I did not write an article last week because my mind was not on customer service as much as another issue. I was thinking of kidney donations because…well, I need one. I have end stage kidney failure and will either need to find a person willing to be a donor or go on dialysis. If I have to go on dialysis I will have to stop working because I will not be able to travel easily to help colleges and universities. I am actively seeking a donor and that has been taking my time. But back to customer service as I hope for someone to step forward and offer the gift of life.
Communication and Breaking Down Silos
Many of the causes for poor customer service at an institution can be resolved in part through better communication. This is an issue for all academic institutions. As colleges and universities have grown and become more complex, we tend to know less of what others do, are doing and plan to do. We also have fewer chances to interact and learn since our jobs become busier and more demanding just as the need to integrate and share information becomes greater.
Moreover, technology, especially email, makes us all believe we are communicating when we send a message through technology. We generally are not communicating since we end up with a flood of emails and discriminating which we should read becomes difficult. Most people do not read most emails and eliminate or ignore many they should read. But since we believe that by sending an email we have completed a communication, we do not get up from our desks and actually interact. No need to. I just mailed it.
Additionally, as the work becomes more demanding, we focus on what we need to get done and may lose sight of the flow of functions across offices, Our focus is on my area and its work. So we end up making decisions to assure they affect our area best without regard, or at least enough regard, for other areas.
Liege Lords of Higher Education
It is often the case that as long as things appear to be going okay and there are no obvious problems or calamities, those in the chain of command are busy enough themselves to not rock the boat. They leave things and people to do their work in isolation since that is easier. This leads to what are called “silos” in the business literature. In higher education, offices and people in some schools have been left alone to follow their own initiative enough that they don’t live in silos but in a castle. Many even have metaphorical or institutionalized moats made out of procedures, paperwork and technology they chose without regard for integrating it with the rest of the MIS system. The directors or managers of the area becomes like a liege lords with a show of loyalty to the school or president but will rule their land as they wish.
Presidents often have to manage and accommodate their lords and ladies so they don’t rebel and lead a revolt. Presidents hate rebellions. Weakness on the part of the president makes the office and division lords stronger yet. And worse for customer service considerations, to keep the castle free from disturbances, some offices take the meanest dog in the office and make it the receptionist to scare of intruders, i.e. students and colleagues.
At many colleges and universities there are some very strong liege lords. They take care of their operation in a way that suits them best. They may make decisions that will meet their own objectives without regard for the colleagues and offices that their work is “handed off to”. They may also make decisions that please their office more than the customers since castles are essentially focused within the walls in which they exist. Customers, students in particular, become seen as an interruption or a nuisance. Colleagues might have to be tended to differently because one lord might need an alliance to defend against a proclamation that might force changes or some loss of control.
The Castle and Their Keep(aways)
This an administrator’s castle is MY home can often be seen in the physical layout of offices. The offices are set up to accommodate the workers while the customer is provided very little, and often inconvenient space for a proper reception or interaction with staff. One of the best examples of the physical castle with moat can be found in most bursar offices. There is a physical wall between the staff and customer. This wall is made to look strong and heavy. The wall is interrupted by thick, very thick solid sheets of glass that may be broken only by small round holes or perhaps a slot at the bottom. Customers are forced to speak through the holes or slots sort of like prisoners in a lock-up. But this is really more of a lock-in and lock you out.
Bursars will tell you that they need the protection in case someone tried to rob them. There is money back there after all. The thick bulletproof glass would keep the people in the office safe. Okay. But what about the customers in the hall? All the situation does is place them in greater danger. What would stop a robber from grabbing students or colleagues, holding the gun on them and demanding money for their safety? Well, but we inside are safe!
Perhaps I am wrong here but it seems that placing a student into a position in which he or she can be held hostage or even harmed on campus may not be viewed as good customer service.
The fortified walls and all are really just to show the importance of the people in- side and protect them from the customers who might want to actually get better service. Even banks have done away with the thick glass and all because it was getting in the way of being able to provide better customer service. From being able to try to form a mini-momentary community of two with the customer. From being able to engage the customer better. But offices that are set up for the staff do not want to engage. They wish to disengage.
Customers are often made to wait for a break in the staff’s activity to even be recognized. Receptionists or people who may be positioned in a reception location seldom look up to greet and welcome a customer or visitor to the office. Greetings are peremptory, even curt at times as if purposely conveying that the person is inconveniencing them. This makes students feel unwanted, unappreciated and even angry. As one student stated, “they don’t seem to care or give a @#$% that I am paying their salary.” A sure statement of someone who has experienced staff indifference and poor service-two major factors in attrition.
Furthermore, some offices do not provide colleagues in other offices with what they need to do their jobs well. Schedules for accomplishing tasks may not jive. Information requested from students as part of the process may not be what is needed later in another office so students are often asked for more or even the same information if it is not shared. One office may not be able to complete required paperwork if the previous functional area has not completed its work so a student can enroll or pay a bill
Finally, with people living in their own fiefdoms, not knowing what another office does or who does it, students are forced to engage in a continuous shuffle from one office to another as they try to accomplish a required or wanted task. The shuffle or the run around seems to be a constant of student life at every college and university. Students report at every school that they are almost always sent to at least three offices when trying to get a simple task done. The offices may also be in the academic areas it should be noted since there is an apparent divide between the academic and non-academic silos.
Starting the Siege to Tear Castles Down
Begin by setting consistent institutional customer service standards on simple things such as proper telephone and personal greeting, time in which all emails and voice mails should be responded to, time to recognizing a visitor to an office, physical structures, reception areas, etc. Then create a functional workflow process and diagram that integrates all offices around the needs of students and one another.
For example, one diagram should follow a student from application through to showing up on first day of classes. Every step in the process should be charted and a responsibility center indicated. Dates by which the work needs to be accomplished for smooth integration with the next office should be noted. Any paperwork needed should be indicated and by whom it needs to be received as well as if information on it needs to go to another office. Review all forms to make sure they integrate material and assist not only the originating office but the next one. And be certain they are really needed or are we just making students and families do extra work so we can have our personal form?
Finally, students, the customers must always come first. Make sure that every step is streamlined to require the least amount of time and effort for the student and the family first. Second, that every step is needed and in compliance. Third, that every step is understood and integrated by all other offices and people involved. Fourth, whenever possible all material, forms, information and data should be entered into a single, integrated MIS. This could also allow for increased customer service by letting the system pre-fill all and any areas on forms such as name, address, etc that a student might have to complete. Any time we can remove additional repetitive work for a customer, the happier they will be. This can also be accomplished for colleagues if the information is in an integrative data base.
Workflow diagrams can be made for any and all processes that need to be accomplished in the administration of the school and students. Creating them will bring people together into teams. Force them to work together. Help them learn what others do. And perhaps, start taking chunks out of the walls of the silos so people can start to gain a larger integrated vision of the college.
FAQ User Sheets and School User Manuals
Schools may also wish to consider putting together FAQ sheets of the most frequent student issues or questions in each office. Ask the people who work in each office to compile a list of the most common student concerns or questions as well as the common ones that are asked but do not apply to their office. Once compiled, these can be turned into an indexed School User Manual (Our University for Non-Dummies?) that students and employees could access to find answers to their questions. These could be used also to find answers to issues or needs students have but may not be specific to the office. In turn, the manual would provide people in each office with information to know the answers to many common student questions so they could direct students to the correct location for an answer. A user manual could also be the basis for giving people the information needed to end the shuffle.
Moreover, all these efforts can start to tear down walls caused by lack of communication. Interaction is the best way to get people to learn about and know who one another is and what they do. As a result, this can and will improve performance, satisfaction and service to one another and students.
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