Monday, July 29, 2013

Collegiate Customer Service and Points of Sale

Following some oral surgery in preparation for a tooth implant that took place in the morning the surgeon called the patient in the early evening just to see how he was doing. There had been no call from the patient about any problem or discomfort. The oral surgeon simply wanted to check on his patient and let him know he cared. This is a solid example of service after service.

In the retail world there is a concept of service after service. This is the activity in which a customer service specialist contacts a customer following the sale to show concern and care.  A store, in fact any business that cares about retaining its customers employs a practice of checking in with its customers after the initial sale. This is done to maintain service contact with the customer to show concern and care. Businesses, most business care about retaining their customer since they know that there is a real cost to obtaining new customers and once they have the person as a customer it is easier to sell to him again.

For example, when I bought a new car, the salesman called me back within a week of my driving off the car lot in my new Subaru. He asked if everything was okay and if the service I received was to my expectations and liking. He also extended a discounted oil change and a request that I complete a survey that would grade his and the dealership’s service and preparation of the new car. The oil change was a way to say thank you and get me to come into the dealership to spend more money having the car serviced at the place where I bought it.  The survey was one that went into the dealership itself as well as Subaru North America so it could grade the service being provided by the dealership. This was a part of the systemic approach to service being taken by Subaru that started at its advertising the cars for the dealership through to the checking on the satisfaction of the buyer.

Subaru controlled the full process of the buying of the car from the initial ad and brochures through the actual product and even the way the car was sold. It provided the salespeople with training on how to sell the cars and process the sale itself. It wanted to make sure that its name would be strong in the customer’s appreciation of the car and company. It left nothing to guess since the service people and mechanics also underwent training to make certain they took care of the cars appropriately. They also controlled the pricing of parts and the service after sale. Subaru knows that its reputation depends not on just the initial contact through advertising as well as the sale but what happens with its products (cars) after the sale. Subaru realizes that the initial sale is only a small part of protecting its name brand and keeping its customers for the next sale of a car in the future.

The sense of service after sale is another way that colleges and retail customer service are different. Colleges do not seem to care all that much about service after the sale because they seem to believe that the sale ends at admissions. It does not, it is made every day, every contact with people in the school is a separate sales, point of contact/sales event. But schools do appear to end the sale for the most part as soon as the deposit in in to hold the seat.

In fact, once the deposit is in the student’s account, the college’s contact with the student shifts from a sales approach to an academic one in which the customers are treated as if they are no longer all that important. The communications tend to move to what you have to do and here is the bill. When the colleges should be stitching the students into the school by sending notes thanking students for choosing the school along with helpful information, surveys about their experience in selecting the college and offers to help solve any issues that might cause them any problem with finally arriving at the college, they send bills. The schools act as if the deposit is a sure indicator that the student will show up so there is no need for service after sale but there is always a difference between the number of deposits and the actual yield, the number of students who actually show for classes.

In separating retail customer service from academic customer service one need only look at point of sale versus points of sale concepts. Yes, points of SALE in higher education.  Colleges and universities are definitely involved in selling their schools, images and seats to students – their customers. That’s what they do. They sell the school to students to bring them and the money they and society spend into the school. That’s how schools pay bills and salaries, buy equipment, benefits, heating, cooling, lights and so on. It makes colleges feel better to call sales recruitment or enrollment management, but the euphemism does not hide the reality. Colleges sell their image, products, services and benefits to students and their families but our point of sale is very different and that helps distinguish academic customer service from retail.

Retail whether of hard or soft goods is all about the point of sale. The sale must be completed during the period of opportunity or the sale is lost since the period is fixed and finite. If a person comes to a store for a blue shirt if the sale is not made while he or she is in the store, there is no sale at all. The point of sale is therefore fixed and limited to the time in the store. Thus customer service in the retail world is also fixed and limited. Service begins when the customer enters the store and ends when he or she leaves. And it is all focused on the sale itself. Service is to get the customer to buy something.

The usual scenario is the customer enters a store, passes through the decompression zone where he or she might be greeted by an official greeter such as was done well by Wal-Mart years ago. (They have since replaced the official smiling grandma and grandpa greeters with bored apathetic floor workers decreasing their initial customer service interactions.) The customer then goes onto the sales floor seeking the product he or she came to the store seeking. The physical appearance and ease of shopping is a part of customer service. The sales floor is set up in a way to try to maximize sales in a well thought out customer service point of sale store such as a Nordstroms, Whole Foods and many other smart sellers who realize that making their goods look appetizing and desirable increase sales. 

The customer finds the shirt he is looking for often with no assistance from an employee. At best, the employee is stationed behind a sales desk with a register. If the customer approaches to ask the location of shirts, the employee does engage in some very low level service. “Hello, may I help you? Men’s shirts. They are over there” perhaps smiling and pointing. Perhaps the service increases a bit when the employee says “come with me” and guides the customer to the shirts.

“What size? Color? Long or short sleeve? Ahh, here we are? May I ring that up?’ Back to the sales desk. That’ll be $xx. Cash or charge? Thank you very much. Thanks for shopping…….Come again” with a smile. This is a level of service often related to a commission sale which can often lead to greater service as well as a suggestion of a tie or pants to go with the shirt. The increased service can thus lead to an increase sale size which can benefit the salesperson in a commission-based environment especially in big ticket items sales such as a car.
On the lower side of service the customer finds the shirt himself. Takes it to the sales desk. Hands it to a bored cashier who asks “cash or charge?” Rings it up. “Thank you. Have a good day. Come again.”

In either scenario as soon as the bag with the shirt is handed over to the customer, the sale ends and so does customer service in most stores. In a high end store such as Tiffany’s a guard greets and checks you out as you enter and leave. Always a wonderful touchy feely moment. Service over.

There are of course less intensive soft sales which follow the retail pattern discussed above but in an intensive soft sale such as food at a restaurant in which product and service combine there are a few more points of sale and points of sale customer service (PSCS).
Point of Sale Customer Service (PSCS) One - The sale starts with parking and entering the establishment as it did with the hard product sale but this is quickly followed with the first PSCS in the form of a formal greeting. There is the greeting as with all sales who in this case a maître d’ or seater who welcomes you and asks something. This is true for all food sales and they range from “Good evening, welcome to…. How many in your party/your reservation is under….” to “You by yourself? Two?” The customers are led to seats where they are told “the waiter will be with you soon.” 

PSCS Two Initial Point of Sale – The waiter comes to the table, provides menus and “sells” drinks and appetizers. “Hi my name is Bart. I’ll be your waiter tonight. Can I get anyone a drink? Okay. An appetizer to start you off.” The service is more personal since part of the sale is for Bart to increase the tab while increasing his tip. Since there is a direct connection between the customer’s perception of his service and the pay-off for the waiter, he will, or at least should be more attentive to customer service. So he starts with the Give a Name technique as he provides his name though he does not try to get the customer’s name just a larger tab with drinks and appetizers knowing that the total sale will be the basis for his percentage tip. 

PSCS Three Follow-up and Point of Sale – This is when the waiter moves the customer to the entrée for the meal. He will take the order often reassuring the customer that he or she has made a good choice so as not to raise any cognitive dissonance issues in the choice-making process. The re-assuring at this point of sale is an important part in developing a relationship for the tip.

Point of Sale Two and PSCS Four – The soft product, the food, is delivered and eaten. The customer will now formulate his or her definition of the success of the sales process with determining the value of the food itself. The food is the actual product with the waiter’s efforts as part of the customer service essential to secondary valuation of the experience. If the food is not up to expectations, the entire sale will founder. The waiter’s services will depend in large part on the product itself finally. There is no way to fully separate the product from the service in a restaurant situation just as they valuing of the food experience will depend on the service and expectations of the product and service as discussed in the section of The Power of Retention on the famous, or infamous, service but satisfying food at the restaurant Durgin Park in Boston.

Point of Sale Three and PSCS Five – The entrée dishes are removed and deserts are sold. If the product and service experiences have been good to this point, the possibility of upselling to desert is better than if either the service or product have been weak to this point. Weak service and the customers will want to leave sooner than if service has been good. Weak product and there is no probability of extending the sale to include desert and increase the tab as well as tip.
PCSC Six Finalizing the Sale- The bill is presented either after or without desert. There may be another minor upsale attempt with “coffee anyone?” but that is normally a signal that the bill is about to be brought. 

In fact, coffee that will just delay the completion of the transaction may be the last thing the waiter who knows that another dollar or two will not increase the final tip much cares about. The sale is concluded and it is really “cash or credit” to get to the tip time. “Thank you for coming and have a nice day/evening” and the sale is fully concluded with the receipt of the payment, the tip and the customers leaving. Sure the restaurant would like good word of mouth and that is also the result of the service and especially the product but there is not a real expectation that the customer will return for the next meal of the day or even the next day. There will be time between the sales and purchases. 

A company that is often pointed to as an exemplar of customer service is Disney. Their soft product sales approach is even easier than in the restaurant and is not really applicable to the academic sale scenarios, academic PSCS that follows. In fact, Disney has a fairly easy customer service to provide. They have a fairly captive audience that has prepaid to use the facilities or they cannot get into the park. Pre-payment helps keep customers in the park even with horrendously long waits for rides. Not only do they not have to worry that one of their lead employees wearing a character costume will not say something that will harm sales because Sleeping Beauty, Goofy, Mickey etc. are not allowed to talk, just perhaps hug. And the employees have to go through a rigorous training program to assure that each and every one of them acts exactly alike right down to giving the same looking autograph to park goers. This could not happen in academic. 

And Disney does not have to worry that a character actor will not smile since their smiles are painted on. In the stores, the scenario is the same as above for hard goods with the restaurants like the soft goods. The hotels are a bit different but somewhat similar to food PSCS since they are often pre-paid so customers are less likely to leave and leave their money behind as well though tips are important. 

Disney compared to academic customer service and PSCS academic service is not analogous. Disney is easier. Imagine telling a faculty member he had to smile all the time never mind be nice to students and their parents, and be out on the campus saying hello to everyone or get fired. Don’t see it happening.

It is obvious that the initial point of sale for a college is admissions but that is just the first, not the only sale. Students need to be sold again and again if a school is to retain them through graduation and turn them into alumni donors which is clearly a goal of many if not all colleges and universities. The points of sale, of concern, follow from the efforts of the admissions process and people and then include most every class, process, interaction and show of hospitality of student and college or university personnel.  The sale is not one to make more money except at the end of a semester, term or year when a bill becomes due again. The sale is to reinforce the engagement between college and student based on the students’ appreciation of the faith in the engagement and the academic customer services rendered. The sale does make it easier to increase tuition if the customer feels he or she is being well sold of course.

The final good of college is an intangible we know as education leading to hope for a job and thus a better life that becomes embodied in the only close to tangible thing college provides – a diploma. This good is thus both hard/durable because the tie between college and graduate cannot be broken as well as soft/consumables such as classes and direct services and hospitality like at a restaurant. 

Higher education sells belief and hope in the experience called college that leads to retention and graduation. Schools do not provide any tangible service product as do other professional services that fill a tooth or mend a bone, cure an illness or prepare and serve food to be eaten during the sitting. Colleges make promises and then grade their customers as opposed to how most every other business does. They have the customers grade the product and/or service.  Academic institutions have evaluations such as in-class evaluations of professors but they are only responded to in the extreme when a faculty members scores are so very low that someone needs to do something. Schools do not produce products based on what customers want or need but based on what they think they want to give them and what we feel they need. Sometimes that means just what a school needs to deliver to give someone something to do and save budget and positions or because a professor wants to teach a course whether the customer wants or needs it.

Colleges can do this because their products are intangibles that have been pre-sold and pre-paid for as required necessary credentialing to be able to succeed in a career and society. Colleges have also situated their business into the position of expertise that is not to be questioned. In fact, question it too much and they can even find ways to fail the customer.
But because they sell a goal – graduation and a job – that takes a long period of time to achieve, colleges are exposed to many more points of sale and points of customer service than other businesses. In fact, the sale is not completed at admissions or the first day of classes. Students make “buying decisions” every day, every class, every hour, every contact with the school. In the morning or evening when homework or a set of classes looms ahead, the student must decide whether or not to spend time and effort to buy the classes and their learning. Buying in this point of sale is not with money at this moment, that’ll come at the beginning of the semester and has already been paid in most cases but to purchase with effort and time. The decision to go to class, to buy the class must also be made for every single class. 

Attendance is thus a good indicator of the strength of the desire to continue buying and staying at the school. In fact, it should be argued that attendance is one of the strongest indicators that the sale is being made or the customer lost. Moreover, if a school really does care about retention it should have an institutional attendance policy that says attendance is required. That is how strong an indicator attendance is for a school.

Education is an emotional sale with some pragmatism blended in about it as the pathway to a better life and job. This is a sale that is based on engagement, trust and faith that “if I give myself over to the college it will get me to my goal of graduation and a job”. These two primary points of service are each very important since they are all points of reselling the school and its ability to deliver.

The sales are based then on trust and faith. The currency is not dollars but buy-in. These are emotional investments that require constant, continuous and consistent selling to the customer through service and through and then after the sale. This is to provide students the belief that there is and will be strong emotional and affective return on the investment of trust if they but buy us one more day, one more class, one more semester. 

Thus it is extremely important to recognize that every person, every contact, every interaction with the school from the parking lot through people, policies and procedures creates a point of sale and a point of sale customer service situation. Every person from the president on up needs to realize his or her role as a salesperson of the school. All offices must accept that they are also points of sale and service. Faculty must understand that the ways they sell their subjects, their information and training through lectures, seminars, demonstrations, interactions and so on are all points of sale and service. Theirs are the most important services of all. People who answer the phone, the website, cafeteria, housing, maintenance, security, everyone and everything are points of sale. The campus itself needs to sell the school after all the lack of a place to park might very well mean "no sale" for the day as the commuter student drives away in a huff. Or poor lighting in the halls can make a student feel unwelcome or even a dirty bathroom can cancel the sale that because it can say that the school does not care about its students. It is extremely important that all of these PSCS go well to increase sales of the school leading to increased retention and graduation rates.

A longitudinal study of six-year graduation and attrition rates of over 1400 US four-year colleges and universities of all sectors indicates an average of only that PSCS is not going well. The study shows that American higher education is losing an average of 48% of every cohort it starts. This is an average with some schools losing much larger percentages of their enrollment to the point that it is a wonder they can stay in business. Moreover since this is the average over six years of six year graduation cohorts, an average his means that on an average year 48% of all students are leaving higher education. If any other business lost that many customers, that many sales, it would likely be out of business a long time ago. Very few businesses, even one that represents 2.6% of GDP can normally exist with such a high level of lost sales and revenue.
Higher education needs to embrace academic customer service and train at every point of sale to retain students through graduation and its own revenue stream. It also needs to realize that enrollment is not a point in time but an ongoing, continuous process as shown in the diagram below.

A major error that most colleges and universities make is that they envision enrollment as a process that starts at recruiting and an application and ends upon acceptance of an offer to enter the school.  This is simply wrong. Enrollment is an on-going process that starts with the first contact of the school with the potential student and does not end even at graduation. It continues with enrollment into the alumni organization and onto a donor’s list. 

There are four major enrollment events in a student’s life.
1.       the decision to attend
2.       the show on day 1
3.       staying in school and
4.      graduation.

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
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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
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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

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