.”

“Just because they may not pay all the cost does not take away the fact that they are spending money for something, for services, even if they don’t pay for all of it.

       “They must pay some money to gain an education. They are here to learn from us. That makes them students not customers” another audience member chimed in.

“So your contention is they are paying for an education and that is the definition of a student not a customer? But isn’t that the definition of a customer? Someone who pays for goods or services”.

“Purpose controls the interaction not the exchange of dollars. It is the why of their coming to college; not the how. Since they come to college to learn, they are students not customers.”
“So if they come to learn they are students?”


“But is that really why they come to college? To learn?  Do they come to college to learn as an end in itself? I don’t think so. And I don’t think that’s why you went to college either. Sure, for you learning was a part of it but I think there was another reason too.”

“That’s ridiculous. I came to college to study literature because I love literature and not for any other reason.”

“No. That’s not wholly true and you know it. Sure you came to study lit, be an English major just like I did. But you could have done that anywhere without having to do it in a classroom. Nothing stopped you from reading all you wanted outside of college. But you went to college because you wanted to not just study literature; you wanted to get a job  teaching so you could do so. You came to college to become a faculty member and that’s a job. You went to college to get a job.”

“The goal of becoming a faculty member was secondary. I do that just so I can have time to study literature. If I didn’t have to teach, I would be even happier.”

“Let’s not go there because you can only say that because you have as job and likely because you’re tenured. If you didn’t have a job you wouldn’t have the time or luxury to say you don’t even want one. “

“That’s insulting.”

“Perhaps and if it is I apologize but it is true. Just ask an adjunct or unemployed PhD looking for a job. They’ll tell you that it is about getting a position, a salary. That’s what they are after. I mean haven’t we all heard “I went to college for ten years and I can’t get a job.” Not, “I went to college for ten years and thrilled I have all the time I want to just enjoy what I learned. Thank goodness I did not get those degrees so I could try to get a teaching position.”

‘And the truth is that you went to college as did all of us including me to become something. For us it was a faculty member and we did this not just once but three times to get the BA, MA and PhD in our case. And when you were in school, you took courses because you had to not because you wanted to learn some of that required stuff. And while you were a student, you grumbled too as do our current students about the costs and whether or not you were getting your money’s worth or were just wasting time with a second year of Spanish, or a calculus or science course perhaps. You thought you’d be better off if you could take more courses in your major.

‘We chose grad school by where we had the best chance to study with someone well-known so we could invest our time and money to learn and get a job. But if that prof was at Podunck U we would have found someone else because people do not get jobs from Podunck. Not good ones at least. Because grad school needs to pay off. Needs to give us a good return on our investment like a tenure-track position in a good school.

‘Is there anyone here who isn't identifying with any of this? Who didn’t care whether or not college led to a job? And before you jump up and claim ME, know that my follow-up question is “Okay, then will you give up your job and all that comes with it so you can just go and study and learn for the love of it? And if you say yes, I will have a resignation letter for you to sign and we’ll hand it in together so you can live your dream.” 

Dramatic grumbling from some followed. Those who agreed with me did not move for they knew that academic vengeance can be quite painful.

I continued. “And that is a consumerist attitude. I pay this to gain that. The pay may be money, time, hoop jumping or whatever but it is an exchange of value for a potential value in the case of college. And people who engage in that consumer action are customers and clients no matter if you call them students or something else.

‘We did it. Others before us did it and our current students do it and that makes them customers of our services. The only ones who did not have to do it were the ones wealthy enough to be able to not worry about a job or an income and I am not seeing many of them here. 

‘So let’s just accept the reality and do all we can to treat our customer appropriately. That doesn’t mean pander to them at all either. It means helping them to their goals such as learning and training they will need to graduate get a job, become a productive person and citizen. That’s finally what they pay us for after all. That’s why they submit to the required courses. Because they have to as a vocational necessity and because college may prepare them to succeed better in career and life. 

‘And if along the way, they like us, gain a good, disciplined broad education – so much the better for them. They also want respect, recognition and to feel valued and that is also what every customer wants in every service or business.”

Make your convocation or college year opening even more powerful with a presentation on academic customer service and retention. Inquire whether or not your date is still available by clicking here.
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

Monday, June 24, 2013

Figuring the Real Cost of a Cancelled Section

Imagine for a moment that you were in charge of an affair for hundreds of
people. You made arrangements with the caterers months ago. They had given you a list of food you could choose from. You chose it. Put down a deposit. Sent out invitations so people could attend. Chose all the necessary accouterments and all the arrangements. Took off a few days from work to be able to attend. Bought the guest books. Prepared fully. Then a few days before the affair, the caterer called and said that it was canceled because there were not enough guests to make it worthwhile. Sorry! Would you be upset? Likely so. Mad enough to spit and quit! Never use that caterer again.

Your school is that caterer most every semester, quarter and/or term when we cancel classes after registering students into them.

One of the greatest dis-services we provide students is during the scheduling of classes. Well, actually the non or re-scheduling of classes. Even more accurately, the canceling of classes during the last week or two prior to the start of classes. 

Higher education quite often shows absolutely no real concern for the students and the serfs it employs as adjuncts when deciding to cancel a section late in the game. And this is done so very often. Colleges have a very bad habit of waiting until the last week or two then determining that there are not enough students in section 8 so cancel it. This throws the lives and schedules of the students’ who registered for section 8 into confusion and disarray. So what if they registered months ago and planned their lives and schedules (academic and personal) around the promised section. So what if they planned their work around the sections they chose and we let them believe they would have right up until now. If they have to choose between work and non-intellectual stuff like food and paying for tuition, they should realize what comes first! Our convenience and poor planning!! And if they don’t like it they should just quit their job and……. What’s that? They did quit. Not the job. School. Well, we were right to cancel their section. They really aren’t dedicated to learning enough to change their entire schedule, their life, job, arrangements with others, and all the things we were equally pissed about when we were students.”

Just because the college made an offer to them which they accepted and put down money for, it is believed that doesn’t mean there is a real contract because this academia is a different place than the world outside it. In the world outside of the university when an offer is accepted and money passes hands, paperwork is filed that forms an actionable contract. The one who breaks the contract is liable often for real money, or at least for some penalty. But in the academic world, it is the client who feels the pain and colleges wonder why they are angry and dropping out to go to another school.

Most of the time, colleges and universities decide to cut a section for “fiscal reasons.” They believe there aren’t enough students in the section to make it fiscally reasonable. Colleges and universities just cut back on the number of course sections offered and then cull out sections with small numbers to save on the budget. They think that if they do not teach a low enrollment section, they will save money. Not really so. Not simply because the calculations are wrong but because losing a student because of a cut section can be just poor money management. 

For some reason, perhaps academic tradition, colleges and universities often use the number 10 as the required number of students enrolled in a section by a certain date to let a class go forward. That in itself befuddles fiscal and staffing realities.

Consider that the average number of adjuncts (i.e. part time indentured servants who get very low pay and no benefits. At least Wal-Mart gives its serfs a staff discount and $4 generic drugs and you don’t need advanced degrees to work there…) teaching course sections in the average college or university has risen to somewhere between 50% to 64% and could be more if figured by individual departments. That’s the number of adjuncts by the way, not the percentage of courses taught by them. That number is not available but could run as high as 75% considering some will teach as many sections as one section below full-time teaching loads, reductions in loads and such. It seems most of the introductory courses and required courses not taught by the newly hired junior, non-tenured, full-time faculty are taught either by adjuncts or T.A’s, i.e. part-time grad students who get tuition reduction and sometimes some pay too. So the odds are quite good that a course section especially required or introductory courses will be taught by a low-paid adjunct or T.A. How low paid? As low as possible. When $3,400 a section is like a princely sum. At $3,400 a section, an adjunct teaching 3 sections can make as much as $10,200 a semester!! Times two semesters that’s as much as $20,400 a year. There are hotel maids that don’t make that much though they do get tips which adjuncts don’t.

These facts are brought forward as part of a larger customer service point about the fiscal truths about canceling sections and pushing students to think very negatively about your college or actually quit. 

The Real Cost of Sections
All the above is to also question whether or not students are receiving the most important customer service of good teachers who are dedicated to their learning and available to assist them when they need help. Maybe not. But what the numbers show is that most courses in colleges and universities are being taught by underpaid, non-benefit receiving part-timers. Yes, some schools do provide some benefits and some adjuncts have unions to try to gain them better pay and benefits but to this point, it’s still serfdom for most. According to the College Board's article on its website What It Costs to Go to College the average tuition costs were as follows:
Four-year private $27,293
Four-year public $7,605
Two-year public $2,713

Now let’s assume that the average student takes 4 courses. So the four-year private student pays $6,823 per course; four-year public $1901 per course and two-year public $678 per course in tuition and fees. For public schools which do get some public financial support, tuition is not the only revenue source so the cost per course is actually lower for the student but to keep the playing field even, we’ll just figure tuition and fees. 

Now, consider that the best paid adjuncts seem to get around an average $3,400 a course, no benefits. Most get less and some quite a bit less but for this discussion let’s use the high priced serf cost. That way we won’t be understating costs. So to equal pay for an adjunct at a two-year school would need just about 5 students in the section to break even; a four-year public college or university would call for 1.2 students and a four-year private would need just a torso, not even a full student. Granted there are associated costs but this should provide a general notion that the number of 10 in a section for fiscal responsibility is just wrong. Schools  can of course really figure the particular break-even at your institution as follows:
          RPC = Tuition per student (revenue per student per course)            
           Cost of instructor per section        
= number of students to break even

If a school can break even in the teaching of a course, it should always offer the section. Granted there are some systems such as in California that do not provide additional revenue by offering additional sections. The universities get an apportionment from the state to run the school for the year and will receive no additional dollars. This situation is different but does not alter the actual cost of the class or the result of cancelled sections. In such situations the proviso above if the school can break even still applies.

As a customer service to students and as a retention service to itself. A canceled section loses students due their accurate perception of customer non-service and indifference to their needs by the school. The student realizes he or she is not really important to the school. The college loses because students will drop out when courses are not available. Though universities may think they save money when they cancel an under subscribed section, when one looks at the formulas above that belief is often proven untrue. The institution may very well either break even or make some money. Yes, we all know that most colleges are not into it to make money but a fund balance never hurts. And those that are for-profit, why lose revenue and EBITA? 

Why cancel sections students need to progress to graduation and lose students colleges need to make revenue to run the college? Especially when there is nothing lost? Except when sections are cancelled due to bad math.

This is chapter 5 of the new book Collegiate Customer Service from A to G: Admissions to Graduation to be published in September 2013. It will all be posted chapter by chapter on this blog between then and now.

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. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Contract and Student Engagement

this is chapter 4 of the new book Collegiate Customer Service from A to G: Admissions to
Graduation being provided free chapter by chapter here.
Call them students or whatever term or euphemism one wants, the fact is that students are consumers of what the college or university has sold to them and provides. They fit the basic definition of a customer too. A person who exchanges money or something of value for goods and/or services.

Students and their families have been sold a set of promises ranging from a vague mission to better their lives and the world to the usual marketing of “personal attention from a caring faculty and staff with small classes and all the services needed for you to be successful in your studies and future career...”  As a result, students and families pay out thousands, tens of thousands, a hundred thousand dollars to attend the school to receive what they were sold.

This offer of services, acceptance of the offer and exchange of money for the services proffered is the very essence of a contract between two parties. The contract creates a set of obligations upon the service provider (hereinto called the college) to furnish the customer (hereinto called the student) said promised services (attention, small classes, personal attention, caring, problem resolution, instruction, training, tutoring, access to faculty/administrators, assistance, support…).

The customer is obligated to fulfill the requirements of paying tuition and fees. They are also required to follow college policies as might be in a student handbook or course syllabus which are addenda to the contract and create sub-contracts in themselves. And the college is obligated to provide what it promised and sold the student.

If the college does not provide the student all that was promised/sold by the marketing and admissions process to entice the student to attend and pay, the contract as well as the student’s expectations is not met. To date, the result is that the customer becomes angered that the contract has been broken and will normally try to get the services promised or just decide it isn’t worth it and leave.

Dropping out is the traditional response. Though, in our increasingly heated and litigious society, this will likely change.  There will be a student who has paid tens of thousands of dollars to purchase a set of promised and contracted for services but has not received them. He or she will bring a suit against the school to recover costs, time spent as well as future earnings lost. All the student will have to do for example is show the marketing that promised small classes and then the section of X he had to attend in a lecture hall with 250 others. Or promised tutoring by professionals but was unable to get the tutoring or was given a non-professional peer tutor; or went to the faculty member’s office hours and the professor was not there on a number of occasions or simply said he or she did not have time to help and the student subsequently failed the required class.  Considering the increasingly skeptical and even negative attitude of the public toward higher education as discussed in Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety On Cost,Harsher Judgments On How Colleges Are Run by John Immerwahr and Jean Johnson a jury of college student parents would likely find the student’s case that an expansive contract was breached to be compelling.

Moreover, what colleges need to understand is that when the contract is extended through an offer of admissions and the student accepts and pays for that proffer, the question of whether or not the student should be in the college, or is capable of doing well ends. The proffered acceptance is a statement that we have determined that you are capable of doing the work to succeed or we would not have made the offer. To accept a student a school or members of the school’s community believes is not capable of doing the work, “not college material”, “not up to our standards” is to make a false offer and is inherently unethical as well as grossly horrible customer service. That would be as unethical as selling me, an older, 5’6”, 182 pound, out of shape, academic-type a course that would make me a center for an NBA team based on a review of my potential to be an NBA center.

 If a college or university accepts a student, the contract says the school has certified through its admissions process that this is a student who should be capable of graduating from the school. And it also says we will provide all the services we promised to make that happen. Or as Academic Customer Service Principle 7 says “The goal is not necessarily to recruit the very best students but to make the students you recruit the very best they can be.”

The contract also generates a set of human expectations including the sense of trust. Entering into a contract requires the customer to extend trust to the service provider thus providing an engagement between the college and the student. This extends the sense of trust just as an engagement to be wed sets up a strong need for trust in one another. If an event occurs to break or disrupt the faith, a very negative emotional response is the likely result. The engagement is off as in “I quit. I am dropping out of this place.” If there is not a full break, just a major frustration as caused quite often by the campus shuffle, the relationship becomes quite tentative requiring an infusion of good will and attention from the one who broke the engagement, the trust to deliver. This repairing of the damage in service or hospitality normally does not occur so the event just sets the process in place that will lead to the engagement being broken for good. This is also a result of other problems that tell the student he or she is not important or the experience is not worth the further investment of time, money and trust in the school’s word.

But again, the decision to leave the college, university, or community college is not a cool, rational one. It is as emotional as one party to an engagement catching the other lying to him or her, or worse faking interest. So the retention programs that do work are ones that focus on the emotional engagement process that tie the student into the school better. These are ones that generate attachment and a sense that we care to increase the students’ trust so that the engagement will last and the contract be met.

What students want is proof that they're buying into the school and its promise of engagement are real. They want the school to fulfill its promises and especially the one that it will focus on their needs and success and in so doing show real care about them. They want evidence that the school is reaching out to them and not just making them do all the reaching. They want to feel important, cared for and valued. These are all issues that pertain to the human, the emotional dimensions and not to intellectual ones. These are all issues that fall into the realm of academic customer service.

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.