Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Are Students More Angry Now?

It’s been a very busy two weeks of giving presentations all over the country. And there has been a common question coming up in as diverse places as
Rock Springs WY, NYC and Conway, AK . “Are students more upset today than they were in the past?”
My answer surprised a few folks. “Yes. They are.”
Students are more easily upset and even prone to outbursts of anger more this year than they have been in the past. People are even hearing more gerunds coming up in discussions with them. Gerunds? Words ending in “–ing” used in phrases such as “this #%&ing school”.

Students as customers are reflections of our society and the result of the culture’s culture or lack of it. And today’s national culture is one of free floating antagonism, anger and attack. They and the campus are not separate or isolated from what is going on in our society.  In fact they bring the societal mood and the messages that are floating in our society onto campus, into the halls and classrooms each and every day.

And right now our national mood is rather dour if not out and out nasty. The politics of politics and everyday life are combative and aggressive. Everywhere one turns the message is attack what you don’t agree with. Even to the point of physical as well as verbal abuse. Just this morning there were reports of pastors polluting the funerals or soldiers with messages thanking G-d for killing them, people beating and torturing men simply because they were born gay, politicians making outrageous claims and attach ads; TV and radio pundits smearing and assaulting anyone and everyone with whom they might disagree with attack words and statements against anyone they may disagree with as well as a very heated level of discourse with an emphasis on the dis in our society. I and you can feel the anger and you can be sure our students do too.

I am not a language prude in any way and have been known to use some strong words myself but I am surprised how crass and low our use of language has become. Words we would have only used when deeply provoked or not at all are now common (and yes I chose that word purposefully) in everyday discussion. The gerunds fly.

All of this accompanied with the ever increasing costs of attending college have made our students into angrier and mess tolerant consumers.  There is a clear and consistent relationship between the cost of a product or service and the demands that a consumer/customer places on it. The higher the cost or the stress to pay for something, the greater the demand that it perform at a level equal to expectations for the product or service. So as tuition and the hidden tuition we call fees keep climbing the increases push expectations to higher levels.

The expansion of college throughout the society making college a rite of passage to a job rather than to the upper and middle class has also made higher education familiar and taken away the mystique of academia. Familiarity does breed contempt in some cases and college is one of them. As more and more people have gone to college and been in contact with the denizens of academia, they have seen how some do have what appears to be an easy life or are not responsive to their needs.

Couple higher expectations with lowered behavior levels and that is a formula for bad customer behavior that often comes out in the common statement “I pay your salary.” So, yes, students are more demanding/difficult.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Promise Less, Deliver More

There is actually something worse than delivering poor or weak service. And that is promising great service and then not delivering. Or mollifying the customer by telling him or her you’ll look into the situation, will get it resolved and either do not get it resolved or not get back to the customer.
Say a student or customer comes to you and asks for help. Perhaps a student leaves a phone message or an email account of the problem asking for you to assist in a problem he or she has. You get back to him or her by telephone but miss the person. So you leave a message.

I am sorry to hear that you feel you may have a problem……..

(Yes we do use the conditional all the way through to protect ourselves as the HR and lawyers taught us to do. May, perhaps, could, maybe, might, possibly, or combinations might possibly may perhaps have an issue…..But never simply say, holy sh%t, he did that? Never commit or accede. That’s the way to please the lawyers but perhaps, maybe, possibly upset the customer more.) But then we go and commit to look into it and make what the student takes as a promise.
…I will look into the issue, see if anything can be done and get back to you as soon as I can.

Granted soon is… well to us it is a sensible period of time as we see it. Soon as I can get the information, or contact the person, or find if there is a problem or even if there is a solution. To a customer or student with a problem, soon is now or by the end of the day, if not …well if not sooner.
Or the person tells the student, I’ll look into it and get back to you by Friday. If you make that commitment you’d better get back by Friday. That is a promise of delivery of service that the student customer will expect to be fulfilled. And rightly so.
Or the person has been to the legal seminar on commitment so he says I’ll get back to you by Friday if I have anything to tell you. There’s the conditional again. If I have anything to tell you. Covers you. Right? Nah it doesn’t because what the student hears is I’ll get back to you by Friday period. The expectation is that you will have something to tell him or her even if it is I have nothing to tell you yet.

This is the psychological background the student brings to any conversation in which service is offered/promised. Offered by you. Promised in the mind of the student. And soon is now. Oh yes, let’s not forget, the student expects a solution especially if you or your school tries to claim it cares about it students. And well you should because we are there for student success which is our success.

What is above is essentially the same we expect from service providers we pay. For instance right now I am getting quite frustrated by a guy who put in some tiling in a bathroom so I could work on my new book. There were a couple tiles that were not quite right. They need to be taken out and replaced. He said he’d be here at 9 a.m. It is now 11:25. He has failed. I will let him know so by the rating I will give him on Angies’s List. I will also tell anyone needing a tile person not to hire him. For him and a college that disappoints on promised service the Malthusian Custopmer Service Progression definitely comes into play here. Students may not go to Angie’s List to comp-lain. They will show their dissatisfaction by ending up on the drop list. Then they will tell everyone who even hints at asking about college or why he dropped out.
So here it is.
The Six Point Solution to Proper Call Backs
When you tell a student you will look into IT:
  1. If you are not sure when you will have an answer - say you are not sure when you will be able to get back but I will get back to you.
  1. If you know you can get back on a certain date – say you will get back by XXXXday but I cannot promise I will have an answer/solution. Then, MAKE DAMN SURE YOU CALL ON THAT DAY even if all you have to say is I don’t have answer but I am working on it. Then provide an update on what you and/or others have been doing.
  1. If you get a resolution or answerer sooner than when you told him or her to expect an answer it is okay to give good news early.
  1. If you are not able to call back on time, it is imperative that someone calls for you and givers an apology and an update for you. Though do realize the customer will surely believe you just don’t want to talk with him. Not a god thing but better than no call at all on the anointed date.
  1. You can let someone else call back with good news. No one complains if you let someone else tell them good news.
  1. You cannot let someone else call with bad news. If you do, you will create a doubly angry person who will eventually come to see you anyhow as if to check if what he heard was really true.
Finally, DO NOT SAY YOUI’LL CALL AND DON’T DO IT AT ALL. That will make the student feel like a jilted lover. And you’ve seen the movies about the rejected lover and the rabbit or the guy in the hockey mask.
That’s right. Michael Myers was expecting that call from the Dean that never came. Look what happened!!!
BTW, I am waiting to hear from a major communication (internet, cable, telephone) company that has promised to call back and said it will try to help on two issues. If the company which I won’t name just yet but WOW, they were named as the best by Consumer Reports for service. But at this time, it seems local service is good but WOW, some of the corporate…. They may be trying but need to read this piece and not let passive aggressive types work with customers. Nor should you for that matter. I mean WOW, use the right WAY to do things.
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Thursday, September 04, 2014

How to Deal with a Mean Faculty Member

How have you handled an instructor that habitually starts a semester with 25 students and ends up with 7?

This question came to me from an administrator the other day and is one that plagues many. The situation can be a tricky one considering interpretations (usually by weak teachers) that academic freedom can mean that some faculty can be insufferable bastards to students, colleagues and certainly administrators. Moreover, faculty too often will take the approach that they may really dislike a colleague, but they must protect his or her right to be miserable. To do otherwise might be taken as not collegial, not academic, not my job. BTW, this is not necessarily different among administrators whose job it is to deal with any and every person who treats students and colleagues poorly. Administrators do not always accept the responsibility. It is everyone’s’ job to demand civility and initial respect toward one and all and especially for our clients, the students.

Customer Service Principle 8 makes it clear that so called “collegiality” which is an excuse for not getting involved is not the correct approach when students are hurt.

8. Just because someone else did a dis-service or harm
does not relieve you of correcting the injury.

We have a responsibility to be a part of the correction no matter if we are faculty, administration or staff. But since the question was posed by an administrator, I will provide the appropriate point of view and action.

Assuming the instructor is tenured and you have a union to contend with Begin by consulting the instructor’s evaluations from students, current and past. Sure he or she will not have many now or in most class sections because 18 have already quit from most every class of twenty-five. But the remaining seven may have some hints or even outright direction. Keep in mind however that the remaining students might be so intimidated that their written comments could be compromised. Though the studies since John Centra in the 80’s show that if students feel secure in their anonymity, their evaluations can be quite valid.
Look for any comments that might help clarify and if necessary build the case for scaring students off or treating them so poorly that they leave. Compare the evaluations to other faculty teaching the same course or who have taught the course in the past. 

Compile the past history of drops for this professor in this and all courses. Compare the drop patterns of this professor to those of others who have taught the same course or courses to make determine if the drop pattern is an anomaly for the professor or in comparison to colleagues. What needs to be established is if there is a significant variance from the norm for this instructor in this section. It may be found that this professor has retention problems in all his or her classes. That’s an even bigger problem. If there is a pattern that helps build your case for change.

I make an assumption here based on my studies and experience that this is a required course such as composition in which the fewer students, the less grading and work. I did have to handle a similar situation when i was Dean of Liberal Arts at a college. The professor was threatening the students with low grades just to lower his workload.

Keep in mind that the instructor will likely use the old dodge of “I happen to have high standards and the students left because they …”
  1. couldn’t cut it;
  2. didn’t want to do the work;
  3. were afraid of low grades;
  4. were imbeciles who did not recognize my greatness;
  5. should not have been in the class in the first place;
  6. not college material and the admission people do a crappy job;
  7. need to weed out those who shouldn’t be here;
  8. I am too good for them and they just could not keep up;
  9. all of the above.
  10. And , I am really a self-centered ass who never should have gone into teaching but I thought it would be easy which it isn’t and I do not wish to work that hard so maybe I will just become an administrator like you who does nothing but east bob-bons all day, or so I believe and besides, I am active in the union and always act in a disagreeable manner in faculty and other meetings just because I can.”
You should also interview students who dropped from the class and past classes to hear from them why they left. BTW, you must keep an open mind during the inquiry. It may just be a huge coincidence….. All eighteen may just have had their hours changes at work each and every semester or term. (Okay so those sorts of coincidences are like the disappearance of Sweeny Todd customers and the appearance of oddly tasting meat cakes in a time of a meat shortage. Good musical by the way and it may have some solutions to how to rid oneself of teachers who scare off students with poor to horrible customer service.) The students who dropped can help you understand and if called for, build your case.

Work with the Union 
The union will need to defend this professor even if they agree he or she is a disgrace to the faculty and hurts people. That is their job and are required to defend. They also may wish to see the person fall into a deep hole in the ground and be assigned to late registration at Hades U for eternity but it is their legal and ethical responsibility to defend the individual. This is an issue that more people need to understand. Unions can also be reasonable if confronted with evidence so they have some wiggle room but may not feel at all comfortable being public with their agreement. Behind the scenes, another story so do all you can to explain the situation and provide them data. Keep in kind also that the union folks are also colleagues of the professor and may also be rather disgusted by his behavior but cannot indicate that in public. They can support your position and help persuade the professor that it is in his best interests to work with you on a solution though.

To take action with possible union support., as I was able to do when a Dean, you will need to be able to show that students left because the instructor is:
  1. a mean S.O.B. who should not be in a classroom
  2. a miserable teacher
  3. disrespectful of students
  4. has poor to horrible people skills
  5. forgets the students are human and clients of the school
  6. deliberately scaring students to decrease the workload
  7. embarrassing the faculty
  8. all of the above.
Consult the contract on the issues of professional training, on unprofessional conduct and progressive discipline. Make certain what the contract allows for in altering professional and pedagogical behavior and /or disciplining the professor. Check your interpretation with the HR person to avoid legal action through a mis-application of contract language.
When the case is built, consult with the union or whatever grievance system you have. Provide them the information you have collected to establish that the instructor needs assistance to change his or her ways. Let them know that changes must be made through progressive discipline (if called for in the contract, past practice or an HR person who wants to keep you and the school from being sued).

After providing progressive discipline, meet with the instructor (and union or grievance) rep and present the situation, the supporting materials and the choices. By the way, always have another administrator with you as a witness to the conversation in case it is needed later. Present the situation, the potential actions and the possible solution. With a little luck, the professor will buy into the solution. If not, and you can make the assignment, assign him or her to the course of action developed and monitor progress.
A course of action should have been developed and put in writing depending on why the numbers dropped so drastically and what contractual remedies are allowed. If it is that he or she has poor teaching skills, then it may be possible to assign the professor to substitute some coursework on pedagogy for some of the teaching load or in addition to the normal teaching load. (Some of it depends on how much you wish to reform and keep the person.) If the instructor is just being an SOB, then it must be made clear that this behavior is not acceptable and perhaps a course in interpersonal 
communication or counseling is called for. Or perhaps this is the start of progressive discipline that could lead to re-assignment or even dismissal. 

Should it be that the teacher does not realize that students are clients and deserve being valued and treated with respect and value, send him or her to one of my training sessions or sign him or her up for personal coaching with me. Okay, maybe I was drumming up business but it is a consideration. I can recommend other coaches who work with me too. At least, have them learn from someone about academic customer service and learn how to practice it.
If the person is not tenured, it makes the above much easier. If you wish to keep the professor, provide a simple choice. Accept the course of action, resign or be let go. If the person is not someone you have reason to want to keep, notify whom you must and do not renew a contract.

Granted, this is a bit general. It does not focus on any particular situation and real situations can often be much stickier and complicated. So, if you or anyone else has any additional questions, clarifications and help on an individual situation, get in touch by clicking here. I’ll do what I can to help. If you wish to add or propose other courses of action, please write in and we will post them

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NRaisman & Associates has been providing customer service, retention and research solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges 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 to research 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. www.GreatServiceMatters.com 413.219.6939 info@GreatServiceMatters.com