Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The 76% Retention Increase Solution

Studies have shown that 76% percent of all attrition finally comes back to some aspect of academic customer service. Students leave a school because they do
not receive the service they expect or need to succeed and feel a true member of the college community. But academic customer service is not the same as retail. In academic customer service for example the customer is not always right, such as on tests and quizzes. But they are right in demanding the services to which they feel entitled from being treated as a valuable and worthwhile member of the community from parking and food service through to scheduling, classroom decorum, teachers who know their name and all the other aspects that feed into their demand of a good return of three major investments – financial, emotional and affective.

What are the four basic indicators of a successful school in its operations, budget and well-being?

  1. Population,
  2. Population,
  3. (No surprise here) Population and
  4. Customer service levels.
If a school is able to maintain and grow its population, then its operations can be in order. Note I said population. Not admissions. Hitting admission numbers does not indicate the health of the institution, particularly if a school is losing 30 percent or more of its students. Simply put, if a recruitment team sells 100 pet rocks on Monday, but by next week 30 are returned, then how many were really sold? The recruitment team may be celebrating hitting its goal but the CFO is dying because the lost revenue and costs associated with selling and processing returns have basically wiped out any profit needed to supply the institution's revenue to operate. All the company has learned is that the pet rock can be sold but has very little customer retention power and may just have been sold in a way that can lead to bigger issues down the line.
Customer service is an overlooked aspect in a school's success. Unfortunately, too many schools have a problem accepting that. They give into notions that customer service is some business concept that has no or little relevance to a college. People in schools have a sense that customer service is somehow a call to pander to students, to just lower standards and make them happy. That is not customer service. That is cheating the primary customer, the student.

And they are customers. they exchange money for goods and services and that makes them customers. Call them students. Fine but realize they are customers who will remind of you of that when they say things like "all you care about is my money?" They know they are your customer. It is about time we recognize and accept this. But they are collegiate; not retail customers and that is a major distinction. They are not buying anything. They are obtaining professional services within the rules and regulations of academia and that defines their relationship with the service providers.

The core definition of customer service is meeting the needs and expectations of customers. Let’s be clear here when we discuss academic customer service. Academic customer service is not about giving easy grades or coddling students. Customer service is about meeting the expectations and needs of the students, our customers. If a school promotes small classes in its marketing but has lecture courses of over 100 people, it is not going to meet the expectation it created. If a school says they have a dedicated, caring faculty but faculty do not show up for office hours, both an expectation is broken and a need not met. People expect that what you say you will do you will actually do or they will see a discrepancy between your promises and realities as well as question the value of their investment in the school. They will not see they are getting a full return on their financial, emotional and affective investments in the college and will leave and take their tuition with them.

It is also about helping students in their efforts by providing tools and services that help them succeed. Tools like a good library. Services such as tutoring by qualified tutors, additional study material and supplementary opportunities to understand the information or achieve a skill are examples of customer service

The 2010 National Survey of Student Engagement  indicated that over 60 percent of students attend more than one college prior to graduation. That should not comfort administrators if their school is among those that lose more students than they take in. Misery likes company but there are no revenue dollars in the misery of losing a large portion of enrollment, especially to those who get laid off to meet budget as a result of too many drops.

The direct correlation of revenue to tuition and fees in a college or university is undeniable. Tuition is provided only by students who attend and then stay in the college. If they leave, they stop paying tuition and fees. The college loses a major revenue stream when it loses students. Therefore, retention is the key to providing an institution the revenue it needs to run its operations.

There is another correlation of academic customer service to retention. Academic (not retail) customer service accounts for up to 76% percent of all reasons that students leave a college according to research we have conducted over the past ten years. NRaisman & Associates surveyed 1200 students one year after they left a school to learn why they left. The passage of a year gave the students the distance and anonymity for more open discussion on actual attrition causes. The students were randomly selected, and many had gone on to new schools.

Here's why they left.

When we ask schools why students leave they normally say it is mainly for finances and personal reasons.This is wrong. What we discovered is that students will often “play to the interviewer” during their meetings with an exit counselor (if the school has one.) They name generic “personal reasons” as their reason for leaving the school. Most counselors accept this excuse, because, ultimately, it means the school cannot be held accountable for a student’s personal problems.

But when we dug into those "personal reasons" a bit, we found that the students were saying "personally I don;t want to be here". Personal problems actually fell into a few major customer service categories. Most often, students said they didn't like the way they were treated and that they took personally. They tell us that they felt the school was indifferent toward them as a person, as a learner, or as anything but tuition revenue. A common statement was, “All they seemed to care about was me paying on time.”

This perceived apathy on the part of the school was the primary reason 25% percent of students said they left. This feeling violates our Good Academic Customer Service Principle 1:
“Everyone wants to attend Cheers University, where everyone knows your name and they're awfully glad you came"
If they feel you do not care, they are on the way out the door over to Gary’s Old Towne Tavern.

The second major reason students gave for leaving a school was dissatisfaction with how they were treated by staff, meaning anyone who works at the college from maintenance people on up. Faculty are staff. Clerical workers are staff. Administrators are staff. They are all in a staff-student relationship. Everyone should be working to meet the needs of the student, the primary customer.

When we do a retention audit of a school, students will generally out some clerical, management or administrative staff as the primary poor customer service villain. This is because students are more lenient with faculty in general. Students want to believe their teachers care about them even if they don't seem to really show it much. But that belief that faculty care can change if a professor awards a grade that is inconsistent with what the student believes is hard work and effort. Grades have become the coin of the realm for students and they believe they are paying for them in one or another way – study and tuition. Students who believe their grades don't reflect their effort feel they have been mistreated, and will not continue to put up with that. So they leave.

Financial difficulty was the reason that 13% of students dropped out. A significant percentage but not the major reason. In fact what we find as we work with students who stay in school but have financial problems, most will find a way to pay for school if they feel they are being treated right and they feel the investment is worth it. Of course the services provided by the financial aid office are key here and interestingly we have found deficiencies in most all the financial aid departments we have studied for colleges and universities. Schools are hurting themselves by providing weak and even poor customer service in the FA office and on the web too.

Another significant reason students leave is that they are simply unhappy with the school. The institution forgets that it is much easier and much less costly to keep a student than to recruit and enroll her to begin with. Before classes, there are numerous communications, well planned activities at orientations, events, even celebrations to make sure the students will show up. Once classes start, most schools seem to forget to keep up the effort that says we are glad you came.

Even if a school tries to maintain a focus on making students feel welcome during freshman year, it almost always ends at most every school as soon as sophomore year rolls around. Now it is assumed, the students are mature, focused and will remain satisfied with the college. That false assumption leads to many more dropouts. Taking away the focus after freshman year is a sure way to add to potential dissatisfaction. Once any institution provides good initial customer service, it should never be taken away.

Customer Service and its Discontents

Though they may be reluctant to admit it, colleges and universities are businesses at their core. Granted, unique and idiosyncratic businesses but service providers all the same. Each has its own culture, mores, folkways, traditions, and codes. Yet, common to each is a business model that includes budgets, personnel, administrations, strategic plans, marketing, customer (student) acquisition, and more.

But higher education and its individual schools are unique from other business models and so customer service needs to recognize that. The approaches of the world of commerce and corporations do not always work. At best, they need to be adapted to recognize that the services in a school are not exactly equal to selling widgets. Platitudes will not work. What will work is providing the tools and services to help assure that students get the returns on investment they seek.

And schools must keep in mind what those in the restaurant industry already know. The core service is the final product itself. A nice waiter can never make up for bad food. But a nice waiter can make good food that much better and keep customers loyal. In a school, the product is the education itself. A good education with good customer service will make for greater retention, happier students, and graduates who will support the school.

You probably believe your core service, the learning that takes place is solid enough or are working to make it better. The strength of a curriculum can be easily ascertained. But the strength or lack of academic customer service is not. Discerning customer service at a college or university is difficult to do because one needs a distance from the school and its habits to be able to be impartial enough to accurately see the strengths, weaknesses and points of contact that are driving students away. 

There are some tools we have developed to try and help you begin to understand the levels of customer service on campus. One is the Customer Service Inventory; a survey that can show some cultural attitudes and some strengths and weaknesses. If you use the Inventory we will be willing to help you understand it as a no-fee service to help you out. the other is our Do It Yourself approach that some schools have started their customer service excellence program with. Whatever you use or do, academic customer service is too big an issue and retention factor to be overlooked. 

Now Available at the Administrators Bookshelf

A New Book on Collegiate Customer Service

From Admissions to Graduation: Achieving Growth through Academic Customer Service

 by Dr. Neal Raisman, the leading expert on collegiate customer service and author of three best-selling books on the topic

From Admission to Graduation is available through the Administrator's Bookshelf


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