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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