Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Student as Customer

Mark Huddleston, President of the University of New Hampshire gave a speech to the University recently. In it he said “The first thing we should not do is
yield to pressures to commodify higher education, turn students into customers and drive relentlessly to lower unit costs of production.” That raised a simple question in my mind. Why not see students as customers? What is the reason not to?

It seems to be a common sentiment on too many campuses that we cannot treat students as customers. This belief is probably due to a basic misunderstanding of student as customer or for that matter what an academic customer is anyhow. Academics somehow think that a student being a customer is somehow a negative consideration when it is not. They somehow mix up that old canard about the customer is always right with the reality of what an academic customer is. They somehow believe that if they think of a student as a customer they will lower their standards, or have to give out higher grades or coddle students. That if they accept student as customer they will somehow be involved in a business which education is not. It isn’t?

None of this is correct. Except the business part because colleges and universities are businesses after all so they cannot become what they already are. Use any of the terms we do employ to obfuscate the truth but we are businesses. Professional service businesses. What we call recruiting is actually sales. Bursar, billing and collections and so on. We have budgets, revenue streams, employees, payrolls, benefits, some even have unions, all parts of business functioning. What we do in the classroom is providing professional services to a group of clients, just another word for customers which is also what the term students is for our business.

We are professional service providers similar to other professional service providers like doctors, surgeons, lawyers, CPAs and so on. They all provide a service to a patient, a client, a customer by any other name. And they all recognize that they are involved in a business as well as a practice for example. They know they must bring in revenue to pay bills so they can continue providing that service. Just as we have to bring in tuition revenue so we can provide educational service sot our clients.

We expect good customer service from other professionals as well as skill from a doctor or lawyer. We wouldn’t go to a lawyer who gave great welcome and service but did not win cases. Nor do we continue to go to a doctor who might be good technically but is a miserable person to patients. We may go to them once but will find someone else to take care of our professional medical needs if they do not combine good service with good practice. When we go to a professional  for assistance we are their clients, their customers and we are very aware we are paying for the services we receive. Paying does not alter the professional relationship. It does not make the doctor or lawyer less valuable. It does not diminish their professionalism or have them coddle you.

What it does do is create a relationship in which the professional is required to be very knowledgeable, thorough, extremely capable, and honest as well as provide the services for which you paid. The exchange of money just solidifies the customer-professional relationship. It is a payment in recognition of the professional skills and ability of the service provider. It does not degrade it. It makes it clear that the service provider is a professional whom you need to respect and listen to or you will not do well. If for example a doctor tells you to lower your cholesterol counts by exercise and eating less fatty foods and you don’t do that, it is you who fail the next physical exam; not the doctor. If the blood tests show the wrong levels of cholesterol, the doctor cannot change the test results and give the patient a better result.  All she can do is tell the patient that he failed in the nicest way possible and try to help him do better next time. If the patient does not listen, it is the patient’s fault just as when my doctor tells me to exercise and lose weight. I know when I don’t I was the one who was wrong, not the doctor and she cannot change the reading on the scale.

A patient can tell a doctor that “I pay your salary” all he or she wants but it will not change the blood test or the diagnosis. All the patient/customer relationship requires is that the doctor be fully professional, technically and personally skilled to give the best diagnosis possible. Next tell the patient the results using the best bedside manner she can and then tell him what he has to do to get a better report in the future.

This is the same as when a professor tells a student to study what was presented in class and the student chooses not to do so. The test scores are the results and they cannot simply be changed to make the student feel better though some think that student as customer means they will have to change grades to keep students happy.  What the professor owes to the student is honest grading of the work and a willing ness to discuss what went wrong as well as what to do to do better next time .

A doctor, lawyer or other professional service provider is judged on two things. First, how well she knows her area and can practice with that knowledge. Second, how well she treats her patient/client. The patient evaluates the doctor on three meaningful points, Did she diagnosis the problem well and cure me? And was I treated with respect as well as kindness. If one of them is lacking, the customer will go looking for another doctor. The first condition is obvious. If a doctor does not know her area well, she will not keep patients. But if she treats people poorly she will not keep patients and actually open herself up to a malpractice suit as found in the research of Alice Burkin. Burkin found that patients who felt they were not treated well are more likely to sue the doctor for malpractice. Moreover, the doctor who does not have a good “bedside manner” is more likely to lose a malpractice suit. So good client/customer service is important in this and other professional service provider areas.

The third parameter of the doctor patient relationship is trust. If the doctor is able to develop a association in which the patient believes the doctor is both competent and caring the trust in the professional is established. But if the doctor seems competent but not caring trust is not developed,. This is similar to the relationship in a classroom.  If students believe the professor knows his stuff but is not empathetic to their needs, the bonds of trust are not developed. As we know from the research into what students use to judge a good professor in the classroom, empathy is an important factor in their judgment.

A professor way must be fully knowledgeable in her field and be able to present that in a manner that conveys the information to students. She must be skillful in her teaching style and manner. A teacher is no more responsible for a poor grade of she meets the two above professional requirements than doctor is responsible for an unhappy diagnosis. What both are called on to do to treat the patient/student as a customer is to provide the best professional assistance to help make the patient healthier, the student more knowledgeable and do so in a professional and humane manner.

Students report that when they do not do well but feel they have been treated with respect they are more likely to accept the lower grade and place blame on themselves. But in a class they did not do well in and the professor taught like Dr. Kingfield from the 1973 movie The Paper Chase, they placed almost all the blame for a poor grade on the professor. This situation is reflected in student evaluations also.

And student as customer? Well they fit the basic definition of a customer; a person who exchanges money or something of value for goods or services.  Our customers exchange tuition and fees money to obtain the services of the university that range from parking to teaching.  They pay to go to school. They pay for what goes on in the classroom as well as out of it. They are customers even if we do not want to recognize it.

Treating students as customers is not the same at all as how a customer may be treated in a retail or hospitality setting  for example. There the customer is to have his or her wishes served so he will buy something or leave a good tip and come back. The customer pays at the end of the service. But in a professional association, the customer usually pays up front thereby changing the relationship. The service provider is not working to please the customer to make a sale or get a bigger tip because the money has already passed hands. The service provider is trying to meet the expectations and needs the customer paid to have met. Ina medical relationship, the expectation is an accurate diagnosis or operation. For a lawyer it is to win in a case. For an accountant, balancing the books. For a teacher, providing the learning and skill development the course promised.

So treating students as customers does not really alter the basic relationship of professor to student. What it does is require that the professor knows his stuff, can deliver the information and skill development promised in an effective professional manner. It also calls on the professor to do so in a manner that engages and makes the student feel she is important. And finally it is all done in a professional manner that treats the student as  a valued individual.  It does require also that the student be assisted and helped to learn just as a doctor/patient relationship calls on the doctor to explain the diagnosis and treatment prescribed. And just like doctors, lawyers and all other professionals, it means that office hours are kept and extra consultation be provided when needed.

Seeing students as customers does not mean coddling them or inflating grades. Not at all. Just as a doctor cannot exercise for me or change the results of that blood test neither can a professor remove the rigors of meeting assignments or change grades to make students happy. If a doctor tells me to do something and I don’t that is my fault; note hers. By the way, if a professor feels the administration is pushing her to make the course easy or give higher grades that is not because of seeing the student as a customer. It is because the administration is not doing its job properly or perhaps doing it unethically.

Seeing students as customer just means that we have to meet their expectations in the classroom and at the college. That we teach at the highest level possible with a professional demeanor and skills. It means that we treat students with courtesy and dignity. It also means that we do all we can to help them gain the education and skills that they paid for. Treating students as customer means that we have to provide them with a full return on their investment with them working as partners in their education. It means treating them as you would want your son, your daughter, your mother or father to be treated. Nothing more or less. 

Treating students as customer says we should deliver a superior educational, social and personal experience for every student. So I ask, what is so wrong with seeing students as customers? I should think that actually we should think of them as our professional customers or clients. it seems to me that  would elevate what we do, not lessen it.

NRaisman & Associates has been providing customer service,retention/enrollment training, research and solutions to colleges and universities 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 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. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Change a Keystone Habit and Change the Culture

People tend to fall into habitual ways of doing things and feel that those repeated habits or beliefs are the one and often the best ways to do things.
They may not be the most effective and best behaviors to accomplish goals but people become comfortable in their ways and believe the habits are right. They also provide us a sense of stability and balance in our activities even if they are not beneficial or helpful
Habits can be hard to break. As a result they can appear to be difficult to change so we throw up our hands and say things like “that’s the way it is” or “That’s just how administrators think”. We accept habitual behavior and stasis in what we do. We may not like the culture on campus and not want to accept some of its shortcomings but we do because we believe they are too difficult to change. For example, when speaking to a senior college administrator about the attrition rate at his school he told me “I’d like to get it down but with the way students are and the way faculty act towards them. It’s tough to make changes so why try?”
In his book The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg discusses the concept of the keystone habit which he describes as “a pattern that has the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as it moves through an organiza-tion”. He uses the example of Alcoa’s past CEO Paul O’Neill using worker safety as a keystone to changing other habits on the work floor and throughout the company. Duhigg writes “So how did O'Neill make one of the largest, stodgiest, and most potentially dangerous companies into a profit machine and a bastion of safety? By attacking one habit and then watching the changes ripple through the organization. By targeting Alcoa's keystone habit.”

By focusing on safety in the way people acted and behaved on the shop floor, O’Neill caused other habits people at the company had to change in reaction. The changes that came about through focusing on increasing safety flowed through the company and changed the culture and its success as it did. People in the company believed that O’Neill and Alcoa cared about them. They wanted to work harder for a company that cared. They came up with ideas to make safety better. But even more importantly, they came up with ways to make the company more efficient and effective. When O’Neill gave out his telephone number and said to call him with ideas or issues, they believed he really did want them to call and they did. And they had some great ideas to make Alcoa better.

The focus on safety caused the entire organization to change. It also altered the attitudes of the workers toward the company and their work. It took the habits that people had prior to the safety focus and altered them for new, better ones. That is the power of a keystone habit; to make a difference in the way that people think and behave within a culture by changing other habits. Even in what had been thought to be a rigidly fixed, union company like Alcoa which had resisted change for many, many years and numerous CEO’s the keystone made change in its culture happen.

In many ways Alcoa was like many colleges and universities. Set in their ways and beliefs. Doing things because “we always do it that way.” Performing and carrying attitudes out of habit; not reason.  Treating students the way we do because, well, because they are students and we have always acted toward students as we do.  If a faculty person is like one of my heroes, Taffi Tanimoto and goes out of his way to help students succeed, then that faculty member will always do that. If however someone is like too many faculty and feel that students and teaching are “an impediment to getting my important work, my research done” as a professor told me recently, they will habitually treat students and teaching poorly. They do not see the classroom as that important after all. But then we do not do much to break their habitual behavior and attitudes. We endure them because we think we cannot change them and the culture that permits such attitudes.

As a result of some faculty’s habitual behavior which denigrates classroom importance, students tune into that and also start to believe the class is not that important. They in turn develop bad habits such as not attending, napping or texting during class. This only re-affirms the faculty belief that students do not care since they show all the signs of not caring.

But I have also noted that in classes in which the faculty member says that attending class is important enough to be required and what she has to say valuable enough to listen to the paradigm changes. Students attend not only because it is required but because the faculty member is instilling a new habit in them through class attendance. Students also learn more not just because they show up but because they take the class more seriously. The faculty member also takes the class more seriously and prepares more because she is making the students show up with the promise that what goes on in class is important. She teaches better and they learn better.

I suggest that a keystone habit that can ripple out and alter the culture and its habits could well be taking attendance in class. If a school requires everyone to take daily attendance it would be a new behavior, a new habit that could change the culture over time.

When a school adopts a requirement that attendance is not just important but important enough to be mandatory it sends out a message. It states “we believe that what goes on in class is significant enough to make you go”. The school-wide requirement to attend also places greater emphasis from the college on the classroom saying it is so important that we require students to go to hear from you, the faculty.

Furthermore, if required attendance is rolled out to prepare students for the world of work where absences are a cause for termination then attendance becomes part of the training students will need to succeed. What is one of the biggest complaints of businesses about new workers? They do not show up to work or are late. Having required attendance will instill a good work habit in students and provide the new requirement some practical initial purpose to justify it. Making students attend classes begins to create a good habit in students that can carry into their lives after school and increase their success.

Moreover, requiring attendance retention will increase retention almost immediately because we know that attendance is a key indicator of whether or not students drop out of school. If students miss classes, they often realize they are behind and instead of trying to catch up, the give up. By making them attend, they cannot help but be up-to-date at least on classroom activity which is paramount to success.

In too many schools, attendance is a very unimportant thing. The schools let faculty decide if they want to require attendance or not and most do not. Most faculty take the position that the students are adults who should make their own decisions even though they are not yet adults but in college getting the knowledge and learned behaviors training to become one. Most faculty who do not require attendance require the students to take the tests and do assignments but not be in class to learn from them. In so doing these faculty are denigrating their own value. They are saying that what they have to teach is not that important; certainly not important enough to make you show up to hear it. They are also sending out a message that it is possible to pass the course while not being taught by me at all. Just read the books and you’ll pass. In so doing, the faculty member is saying that he or she really has no value. If a student can pass the tests without faculty instruction, then that in-class teaching and that teacher have no value. They add nothing to the students’ knowledge or skills. This is a terrible message to send out. It devalues the university.

Required attendance reinforces the importance and value of what goes on in class. It says “we believe that being in class and learning from professors is so valuable that we are going to require you to be there.”  This is a strong value statement. Thus the view of instruction would rise in importance on campus making a most significant statement. This will cause a shift in some of the values of the campus culture as well. It will not relegate research to a lower position in the cultural value system. But it will elevate teaching in that same system.

This is also stating that the professor and teaching are appreciated. By making teaching and learning more imperative on campus, it sends a message that they are important and thus need even greater attention. The college is stating that the classroom is one of the most vital places on campus. It makes a case for faculty that if the classroom is important enough for the administration to make attendance imperative, than what goes on in there needs to be of the highest quality to justify making attendance required. This in turn puts additional pressure on the teachers to perform at a high standard to justify the requirement that students be in class. Faculty could well pick up on this message and focus more on what they say and do in the classroom since students must and will be there to learn from them.

This in turn could create a request from some faculty for workshops in classroom procedure and instructional approaches to increase their teaching abilities.

There is also a statement made in requiring attendance be taken that comes from the administration that says it is focusing on the classroom. By making attendance required, it also says that the administration is tuned into the importance of teaching and learning and not just looking at the budget as many faculty believe. To make that decision it has to have thought about what is best for the learning and teaching environment.

Making attendance required it leads to the next question of what do we do with the attendance sheets? This could lead to a decision that there needs to be a system in place that records student absences. Since faculty may not want the responsibility of doing something with the attendance sheets outside of the class, these could go to a central group which would then contact the students to see why they were not in class. These people could also resolve student issues before they become problems for them as has been done at a number of schools. This would have an immediate positive impact on retention by the way.

If someone contacts the student to see why they were not in class and helps  resolve an issue or make arrangements to have the work made up, this makes a strong case that the school cares about the students which will also help with retention. Contacting students is a key to engagement. This is because we know that the major reason students drop out is they believe the school does not care about them.

It may even happen that some faculty will realize how important attendance is and try to find out from students themselves why they missed class. This would also be a statement of caring about the students if not done in an accusatory manner. Getting faculty more involved with students is key to engagement and would be a cultural shift for many schools.

Granted some faculty will complain since they believe that attendance is a prerogative of the classroom instructor.  Perhaps the rollout at your school will be to require attendance in required classes at first to show the benefits that accrue. After all, we say that these courses and the knowledge they impart are so important that we make them required so we ought to also require that students be in them to gain the value they provide. To do otherwise would be saying these classes are important enough for to take but not attend? That makes no sense when one gives it a bit of thought. Moreover, so many of the classes are taught by lower status faculty and adjuncts that there will be little pushback from the faculty at large. These two teaching groups are not all that well empowered or even a part of the fuller culture after all so they are least likely to complain. But when the benefits of required attendance are provided, they will build the case of required attendance across the institution and that will be the start of a cultural shift in itself.

There will be other cultural changes as a result of requiring attendance across the institution that will arise from the keystone habit being implemented. Just as with O’Neill in Alcoa, the keystone habit brought forward many unanticipated cultural changes, so will the keystone habit that will be implemented when attendance is required. It will cause a chain of reactions that will ripple through the culture and change it. For the better. For increased retention.

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Training is Key to Culture Change for Retention Growth

A key reality is that a school can’t change its culture until it changes the people in it. I am not suggesting that the people need to be let go or turnover is
needed but that the people need to have their attitudes altered. They need to begin to realize that there is value in retaining students by providing for their needs and expectations. They need to have their attitudes changed from “this would be a great place to work if it weren’t for the students (yes that is still said) to “this is a great place to work because of the students.”

People do what they do habitually. They try to park in the same spots they always do. They walk the same path to the office or building every day. They begin the day with the same routine. They may begin work by getting a cup of coffee and checking for new email first thing each day. Then check for phone calls. Then do the same things the same way every day. That provides them a level of comfort by repeating the same patterns each day.

That also means that they treat students the same way they did the day before and the day before that. If they treated students as an inconvenience yesterday they will do it again today. That also means that classroom behavior and teaching are essentially the same every day. If a professor reads from notes the other day he will do it again. If she runs through a PowerPoint on Monday leaving no time for questions of interaction, odds are very good she will do a Power Point on Wednesday too. If faculty feel students are an inconvenience to their real work of research and see customer service as some corporate concept that is being imposed on their students who aren’t customers after all, they will feel that way every day.

There are good habits too as was that of Dean Bill Schaar at Lansing Community College (MI) who began each day walking the campus and saying good morning to very student he passed. But what we are addressing for the most part of the negative, unproductive and retention-killing habits that will continue day after day.

Unless something changes to make them change.

That is, unless there is a strong enough interruption in their habitual behavior that seems to provide some reward large enough to change their behavior. Something has to make people see a benefit in accepting the values of customer service on campus.  Some new energy has to be put into the system to make people want to give up their habits which we call culture.

That energy may be from a major shift in the institution such as a new president. When a new president comes in the culture adjusts for her initiatives and that can cause a shift in the culture. But that is often just a small adjustment because too many people decide that they can wait her out. After all, the average presidential tenure is about four to five years while a tenured professor is forever, Moreover the president may say we need to embrace this or that initiative but they seldom put enough energy into the system to make them happen.

There will be some people who will get on board because they see some benefit in doing so,. They are often administrators who want to do something known as keeping their jobs by supporting the new president’s ideas.  But faculty and staff need more than that to see the value in changing. They need to feel some more powerful reason to change their habits.

To change staff is easier than changing faculty attitudes because staff feel less empowered and too often feel concerned about keeping their jobs. So if their boss says “we are going to do it this way for now on” that can make staff want to change to gain the reward of not getting a negative review and keeping their jobs. This is not a great way to get people to change their habits but it is a reality.

It would be better if staff were given other motivation to change and a better reward for doing so but unfortunately staff are not fully enough appreciated for al they do to keep a college running o they are too often overlooked. There are better ways to get staff motivated to change as I have discussed before. . A better way we have learned as we work with colleges is to inform the staff a change is coming, teach them the reason for the change and then how to work with the changes. That is, show them respect which becomes a reward in itself.

To get faculty to change is a tougher task. They are less concerned about self-preservation if they are tenured and they do not have time to care if they are adjuncts.  But I have noticed over the years that what can change faculty attitudes and habits are new ideas that are made to be appreciated as valuable. Intellectual growth is an energy source for changing faculty sometimes. For example, faculty who go to conferences often learn of new information in their subject matter, or a new classroom approach and they try it out. They are looking, most of them that is, for ways to make their own area of study more interesting as well as making the classroom more pleasurable.  The reward for them is new knowledge and an easier, more enjoyable way to teach.

Most faculty would like to do a good job of teaching. They just do not know how. They do not know  how to structure a class, plan a curriculum, or how people learn. These are almost never taught in a master’s or PhD program preparing people to become college professors After all, they have never been taught how to teach. They learn teaching techniques by educational osmosis; absorbing teaching by embracing that of professors they had in their area of study. If the teacher they emulate was a good one, they might be. If the teacher was one who reached out to them to meet their needs to learn and grow, they might also do the same. But if the faculty they learned from were indifferent or even arrogant, too many faculty will think this is the way to teach.

So what is really needed to change the habits of a campus community? What is the energy required? What rewards are provided to make people adopt new habits such as treating students well?

At all of the hundreds of colleges and universities we have studied, one interesting request comes up. Training. If you want me to do it, teach me how. People want to have the opportunity to learn to do their jobs better, more effectively and more efficiently. They are willing to consider changing but want the training to be able to do so.

Training is an energy that can start to change a culture. And training to do the job better is almost a reward in itself with being better at a job as the major reward. People want to do their jobs to their fullest ability. After all, they are not at the school for the short hours and high pay after all.

They also are willing to embrace academic customer service knowing that it can lead to higher retention which allows for more money to get more time for training as well as other tangible rewards such as new equipment, chairs, desks, classroom supplies, release time, etc.. They just want to be trained in academic customer service so they know what they are doing and how to do it.

As a faculty member said to me after a workshop on customer service for the classroom “I was opposed to this workshop before I came but after learning what it means and how I can do  it just by being a better teacher and using the techniques you taught us, I am willing to try it.”

The energy that is needed to initiate cultural change to accept academic customer service as a valid concept and retention as a goal is training. And the more that is done the better.

For example, at Coastal Carolina University and the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, they began their service excellence (customer service) initiates with training on what is meant by service excellence in a college setting. I was honored to be a part of that. Then they kept on training on campus. For instance, Coastal Carolina is rolling out training programs in Civility on Campus and CCU History and Traditions this semester. They and UMass-Dartmouth for example, made changing the culture through training a cornerstone of the change in their campuses way to of looking at the campus world and interacting in it. Other schools have had us come in and do the training for them where they did not have the people to do it all in-house.

And to make certain that training in customer service is a constant factor in campus habits, they appointed an individual to be in charge of the effort and to keep training going. They will succeed in changing their cultures, retaining more students and in so doing change their lives for the better.

If this article made sense to you, you may want to contact N.Raisman & Associates to see how you can improve academic customer service and hospitality to increase student satisfaction, retention and your bottom line
UMass Dartmouth invited Dr. Neal Raisman to campus to present on "Service Excellence in Higher Ed"  as a catalyst event used to kick off a service excellence program.  Dr. Raisman presents a very powerful but simple message about the impact that customer service can have on retention and the overall success of the university.  Participants embraced his philosophy as was noted with head nods and hallway conversations after the session.  Not only did he have data to back up what he was saying, but Dr. Raisman spoke of specific examples based on his own personal experience working at a college as  Dean and President.  Our Leadership Team welcomed the "8 Rules of Customer Service", showing their eagerness to go to the next step in rolling Raisman's message out.  We could not have been more pleased with his eye-opening presentation.    Sheila Whitaker UMass-Dartmouth

If you want more information on NRaisman & Associates or to learn more about what you can do to improve academic customer service excellence on campus, get in touch with us or get a copy of our best selling book The Power of Retention: More Customer Service for Higher