Monday, August 25, 2014

Hear the Voice of the Customer to Improve Retention

To increase retention on campus the school has to also increase its customer service by listening to the voice of the customer. That is, listening to the   
wants, the expectations, and that dislikes of students. Then we need to take these needs, these expectations, and what they dislike and place them in a hierarchical or taxonomical structure that we can respond and serve our students better.

The voice of the customer is a very important one to hear. Too often we use our own voices, our own expectations and needs what we think students want or need and place them upon students. We actually think that we know what is best for students when we don’t even ask them for their thoughts and opinions. Some say in loco parentis is dead. I think it just been replaced by an assumption that we understand students better than that they may understand themselves and therefore we don’t listen to the voice of our customers. That is not to say that we don’t necessarily go about campus sometimes and hear what students are talking about. It means we do not actively engage the students in specific data collection processes such as surveys to understand what they need and what they want, as well as what they don’t want. And then do something about it.

To really listen to the voice of the customer it is necessary to elicit their comments thoughts feelings and statements of need and expectations as a starting point. This can be done the usual route of surveys, but can also include analysis of social media and web-based comments. Whatever method is used the comments need to be collected broadly and in as large in number as is possible. Then the voices need to be analyzed and the results segmented into usable categories for example physical campus, classroom, specific points of service, and so forth.

Surveys are generally tricky things. And in higher education they are generally done quite poorly. We overthink them. We make them too complicated, try to be too inclusive. As a result we make them complicated and at times not purposeful. As I have looked at surveys used on campuses that we have conducted either workshops or full audits on, I find that they are too often focused on trying to prove what we think we already know. Too often they are simply too long as well. As a result we do not gather good information. We do not listen to the voice of our customer.

In another article, I outlined a very simple survey that can be done to start to listen to the voice of your customer. In addition to that there can be more structured surveys done in four different locations. That can be a general survey of students’ feelings and attitudes towards the school. There can be point of service surveys such as in the financial aid office, the registrar’s office, the bursar’s office, and other points of service on campus. The surveys are more specific to the functions and operations of the point of service operations. These surveys generally are more informative than the general sorts of surveys that are done across campus because the results can be put into practice more quickly.

One point of service that is surveyed in most schools but not really turned into the voice of the customer because they are not put any hierarchical order are carried out in class evaluations. Most schools have some sort of an evaluative survey that they use at the end of the semester or quarter to evaluate courses and professors. Unfortunately as a result of the politics on campus, these surveys do not necessarily allow the voice of customer really to be heard. They may be “overheard”, that is they can be looked at and thought about but they are not necessarily put into any mobilized action as a result of the surveys. Too many colleges are simply afraid to use the information that is collected in individual classes to try to interact and inform the performance of the faculty member or meet the needs of the students in their learning in class. This is because they are afraid of retribution from the individual professor or from a faculty grievance.

The voice of the customer from in-class evaluations can be strongly heard as a result of the surveys if they are taken in the aggregate as opposed to using them to focus on an individual professor of an individual class. What I mean by that is that when it may not be possible or plausible to use the survey results in class to change it, a specific  professor’s methodology, attitude, or pedagogy, a school can take all of the surveys taken classes such as English 101 and compile an overall voice of the customer. By looking at all of the courses, the fear of retribution from a single professor or the union can be strongly mitigated while still exposing strengths and weaknesses of the whole group of professors teaching that particular course. If for example it is found that after all of the evaluations of English 101 are analyzed, 60% of the professes do not use PowerPoint well, a workshop can be created to teach the teachers better ways to incorporate PowerPoint into their classroom instruction. This would be an instance of listening to the voice of the customer and resolving their expectation that something will come out of the survey.

An additional way to gain the voice of the customer is through analyzing web-based communications from and by students on social media for example. When we were working with a large university to help them create a one-stop service center that would meet expectations of students, their parents, the general community, and campus we studied what was said about the University service on social media. We found a specific  website that was created by students that spoke out against the way the school was treating them. The site was called “the shaft” which was a fairly explicit statement about how students felt they were treated at the institution. We also looked at social media sites such as Rate Your Professor to learn how students view the University and the service it provided.We also did a thorough search on Google for each and every comment and reference to the University by students. As a result were able to gain an introductory picture of service at the University and some of the issues that we would be facing and correct through the implementation of the new one-stop shop.

A thorough search of social media and monitoring what students have to say about the school, especially any rants that they make can provide very sharp assessments of the way the institution’ is treating students as well as noting their needs and expectations. In fact rants and criticism are two of the most important information gathering sources alongside collecting all complaints that a school can use to start identifying its most obvious flaws. In fact any survey that is done should try to elicit flaws and complaints as much as is possible because you cannot correct a problem until you hear about it.

In an earlier article I mentioned the simple survey method that proves to be very efficient and effective in getting student responses. The survey has only one question. “If you could change one thing at the college tomorrow what would it be?” It is a question that we use on our Campus AttitudeSurveys used when we analyze a school. By hearing from students what they are bothered by, what needs to be fixed, we can hear the voice of the customer. Though you may not want to hear more problems, you will certainly know what it is you need to fix. You will be listening to the voice of the customer through the needs and expectations that have been pronounced.

Take all of the comments that you have collected, place them into a hierarchy by the number of times an issue was mentioned and begin solving the first issue, then the second issue and so forth. Since it is important that students realize that their voice has been heard, it is necessary to let the students know when you have sold the issue.

Additionally, you will need to analyze the results, segment them into larger categories such as physical environment, classroom issues, food service issues, issues with particular offices, etc. and place them into hierarchical order by the number of times and strength of student response. If for example under point of service issues students say that they cannot get a particular office to answer the telephone and 70% of the students say this it is  obviously the first issue to respond to. Then you can organize workshops to teach people the appropriate use of the telephone.

By the way, you will find that this will be an often voiced concern, that is that telephones are not answered, when people answer they are rude, and too often people use voice mail as a way of avoiding talking with individuals on the telephone. We have heard the voice of students on many campuses as we do workshops or conduct campus retention audits and this is one of the most common concerns  they speak about.

It is also important to break the responses into segments by length of time on campus. In general new students will have fewer complaints than students who have been there longer. Interestingly you might very well find, as we have found often at schools we have audited, that first year students are satisfied with the institution during their first year on campus. This changes between freshman and sophomore year during the summer. Second-year students are the most dissatisfied with the institution. Once students pass into their third year in a four year school for example they have already made peace with many of the areas that they might have complained about. They have invested two years and if they haven’t left by this time, they are willing to put up with problems because they are getting closer to that goal so they actually complain less.

No matter what approach or method used to gather the information you need to create questions that focus on getting responses from students. What this means is you need to create information gathering vehicles that will elicit a more complete response than a simple yes or no whenever possible. So obviously another way of beginning to hear the voice of the customer is actually hearing the voice of students. That is getting out on campus and talking to students, asking them how things are going while  realizing that if you do this for the most part students are going to play to the customer. They will not necessarily complain but say everything is going “okay”. When someone says things are okay it is just a phatic statement. You have to delve a little bit more. When we do on an audit for example we will often hear students say things are okay.  Then when we start listing other areas such as the financial aid process, or how things go in the registrar’s office or do your faculty meet their office hours, we start to get responses

Too many times administrators or faculty believe that things are going very well because they don’t hear complaints. This is generally because we like to think things are going along okay. But the research shows that 80% of executives in businesses thought that their companies were providing excellent customer service while only 10% of the customers thought this. What we find in working with schools is that some administrators recognize that customer service is not that strong at the school while approximately 27% of students think customer service is fine. But it should be noted that these are students who have not dropped out of the school. If you added in the average 50% drop rate at most institutions, and realize that customer service reflects 76% of the reason why students leave, the actual percentage of students who are comfortable and happy with the school drops quite a bit.

How do we know this? When we do academic customer serviceaudits we make sure that we listen to the voice of the customer. We survey them. We interview them. We search out their rants on social media. We take all of this information, analyze it, segment it into a hierarchical structure so we can really understand what the students are saying their needs and expectations are. You can do much of the same at your school and that we emphatically recommend that you listen to the voice of the customer if you want to improve customer service and retention at your school.

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. Neal 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 heads 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 new book From Admissions to Graduation: Achieving Growth Through Academic Customer Service

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