Sunday, August 29, 2010

New Principles of Good Academic Customer Service part 2

This is a continuation of the changes made to the 2010 version of the Principles of Good Academic Customer Service. For the first installment click here.

Two additional changes to the last version of the Principle of Good Academic Customer Service were the additions of

6.Fulfill all promises

7. Engagement starts at first contact and continues into alumnus status.  
Engage. Engage. Engage and engage again.

These two seem so obvious to me that I am not sure if they really need explication but since we did put them into the list, I suppose they do.

Principle 6. Fulfill all promises.
This should be obvious but apparently is it not. Promises should always be fulfilled. That’s why they are promises after all. To assure another that it will be fulfilled. Yet, students tell us during campus service audits that people colleges break promises all the time. And these range from little fractures that are perhaps annoying to major promises rupturing that can and often do lead to dire consequences for students including not graduating, adding an extra year of study or causing the student to drop out.

Realize to start with that whatever one tells a student he or she will try to do, may do, will do is taken as a promise; part of a contract and must be fulfilled. No matter whether it is as simple as a student leaving a phone message with the expectation you will get back to him simply because your phone message said you would. (Student calls, you offer voice mail, student accepts and acts on that acceptance – contract.) Same is true for an email even though you may not have promised to get back. (There is an implied contract in that you gave out the address; the student used it with based on an expectation from your proffering the address that you would respond.

You may not see these are promises but then you are not the customer, the student.  When a waiter promises to bring a clean fork and forgets, this is obviously breaking a promise to you as customer. When the waiter says he’ll get another fork and takes his time about it as you food gets cold, that is taken as at least a breach of good service and a promise. We as customers expect that when we are told an action will be taken it will be and in a reasonable period of time if not before. For traditional college age students who are used to almost instantaneous information and technological reactions to a keystroke or two or an instant texted message, time is very truncated. A minute feels like ten minutes, five minutes and hour and ten minutes is just too long to wait patiently and without voicing displeasure.

And this time compaction becomes even more tightly compressed when waiting for the solution to a problem.  What college personnel see as impatience and demanding students is actually just a differing perception of time to complete an action, to fulfill a promise. A statement to a student such as “let me see what I can do” is often interpreted as “you will do something” and will do it NOW! This is why we have observed the confused face of a college or university employee surprised to see a student still sitting and waiting in the chair after they thought they dismissed her with “I’ll look into it.” The student is not moving because she takes that as a promise that she is waiting to have fulfilled NOW. What college personnel take as a dismissal or a vague offer is taken as a commitment by the student and it must be fulfilled.

The way to make it clear that this is not a promise but an attempt to bring closure to the conversations is to say something like “I am not promising anything. Let me look into it and get back to me at ____ . o’clock Here is my number” or even better “I cannot promise anything but I’ll get back to you by ____o’clock today/tomorrow. What is a good number I can use to call you?” But then this is a promise of course and must be fulfilled even if there is little or nothing to report. The student must be called or some information ready when the student calls even if that information is “I contacted person/ office but he, she or it has not yet gotten back to me with an answer/solution. When is a good time for us to talk later today/tomorrow?”

This is something that people in bursar, financial aid and registrar offices need to take to heart. These are the three horsemen of college student complaints concerning promises. What you may think you are saying is not what the students are hearing. They are hearing in “It should be ready tomorrow” a promise that “It will be ready first thing tomorrow morning when I get here.”  But it is also important to realize that if an employee says it will be ready after lunch tomorrow or Wednesday, it is a promise that it will be and it must be ready. If it is not, the office is obligated to at least notify the student to save him or her a trip to the office. Along with the notification should be an apology and an explanation why the promise is not being kept.

Equaling troubling to students are the intrinsic promises such as were discussed in an earlier posting. I recently listened to an angry student who felt the school had lied to him and broken its promise for him to be able to graduate on time because courses he needed in the Fall were not available. Promise of a four-year program broken.  He explained that a section of a course needed for graduation was being cancelled just a week-and-a-half out from the start of classes and he could not get into another section because they were all at times in conflict with the rest of his schedule.  Promise to act in a timely manner broken. There was now no way he would be able to graduate on time. These were promises intrinsic to academic customer service that were being broken. Intrinsic to the total academic and learning experience implied by a four-year university focused on student learning.

He was told that perhaps the professor could do an individualized study with him. The professor refused saying he was too busy. This just made him perceive that another promise that student needs would be taken care of and students came first was being broken. And well, it was.

The student called the department office. The chair of the department said he would talk with the professor and see if he could get this straightened out.  The student was told the chair would get back to him soon. Two days passed. Soon was well in the past. Another promise broken. When the student called the office again, the chair said he was able to contact the professor but he was working on a grant project and could not add any more teaching time. Promises broken and one enraged student who is so angry he is seeing how many of his credits would transfer to another school – in his senior year.

That was not just breaking promises; it was horrible customer service both intrinsic to academia and extrinsic to any customer service situation.

Do not break promises. It is bad academic customer service and leads to anger, attrition and even if someone graduates, one less donating alumnus.

Principle 7. Engagement starts at first contact and continues into alumnus status. Engage. Engage. Engage and engage again.
Engagement is a topic I have written on many times before so here I will be focusing primarily on initial aspects of starting the engagement in the recruitment, admissions and enrollment process.

This principle recognizes something that many schools do not seem to catch on to. A person who may be interested in the schools is a customer/client/student from the very first time he or she hears or reads about the school.  An interested student is a customer whether or she or she ever “buys” into then school or attends. Just as a person who goes “shopping” in a store but does not buy anything will still relate that experience to others and a decision to shop there again. So will a potential or interested student.

In fact, the decision to continue in the application and decision-making process that could lead to a newly enrolled student depends on those very first impressions. Our studies found that 12 % of all potential enrollment is lost to a college the first time a student makes contact with the school. If the first experience is not good, it is highly unlikely there will be a second experience. Considering that the likely first point of actual reference will be either through the website or by telephone, earlier articles on theses should be re-read.

A weak or poor website says a lot to today’s tech savvy potential student of any age. And do not fall into the trap of thinking that the possible student will be part of one or another marketable labeled groups like Millennial or Generation Y. Age is not a distinction that should be relied on when considering first contacts but rather the fact the differentiations should fall more in line with tech use- high through Luddite. Some adults are innovators of new technology and had to get an IPad the first day it was out while some college students actually do not even text!!!!  Like me. (Though I do want an IPad but I am really an early majority so I’ll wait for IPad version 3 waiting for the bugs to get out and new functions added.)

It is true that today’s high school junior, senior high school student and most college students are normally very tech attuned but colleges need to  realize that first contacts might not be made by the student but by a parent or another person. Nowadays, college selection is a group affair and often parents and others other than the student alone are very active participants. It always has been actually. Just recall your first exposure to a university. Through someone else’s experiences, a guidance counselor recommending it or a sibling who was going there.

Customer experience is so very dependent on what one hears from others’ experiences that we cannot focus just one group.  In fact, we have a need to rely on other’s thoughts and opinions to justify verify, and validate our own thoughts and beliefs to avoid cognitive dissonance. So if people report they had a bad initial experience their thoughts will often make a potential student rethink his or her own experiences to avoid feeling as if he or she were wrong in making an assessment.  The need for verification goes far beyond asking for an opinion on how whether or not a piece of clothing “makes my butt m look big” to making college decisions through questions such as “does this college make my choices look big?” If someone had a bad initial experience, say kept waiting on the phone, a rude receptionist, an admissions counselor who was too busy to help or staff/professors walking through the halls scowling as if this is a terrible place to be, they might just tell the potential student that he or she does not want to consider going there because they treat people poorly. So each person must be treated as if he or she were a student. This is also true of everyone who makes con6tact with the college. The person does not need to be a potential student but could be a parent or a member of the public.

New Principle 7 also a principle that absorbs an old principle which stated:  Websites must be well-designed, easy to navigate, written for and focused on students and actually informative. This is now accepted as part of the first contact since the web is a primary way of making that initial inquiry without having to actually talk with a person. Or used because someone did try talking to a person.

Webs are so important in the engagement process which is why webs need to be very well designed for easy navigating and up to date with no broken links or orphaned pages.  Just think of the first time you saw someone who had later asked you out on a date. If he or she was unkempt, coarse, nerdy, scruffy or looked unlike someone in your experience, that initial view could very well determine whether or not you would accept an invitation. Webs, receptions, campuses too fall into the same category of decision-making. We have found many potential students who stated they were interested in a college but when they actually saw it, they became unsure. And when they got lost trying to navigate the web or campus due to poor links or lack of signs to guide one around the campus, that was enough.

There is also a failure to engage that needs to be considered as well as students consider a university, college or two-year school. One technique we use during an academic shopping part of a college customer service audit is we have the shopper look lost. Sometimes it is not necessary to pretend since schools have a love of making sure one cannot find one’s way from functional area to another. The shopper stops in a busy area, looks confused and waits to see how long it takes for someone to approach and try to help.  We have worn down stopwatch batteries at some universities waiting for someone to help out. Turning in circles and scratching the head does not seem to work. Quiet growling and cursing seems to attract some attention but not help. In fact, what is rather amazing is that quite often it is another lost student who stops to help as college employees stream buy avoiding contact as if it were dangerous to look a lost stranger in the eye.

This is very poor initial engagement indeed. It is telling people we really do not want you to be here. This is why we believe it is so important for engagement to start with learning how to do a simple “hello?” when passing anyone on campus. A voiced “hello” followed by a “Hi. How are you??’ is even better of course since the other person may just say “I’m lost” to which one can say “Okay, have a nice….” NO, that is what too many people o. They think phatic comments are a form of engaging. They aren’t. It is important to realize that when G-d gave us two ears She was saying speak once, then lessen twice as hard for an answer in this case.

In other words, engage the person.  Hello, response and follow-up is often the start of a longer engagement process as many a couple have found out.

Engage. Engage. Engage and engage again.

If you would like a digital copy of the latest Principles of Good Academic Customer Service, just click here and ask. Be glad to send them on.

If you or your school is not aware of the offer of a fee free presentation or workshop on academic customer service and retention, please click here NOW.T
My PhotoThe author Dr. Neal Raisman is the leading presenter, researcher and consultant on customer service for retention in colleges, universities, community and career colleges in the US, Canada and Europe. He and his associates have provided retention solutions for over 300 schools and businesses that want to work with higher education. Dr. Raisman is the author of over 400 articles and four books including his latest bestseller The Power of Retention; More Customer Service for Higher Education available from The Administrators' Bookshelf in hard copy and digital editions.

If you would like to discuss a retention issue or see if he is available to come to your school or business for a workshop, presentation or other retention solution such as a full customer servicing audit,
413.219.6939 or email

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