Thursday, January 30, 2014

Measuring Customer Service and Retention Success

While meeting with a college president who was hiring my firm to do a customer service audit of her school, she asked me a basic and important question. “How
do you measure success? How do you know if this all works?”

There are five ways to make that measurement. Some of them may take longer than a year to determine but then changing a college’s culture is a long term project. Colleges are great at studying others and telling them how to change but a bit weak in studying themselves and making change occur on campus.

One, take a survey of students, staff, faculty and administrators at the beginning of a project to increase retention through any means. Then use that survey as a benchmark to judge progress. An increase in positives will show success in the area that the survey question covers.  We include a survey of all these groups in our customer service audits so our client colleges and universities have a way to make both measurements of success and decisions about what needs to be done next.

For example, one question in the survey asks students to rate the following “Employees always stop what they are doing to assist me” If the ratings on that go up into more positive range, from a 3.5 to a 4 for example, then that shows some progress being made on that customer service factor. If not, then this is an area that more training and accountability are called for. Or, the college has not been making this issue a priority for change and needs to focus on it now. It is easy to see what progress or lack of it is made for each of the items on the survey given after the initial benchmarking survey. It is also quite easy to see if the overall scores for positive customer service are increasing or staying the same.

One simple survey that any school can use is to ask students and the college community the following simple question. “If you could change one thing at the college tomorrow to make the experience even better, what would it be?” You will be amazed at the wealth of response the questions unleashes. Put the list into a high to low importance taxonomy by how many times an item was mentioned. Then start solving the items one by one going down the list.

Take that survey each semester and see how many items are repeats versus how many you have taken care of and are no longer on the list.

Two, see if there have been any changes in population. Note I did not say retention. That is because too many schools focus on the freshman to sophomore numbers and call that retention. At a college that was considering using our services we were told that their retention was good but could be better. “It is 80%” they said. Eighty percent! That would place them in the top tier of college retention leaders. But alas when we dug just a bit more we saw that they used retention to refer to the entry class number for the first year against the second for a cohort of students. But that ignores the fact that retention is a process that starts at the first day on campus and ends at graduation. Students drop out at all stages along the path to graduation. In fact, if schools check their actual numbers they might well find that there are more drops during the second/sophomore year than any other.

So we talk about retention as a matter of total population in total including all students in all levels of study prior to graduation.

A way to measure success in retention is to compare the year’s starting population against the next year’s while subtracting transfers in from the total of the second year. Then calculate the percentage to get your real retention number. So if the college had a total population of 2,500 in one year and the next year had a population of 2,450 minus 50 transfers in for a retained population of 2,400 that would show a retention rate of 96% which would be extraordinary.

By doing a year to year or even semester to semester retention percentage, a school can know if its efforts are working or not. If the population is broken into classes (freshman through super seniors) the school can also know where the numbers of drops are occurring  The shifts in population increases may well be small ones at first but as the retention percentage starts to grow it will increase faster as the school is able to be pickier about who it lets in since it will need fewer new students to make the target population.

Three, follow student cohorts through from entry to graduation and compare successive cohort retention rates over the process from day one to graduation. So if the 2010 cohort began with 2000 students and graduates 1500, the retention rate based on graduation is 75%. That can be compared to the retention/graduation rate of the cohort that began in 2011 to see if there is a shift in retention rates. If there is an increase in the percentage from one cohort to another that will indicate that the efforts are working to retain more students.

This is a longer term process of course and will take at least four years or even six to follow the cohort to graduation but it will tell you if your efforts are successful from year to year.

Four, talk with students and the college community members and ask them if things are getting better. Sort of like Ed Koch the Mayor of New York used to do. He would go and ask people, “How am I doing?’ and listen to the responses. People will often tell you if things are getting better or not. But to do this, one must win the trust of the population.

We have found that students may not always be as open and direct as one might hope because of sub-conscious concern over cognitive dissonance making them want to find things fine or having to challenge their decision to be there. So if students say there is a problem, pay close attention and act on it. They often do not complain to you as much as they might to their friends but that does not mean they do not have issues to take care of. This is even truer of the campus community. They will not always answer honestly if they fear any sort of reprisal.

So listen closely and do it often. The more you do it the more open people become after seeing there is no reprisal or negative consequence of talking. Just keep track of the number of people who tell you if things are better or not and you can start to gauge the success of customer service efforts.

Five, conduct an audit of customer service on campus. This can be done yourself or by hiring someone who has been doing academic customer service/retention audits on college campuses. Use the first audit as a benchmark. Then repeat the audit two years later and see if there is any improvement. Compare the results of the benchmarking audit to the one taken later and see if the same issues exist or have been taken care of.  That will tell you if there has been success in improving service excellence on campus.

NRaisman &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. NRaisman & Associates prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s services. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Why Students Come to College and What that Means for Us.

Though it will seem to cause some pain and hurt for some individuals on campus the reality needs to be said. Students do not come to college to learn.
They come to get a job. Well, to get the certification through a degree or at least to be trained and educated to get a job. They are not there to learn and grow though they will accede to that as a condition to getting the diploma they seek to get a job.

Want proof? just think about required courses. Why are they required? Because if they were not students would not take them. Students do not see them as fitting into their immediate career studies and goals. As an ex-composition teacher I endured many a student who simply asked me why he or she had to take writing if they were going to be a (fill in the blanks)they simply did not see the required course as necessary to their career goals. Courses are required because we believe they are necessary for someone to learn the material and ideas in them to be an educated person. If we did not make students take them they would skip by them as not pertaining to their lives. 

They take these courses as a necessity to get a degree from the college. Students realize that college holds the key to that job. The diploma. Without the diploma they would not be able to get the job they want and by the way, for most of them nowadays that is almost any job in their field.

Sure there are a few who do not know what they want to do and there will always be a some art history and philosophy majors who may not say they are looking for a job but to just learn but they are also job seekers. They want to work in a gallery or go on to grad school so they can finally get a job as a professor. More likely at best a part-time prof teaching something other than philosophy or philosophizing while pouring a cup of coffee but a job nonetheless.

Understanding that the students are coming to college to get a job should make us realize that they are going to be even stronger consumer-oriented people. They look at their paying tuition and fees and the like as part of a contract. I pay you money for services that you provide to get me to where I want to be. Want proof? Count the number of times you hear students say something like “I’m paying a lot of money to go here.” Or "I pay your salary”. And even if that number is not yet huge just think back and realize that you are hearing it more and more now. That is a sign of a consumer orientation and of the students’ realization of a contract being written between the school and the student.

Students are there to get what they need to get a job. Just think about required courses too. Why are they required? So that students will take them. If they were not required students would not take them in favor of either getting more training in their future field of work or to skip them altogether and get out faster.  The argument here is not whether or not to be a well-rounded citizen. Students need to take required courses though there is a counter argument that many of them are either useless or just there to make sure some departments have a reason to exist and bring in money. The issue is not to question the value of required courses but to point out that students would not take them if they did not have to as a hoop to jump through to get to their goal.

One other point. Career colleges exist and get students to enroll to a large extent because they are believed to be career-oriented. The for-profit sector would not exist in as large a bloc as it does if there were not a strong demand for direct school to job training. The career schools pare down the required courses to a minimum to get students to their goal in as quick and job-oriented pattern as is possible.  They also succeed because they realize that the job is the goal and invest in career placement activity far beyond what not-for-profit colleges and universities do.

This is not to say the career schools do it well or that some of their placement claims are anything but PFTA thinking. (PFTA? Pulled from thin air. The polite way of saying it here.) To continue being honest, many of the career schools have been questioned on their placement rates but they are not questioned on their focus on careers and jobs for their graduates. And that gives them an edge and a basis for their attraction and growth.

Realizing that students are job-oriented should make colleges and universities also realize that they need to be job conscious too. They need to focus more on career services as a basic customer service for students. They need to have people who do nothing but seek out jobs for graduates as do the career colleges. this would be good customer service too and contribute to retention.

They need to give up on the idea that career services just is a job taker when a company calls in looking for graduates to hire. They need to realize that just giving out sheets on how to write a resume is not enough and a simple free class on resume writing doesn’t do it for the current crop of students.  They want and need much more. Granted some colleges and universities are so well known for their graduates that they may not need as much career services work as others, but even the top 306 name brand colleges are finding that smaller and smaller segments of their graduating classes are getting jobs after graduation. Also recognizing that the top schools have fairly strong alumni structures with the alumni hiring from their alma mater but even that is changing as businesses are becoming more selective and gaping after the best without as strong a sense of brand loyalty anymore as the available pool of grads grows larger.

When student say they left a college or university because it wasn’t worth it (the third greatest reason why students quit) what they are saying is that they felt that the school would not get them to their goal of a job. It just was not worth the time and effort so they quit. Colleges and universities need to take a note from the career schools and expand their placement and career services functions. Considering that 34% of students leave a school because they just don’t think it is worth it should be a enough to awaken schools to the importance of career services as a basic customer service to students to aid retention.

Students also need to interact with career services from the beginning of their careers and not just at the end. They should write a resume each semester/ quarter that adds on the new skills and courses they have taken. This will allow them to have a well written resume after it is reviewed by career services as well as see the relevance of their coursework to the goal of getting a job. They should take interviewing classes to learn how t interview. They should also be taking work in how to be an employee.

This work can be done by providing appropriate decorum in the classroom which is after all their workplace at the time of being in college. Students should be required to act at a level that would be demanded if they were on the job in their area of chosen future profession. For example, on the job if an employee came in late each day he would not lose half a grade, he would lose a job. If an employee answered her phone in a business meeting, she would possibly be fired or at least reprimanded for doing so.  If an employee missed work without calling in and letting the supervisor know he or she were going to be out, that could be cause for being fired. They don't just lose a letter grade for late work in the business world.

I am aware of at least one school that requires all its students to wear work appropriate uniform shirts as  a sign that they are preparing for a job. The Porter and Cable Institutes have all their students wear uniform shirts that designate what career path they are in. They also supply the students with a tool bag that has the basic tools they will need to do the classwork and be prepared to do the job when they graduate. And their placement office is always working to find, yes find jobs for their graduates.  

 This may strike some as a bit extreme; making them dress appropriately to the job they seek. But it is no different than having nursing students or other medically-oriented students wear uniforms or clothing appropriate to their future profession. Porter and Cable also has their instructors all wear Porter and Cable embroidered shirts to indicate they are also dressed for the appropriate job. They and their students are dressed for success.

The classroom is the workplace for students and should be treated as such. Part of the service we should be providing is teaching not just the skills to get them hired but what is needed to be a good employee and keep the job.

Customer service is not just smiling answering phones it is providing all the services the customer, the student, needs to achieve his or her goals. Just as we require courses, we should require good employee skills.

NRaisman &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. NRaisman & Associates prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s services. 


Monday, January 20, 2014

The Role of Caring in Retention and Customer Service

When schools try to figure out what to do to increase retention they often make primary errors. They approach attrition as if it were a rational and logical
decision that can be overcome by reasonable improvements.  They do not look at the underlying problems and issues they create for students that “turn them off” and negatively affect their emotional attachment to the school. And they do not come through on promises to be a “a school that cares about students and where you are not just a number”.

Students do not make a rational decision to stay or leave a college or university. They do not sit down, take out a piece of paper and weigh the pros and cons. They decide to leave almost as they chose to come to the school –emotion. Think of how students think of going to a college and what they say about it. They use phrases like “I want to go there”.” “I love this school”. “I hate this place ”or “ I want to get the %*&# out of here”.

These are emotional statements that indicate student reactions to college. Understanding their emotionality is key to understanding how to keep more of them. Knowing what causes them to personally feel insults and shocks that drive them out of school is necessary to increasing retention. 
These go to the core of their personalizing everything they encounter. They feel every action and interaction as personal even if it is as impersonal as a rule or regulation they come up against. I can’t count the number of times that I have heard students say “why are they doing this to me?” even if the line they are in is filled with many others or the rule that is stopping them from doing something is for everyone.

Keep in mind that the top reason why students leave a college or university is they believe the school does not care about ME. “Does not care”. This is an emotional response to the way they feel they are treated in school. Insult like poor service add up and make them feel the “college does not care about me if it can treat me this way” as one student said to me recently.
This should tell us that we need to find out what students feel as insults from poor service for example that increase their negative feelings about the school. What makes them feel the school does not care and what does school do to make them feel this way. That is, what is it we do not do right? What are our flaws are that make students believe we do not care. A school that wants to increase retention needs to discover what it is that drives students out the door.

One of those errors according to what we learn from students is that schools do not show they care by making certain faculty provide the extra tutoring and personal interaction that says “we care”. Yet most schools will not tackle the faculty actually being in office hours for example. They may say they are required but do not enforce the requirement. .We find during campus customer service audits that many, too many faculty do not show up for office hours or even discourage students from showing up for them. In one school we did a service excellence audit for a faculty member was allowed to put up a sign stating “if you want to see me in the office it had better be for a damn good reason. Don’t waste my time. I am busy.” How does that say “I care” to students? How would that make you feel as a student? That surely is an insult to them isn’t it but no one made the faculty member take the sign down.  

Another thing that schools do not do is make certain that faculty get closer to students to find out if they are actually learning the materials in class. We know they need extra help but we do not make certain that it is provided.  One of the things we teach in faculty academic customer service workshops is that they should be the last person out the door checking every student to make sure he or she understood the material. A simple “did you understand  it today? Should we meet to get some extra help?” to a student who looked a bit confused on the way out can show a great deal of caring. 

It is often the personal touch that shows we care that can positively affect the emotions of students. When Boston University contacted every freshman by telephone just to see how they were doing, their freshman to sophomore retention rate jumped up. When Hostos Community College (NY) started a program for a cadre of at risk students by giving them a personal coach/advisor who checked up on them every week and helped them work their way through the financial aid maze, this cohort’s completion rates went way up. I had Briarcliff College (NY), a school of 2,600 students, make sure any student who missed a class was contacted that day.  We also had the retention coaches contact each student at least once a week by phone, email or in person. Retention went up 14%.

These were all steps that told students that the college really cared. Equally important these outreach approaches showed that the college was involved with them personally. In fact, at Briarcliff when we polled students about the contacts from retention counselors they said that when they were called or emailed or had a meeting with a counselor they knew the college cared so they worked even harder to stay in school. One student who was an at-risk student rode his bike twelve miles each way after his car died because he believed the college wanted to help him graduate because he was contacted every week to see how he was doing. When student are contacted by the schools, another problem is overcome. The feeling that no one cares is eradicated. Students’ emotional needs are met.

When students are contacted by the re5tention coaches, they can find out if a student has  a problem or issue that could make him or her drop out. The counselors could ask if there were any problems and if there were they could help the students fix them. 

In addition to showing that the school cares we work with colleges to find out what insults are created to make students feel offended by the school. We discover every point at which students are made to feel badly and find ways to turn these into points in which students are made to feel the school cares. At one school we found that students were irritated by people not answering the telephone so we taught staff to answer in three rings as well as what to say when they answer. In another school, students felt insulted by having to stand in long lines only to find out that they did not have to stand there. We had that school change its approaches and use an expediter to go through the lines and help get students out as quickly as possible.  

At many schools we find that students really resent what we call the shuffle they get when they are sent from one office to another trying to get a problem addressed. At those schools one way we helped them end the shuffle was by having them pull together FAQs from each office so all offices knew what one another did and where to actually send students.

All of these and many other issues from poor signage and websites that don’t work or are clunky and inaccurate to rude or indifferent staff to lack of office hours and in-class performance or lack of it are among the issues that tell students they are not important enough for the school to care about them. So they leave and at some schools, they leave in numbers that make budgets impossible to make and the mission statement a mocking poster on the wall.
In many cases, what is needed is to show the students that the college cares about them. In most situations it takes finding out what the issues and problems  make the school seem not to care and act like insults to them. 

It really is not hard to do either and the results would be increased retention and completion rates which by the way feed  directly into completing the mission of educating students for success as most mission statements announce. And as a president wrote to me, “a 1% increase in retention would mean two million more dollars in the budget and that is a worthy goal too.”

N. Raisman & Associates is the leader in increasing student retention, enrollment and revenue through workshops, presentations, research, training and academic customer service solutions for colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as businesses that work with them 
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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Zeno and The Retention Paradox

Zeno the Greek philosopher devised a paradox that describes the situation of many colleges and universities right now and into the near future.  He stated
that if a person wants to get to a goal but can only cover half of the distance each time, he will never get to his goal. This is so because there will always be 50% of the distance remaining to go. 

Considering that the average college or university loses half of its population every year, it holds that they will never get to their goals either.  Fifty percent annually means that it must always recruit at least half of its population every year just to try and stay even. And it gets worse because the distance to go actually increases annually because the cost of operating goes up every year. So all things being equal, the college loses ground just by staying even at a 50% attrition rate.
Okay, so all one needs to do is increase tuition costs to cover for the lost retention just to stay even. But every increase in tuition also has costs in the number of students a school loses due to the tuition increases. So as tuition goes up, population goes down as fewer students can afford the cost increases. So the school increases its scholarship and financial aid funding to help students pay for the tuition increase thereby still depleting the budget by the cost of the increased aid. The school spends more just to try to stay even. 

Zeno would be proud.

Here is the secret to success and ending the paradox schools face. Recruitment costs money. Retention makes money.

Let’s take an imaginary school we will call Mammon University where the motto is Omnes Por Pecunia. Mammon has a budget of $10,000,000 a year for all its operations. It is a private school so it gets no direct state funding  (unlike a public college or university which gets almost no state funding). It exists based on tuition revenues as do most schools. It charges $10,000 a year tuition so it needs just a total population 1,000 students to make its revenue demands.   For purposes of the discussion let’s assume the classes are equal in size and graduate in four years not six which is the new average.

If it has 100% retention, it would only need to replace its graduating class of 250 or 25% of its population. If it has 100% retention rate it would not have a rough time at all acquiring a new class since there is a direct correlation between retention and applications. Moreover, it would also likely have a high referral rate from its current and graduated students which also cuts into its acquisition costs for that new class. There is also a correlation between retention and referrals because a high retention rate means that students want to be there. 

Students who want to be at a school let others know of their desire and satisfaction with the school. Students also want to be at a school that meets their needs and expectations, i.e. provides good academic customer service.  Therefore, the replacement costs would be lower at this 100% retaining school than at others that do not retain at the same level which is true of most every college and university in America. They simply would not have to work as hard as other schools to recruit a class.
Let’s assume they spend the national average of $5,460 per student to acquire and process a new enrollment.  This figure includes marketing, recruitment, financial aid processing, bursar and registrar contributions as well as orientation and other costs associated with bringing a new student into the college. So Mammon would have to spend $1,365,000 to replace the graduating class. This would be equal to 13.65% of their total budget to recruit a replacement class to give them the $10,000,000 they need to continue on at the same level as the year before. 

If Mammon retained at 75% of population it would need to recruit not just the 250 from its graduating class it would need to recruit an additional 250 students to keep the budget balanced. That means it would have to recruit 500 students into its population from a mixture of new first time students and transfer students just to keep the budget level. But this means that they need to spend 27.3% of budget just on acquiring and processing the new students.  It has to recruit a number of students equal to half of its total population. This is going to cut into its operational budget by an additional $1.36 million plus whatever additional costs it must spend to hire more recruiters, do more marketing, financial aid officers, money for scholarships, and additional processors in the bursar and registrar offices. 

If it retains at just 50% which is close to the national average, it actually has to acquire at least 750 new students to stay at its budget of $10,000,000. It has to replace the graduating class plus the drops.   It will be losing at least half of its population again so much anticipate that loss at a cost of $4,095,000 or just about half of its budget going to acquiring and processing the students it needs to just stay at its $10,000,000 budget. But this means that it only has just over $5,000,000 to operate when if it retained its full population it would have $8,635,000 to operate.  So in reality if it is to stay at the operating budget of $10,000,000 it really has to recruit an additional 363 more student to be able to afford a full spending budget of $8,635,000 or a total of 1113 students.

To do that it will again need to add to its marketing budget to attract potential students, as well as hire more recruiters, financial aid processors and so on. That means it will spend even more of its budget to get the population it needs just to stay even and to do so will cost it more money so like Zeno’s traveler, it will never get to its goal finally. It may try to not hire more people to process the additional new students but that will have deleterious effects on service and cause more students to drop out. 

Moreover as the pool of potential students shrinks in the next few years, it will get tougher and tougher to recruit a class and maintain the operating budget.  The budget demands will grow as the pool depletes making it even more difficult just to stay even.  College and universities will find themselves in the position of so many of their colleagues cutting faculty and staff just to be able to stay in place; not making any forward movement. 

As staff are cut the ability to process newly acquired students will also decrease as it has in many schools where for example we have found most financial aid offices understaffed when we do a college customer service study.  They cannot process the increasing number of students fast enough to please a student population that expects its money when it wants it, which is now. Students get aggravated when they cannot get the service they expect for their ever increasing tuition costs and decide that “this place isn’t worth it” and drop out.  This of course adds to the need to recruit students to replace them yielding additional costs and less money to educate and serve the students the school has. We know that the feeling that the school does not care and poor customer service are reason for 48& of attrition at a college. And the more depleted the service gets the more students leave the school thereby increasing the need to recruit even more students.

And the paradox goes on.

The only way to disrupt the paradox is to change the basic reality of it. That is to start to retain more of the students a college already has to reduce the distance between population and the budget neded to operate at an effective and efficient level . And to do that we have to change the basic levels of service the college provides when 48% of students leave due to poor or weak academic customer service which takes place not just in the financial aid office but the classrooms and everywhere on campus. So it appears that one way to begin altering the paradox is to increase the level of customer service provided to students on campus to help retain more of them; as many as 48% of them.

If you are interested in keeping more students through increased customer service excellence and ending the paradox at your school  get in touch with us today at 413.219.6939 or contact me . Check out our company at

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