Monday, November 24, 2014

"Mystery Shopping" will Increase Retention

academic customer service, enrollment, retention, customer service, attrition, college,customer service in university,

While working as a consultant for colleges concerned with meeting their
enrollment goals, a few consistent realities have become apparent to me. These are not necessarily factors that one would discover through a survey or a committee study and report. Neither are they par­ticulars that would be noticed immediately at your own college. And some realities might strike you as contra-indicated by our academic culture. Yet they seem to be key to enrollment success.

The first, and perhaps most significant, is a recognition that, at its roots, enroll­ment is a business issue for colleges. The recruitment, enrollment and retention process is a commercial interaction not unlike that of a store making a sale.

Colleges attempt to attract buyers (stu­dents) to purchase (enroll in) their prod­ucts (courses) and not return them (drop out). Furthermore, colleges attempt to sell extremely similar products within a very crowded, highly competitive, consumer-oriented marketplace which is shrinking. The coming recruitment year looks to be the smallest pool to draw from in the past decade.Most colleges offer a very similar portfolio of course offerings, programs and majors. A student can 'buy" English, computer science, business, math, technology, crimi­nal justice, accounting, psychology, etc., al any one of thousands of colleges. She can also purchase the course in numerous modes – brick and mortart, hybrid, on-line. There are almost no exclusive products.

And there are too many colleges with empty chairs. As a result, the competition for students has sharpened significantly. The age-old question of commerce-, "How do I attract buyers to my establishment rather than another?" is now echoing in the halls of academia: "How do I success­fully recruit students?"
                                               
Successful colleges find the answer in the recognition of the commercial nature of enrollment. Colleges need to look at themselves as competing commercial enterprises that are trying to attract stu­dents into their store to buy their academ­ic products. Like businesses, colleges need to be sure of not just their products, but of the store itself.

Is your college/retailer really structured for the buyer? Have you set up your busi­ness in a manner that best interacts with buyer psychology and patterns? Is the environment helping or hurting? Is your sig­nage hurting you? Are the processes., pro­cedures and registration flow patterns angering or pleasing potential buyers? Are commercial opportunities? How are you making the college-student interaction as seam­less as needed to start bonding your buyers to your store so they don't return the courses they just bought in the first three weeks or go to another establishment at the end of the semester?

What is true for stores is just as true for colleges in today's consumer-oriented market. Both stores and colleges know that their highest cost lies in attracting a customer into the store. The advertising, promotions and publications designed to bring potential customers into the store are expensive. So losing that customer once he or she has entered the store comes at a very high price-. Not only have you wasted money on advertising, but no sale was completed to recoup the cost of recruiting the customer. Worse, if they are not given good service, the customers will likely tell others how poorly the store treat­ed them. Customers are won one by one, but they are lost exponentially.

The same is true for colleges.

Recruiting is expensive.  Losing a student once you have gotten him or her on cam- pus is a double loss. You lose recruitment time and money, as well as the revenue that student would have provided. A stu­dent who receives poor service tells some­one else, the losses become larger and reputations are hurt as well as budgets of both students and the college.

So what will separate the successful store/college from the losers?

Checking the rugs
When I was house hunting, I often went into homes where people had lived for decades. As I looked at one I was inter­ested in, I immediately noted that the rugs were worn out. The owners did not notice this fact. They had lived with the rugs for many years and the rugs looked fine to them. What they did not realize is that they walked the same path each day, and as they walked, they wore down the carpet.

They did not notice because the ero­sion was incremental. To them, it looked the same as when it was first put in place. As a potential buyer, I brought a set of new eyes that had learned what to look for. My eyes immediately saw what they had accepted as just fine was not.. After all, to their eyes, it had always been that way.

Stores periodically bring in new eyes to check their rugs. Those trying to sell a col­lege education should do the same. Stores study their service, the store environment and layout, ease of purchase, the timing and flow of customers and the like. Winning stores want to make it as easy and pleasant as possible to buy the product there rather than at their competi­tor's store. To gain an edge, they also bring in new eyes to shop and study the store for needed changes.
Colleges need to ask the same ques­tions about their enrollment and registra­tion processes. "Do we really have cus­tomer service? Do we make enrollment easy for students? What are we doing that causes students to leave and go elsewhere?"

How can a college find out if it is pro­viding the services, processes and environ-, ment that will attract students and get them to buy the products? You may have to do what merchants do — bring in a fresh set of eyes to check your rugs.

How do stores find out how to please potential shoppers?  One solution is shopping the store by professionals. A college can and should do the same but with academic shoppers. In this scenario, a college or university hires a trained academic "shopper" or a shopping team on a campus to learn firsthand what a college's strengths and weaknesses are. The "shopper" acts out the full role of a potential student and parent trying to get the information he or she needs to enroll.

Bringing a trained eye, ear and a" professional bull detector" directly into a college's process, the shopper looks at every aspect of the college enrollment process. Academic shopping studies everything that touches on students and academic customer service from the front door through to the exit, developing a full report and suggesting solutions to strengthen a college's intake and retention of students.

Shopping determines if you have an enrollment flow that makes it easy for stu­dents or sends them all over a building or campus. Many students are lost when they have to step out of the flow to go some­where else. Once out of the flow area, they have an excuse to forget it all, since many of them are tentative about enrolling or staying anyhow. Give them a reason to leave the regis­tration flow, and they will be gone. Give them reasons to believe they are not getting the services due them, they leave.

There are some surprisingly simple fac­tors that can either help students stay or turn them away. For example, a major con­cern of potential students is: "Can I afford to pay for this?" But filling out financial aid forms can be a turnoff, especially for adults. When they get to the blank in which they must write the college's financial aid code for example, that means they often have to make another trip or another phone call. Many students put it off, eventually failing to complete the form or waiting until it is too late, rather than taking an extra step or admitting they do not know what the heck a college code is.

Having studied a number of colleges, I suggest the following quick fix to help you increase enrollment in the financial aid office: Post the college code in a promi­nent area. Even better, have someone stamp the college code on the forms. You could even tell students they can file more easily online and get a faster answer. Is there a computer for students to use? Sit the student down at the computer and have him or her fill out the request right then and there. lithe-"sale" is not complet­ed, you are opening the opportunity for someone else to grab your potential student.

The long and short of it is that colleges have to think about shoppers to increase their sales.

If this and the other articles in this blag make sense to you be sure to order a copy of the new best-selling book on academic customer service and success From Admissions to Graduation: Increasing Success Through Academic Customer Service by Dr. Neal Raisman.
For the rest of the year, each order of From A to G will be accompanied by a free copy of Customer Service Factors and the Cost of Attrition also by Dr. Raisman.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Communication and Breaking Down Silos



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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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Poor Advising Loses Students

The other day I was working with senior student services and academic administrators at a major university when one of them said he didn’t think   
that most students ever saw a faculty advisor. “And what is the problem with that?” I asked without thinking it over. I suppose it would have been more politically correct to have phrased it differently but at least it was an honest response built on empirical research on over 100 college campuses.

Advising, most often by faculty, has come up as a negative at every college and university we have audited for academic service. Students invariably expressed a concern that advisors were not well informed on most aspects of requirements for a major and graduation. Students also stated that advisors did not know course sequencing or when or what semester required courses would be offered. This has led, and could continue to lead, to serious problems for students. And this is a growing serious concern because schools are now offering some required courses only once a year (a major disservice to students) in either Fall or Spring semester. What’s more, advisors do not know this. As a result, students often miss the course only offered in the Fall for example and have to stay an extra year. This of course increases the cost to the student and his or her family as they must pay tuition and fees for the additional, unplanned for, time.

After my original comment shot out, I realized that it might be interpreted as possibly a bit harsh. True but harsh. I will accept that it may be possible that I am being a bit overly cynical. But I wonder why colleges have not done enough to correct the advisors’ lack of awareness of the once a year course schedules? Schools should be aware of the problem of required courses being offered only once a year. Advisors not being made aware of this reality and thus “mis-advising” forces students to have to stay in school at least an additional semester to take a course missed due to the scheduling. I had to wonder if they are also aware of the additional revenue of adding more tuition to a student’s total bill. Could it be that schools are endorsing benign neglect? Allowing the lack of information to increase a student’s time at the school to increase its numbers? And revenue? Students who have to stay in school due to incorrect advising on when classes will be offered still have to pay.

That would be a much too cynical motive to attribute to administrators even though they have been accused of even more heinous deeds by the rumor mills of some campuses. Colleges are after all not credit card, banks or other such predatory companies that want customers to make mistakes that add to their bottom lines.

In a Harvard Business Review article Companies and the Customers Who Hate Them Gail McGovern and Youngme Moon write about the issues of companies that like credit cards that benefit financially from late payment fees and let/allow/cause customers make mistakes that benefit their bottom line. They write that
Some companies consciously and cynically exploit customers in this way. But in our conversations with dozens of executives in various industries, we found that the majority of firms that profit from their customers’ confusion have unwittingly fallen into a trap. Without ever making a deliberate decision to do so, they have, over a period of years, taken greater advantage of their customers. In most cases, there’s no defining moment when these companies crossed the line. Rather, they found themselves on a slippery slope that led to an increasingly antagonistic strategy…
Companies can profit from customers’ confusion, ignorance, and poor decision making in two related ways. The first evolves out of the legitimate attempt to create value by giving customers a broad set of offerings. The second emerges from the equally legitimate decision to use fees and penalties to cover costs and discourage undesirable customer behavior.
Colleges are most likely in the category of those which have fallen into “a trap”. It is unlikely that schools would knowingly create situations that would extend the student’s stay. It is more likely that this situation is caused by three factors
  1. Trying to please customers
  2. . the attempt to rein in costs,
  3. . lack of communication between campus groups and units and
  4. . inertia.

Trying To Please Customers
Courses and sections are offered to meet requirements and desires. In most all cases, needs and desires are defined by the faculty. Most decisions are made from best intentions to deliver value to students. But, there have been considerations that some subjects are required to maintain numbers and enrollment in some disciplines and to maintain base income to the institution. Some electives are offered because students express a desire to learn about a certain area. Yet others are offered because some faculty member has a strong interest to impart knowledge about some current interest to share with students whether they express a need or desire or not. And once offered, it seems to be difficult to get rid of many required courses in particular and electives as well.

College administrators usually stay out of curriculum decisions for two very good reasons. First, faculty are the curricular experts; not administrators. And second, faculty take a very dim view of administrators tampering at all with the curriculum so administrators keep hands-off whenever possible. They do not want to upset one of their most important and powerful customer sectors - faculty. Administrators recognize that they have a set of customers ranging from faculty through students. And for most college presidents, the primary customers are the faculty since they can vote no confidence or cause the most problems. Students are important of course but since they approach issues as individuals they are not as strong a force as faculty who may belong to a union and if they don’t still have significant collective power.

So, courses are added over the years to meet the demands determined by the faculty for the benefit of the school’s customers. But too often as some courses and requirements are added, others are not removed since they represent a constituency that has its requirements to be met. This will often lead to an increasingly broad and often confusing array of requirements and courses to schedule and advise students about. This curricular expansion over time has recently come in direct conflict with the financial realities of higher education

The Attempt to Rein In Costs
As revenues decrease and the public is increasingly suspect of collegiate cries of fiscal distress and thus not supportive, administrators have had to seek ways to reduce expenditures. One way to cut costs has been the ever increasing dependence on higher education’s serf class – adjuncts. Another way has been to decrease the number of sections of courses being offered. Fewer sections mean lower salaries even for the indentured serfs. Too often, rather than cutting back electives to a manageable group of offerings that could meet student needs, many administrators left quite a few electives alone rather than upset some faculty customers who enjoy teaching them at the expense of required sections. Moreover, other administrators have been rebuked in their request for full-time faculty to teach required undergraduate sections. Others have simply run out of available, credentialed adjuncts to teach.

So, the decision has been to cut out courses and/or sections with low enrollment first followed by those that may be tough to get a teacher for, then courses with multiple sections. If this does not get the cuts to where the budget can balance, courses taught in both semesters/quarters/terms are cut back to being offered in one of the other semester/quarter or term.

It is typical for universities to try to control costs by cutting the number of courses and sections offered. This is a terrible customer service error. The true cost of a course is quite low especially when compared to the cost of lost tuition revenue for a student who leaves because he or she cannot get courses needed to progress or graduate in a major. Consider also that parents who pay the bills still consider graduation to be in four years. Thus they do not plan to have to pay for another year. This creates financial difficulty which can and does lead to stopping out. That in turn often leads to either dropping out if going to another college to finish.

Lack Of Communication Between Campus Groups And Units
If required courses are to be offered only once a year, it is imperative that all of those who advise are fully aware of this. Advisors must know the days and times the course is being offered in the major areas they many advise within. If they are not aware, they cannot appropriately advise students. They also MUST be counseled to advise students they must take the required course when offered or chance having to stay another year.
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 Power of Retention

This situation certainly mitigates against the sharing of information which leads to the well-known campus shuffles, or turfing and also includes lack of sharing changes in when courses are offered. The result is that the information does not get to advisors and not to students until they learn the hard way.

Academic advising is an issue that most everyone knows is important to student success but like the weather, most usually discussed but not much done about. In fact, students complain about weak or poor advising at most ever campus we have audited from the very first back in 1999 to the last one this year. Moreover, many time when we report that advising is a very questionable academic customer service on a campus, we are greeted with comments that boil down to “yuh, we know.” But little is done to improve advising.

Why?

Inertia
Change in higher education is quite often talked about but little done. We may often realize we need to change something but the collegial process involving committees is actually structured to make certain that most things stay as they are. In higher education, meetings are considered to be actual action and reports with recommendations merely another vehicle for further committees. Moreover, as discussed earlier, the very fiefdom structure mitigates against change since any alteration especially by an administrator could lead to conflict. Administrators do not wish to challenge the system since doing so can be fraught with danger for their position. So many things and processes such as advising even when they harm students are left alone.
But change is needed is advising especially in reference to the situation of providing students who should be higher education’s primary customers poor academic customer service. 

Two Questions
Among the questions McGovern and Moon make in Companies and the Customer Who Hate Them ask are:

1. Are our most profitable customers those who have the most reason to be dissatisfied with us?
Yes. Students and the public are the ones who provide funds to the schools so they can run. The students and their families are the ones being most harmed by the cutting of sections and only offering required courses once year. McGovern and Moon go on to write If the answer is yes, the company is extracting value from customers who do not feel they are getting a fair return and in the process exposing themselves to a range of risks. Remember that 84% of drops are due to poor service making the experience not worth it. Colleges facilitate the worst customer behavior which for them which is having their paying customers leaving the school. The public is also losing its belief in the value and word of higher education.

2. Do we make it difficult for customers to understand or abide by our rules, and do we actually help customers break them?
Yes. We make it not only difficult but when we do not make sure advisors and our customers know of course and section reductions we withhold information students need to be able to schedule their programs and be able to graduate in four/two years. McGovern and Moon go on to state “Companies should also examine their product portfolios to determine whether their diverse offerings are designed to provide value or to take advantage of customer’s ignorance or difficulty in choosing options in their best interest.”

Five Steps to Better Advising and Course Scheduling
1. 1.Anyone who advises must be fully conversant with all and any aspects of the curriculum. Students during audits stated that they would have to stay at college longer to complete their requirements because their advisors did not provide them accurate direction or advice on their program and when required courses were offered. 

2. 2. All advisors must know the scheduling of required courses and advise their students to take the courses when offered and not assume the courses will be available next semester. It is vital that colleges realize that if a student is not advised properly or believes the advice caused him or her to stay longer than should have been necessary, this invokes questions of fiscal return on investment –Am I wasting money or my time?- and can lead to dropping out.

3. 3. It is necessary to hold advising up-dating workshops for all those who advise as well as those who may ever find themselves in a position to help students with scheduling. If people who are advising students do not go to the up-dating workshops, they should not be allowed to advise. This could lead to a need for more full-time advisors but this could be a benefit in the long run. 

4. 4.The workshops should also lead to a FAQ document that can be made available to the university students and employees so answers to questions on curricular changes and the such could be readily available.

5. Colleges should consider creating and implementing curricular maps. A curricular map is a program outline that assures the appropriate sequence is followed. They are sort of like an AAA, Mapquest or GPS set of directions. These directions take you from point A to point B by having you follow the exact turns in sequence. If you do as told, you will get to your destination. If a driver decides to take a detour, he or she has to also assume the responsibility for getting off the road, perhaps losing direction and the time lost. Curricular Roadmaps work in a similar way. The Roadmap says that you follow this route (group of courses) for two semesters then take another route for the next semester, and so on. If the route is followed as directed, the student will move from point A to point graduation within the specified time. If a student wishes to take a course that is not in the map that is okay but he or she assumes responsibility for the decision to take a possible side trip. Thus some freedom in course choices is available with a full understanding that the decision could slow down progress to graduation.

If this articles makes sense to you, you will want to get a copy of the new book From Admissions to Graduation: Achieving Growth Through Academic Customer Service by Neal Raisman, author oif the best seller The Power 

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