Service Partnerships Key to Creating Value for StudentsLesley Nichols | Executive Director of Professional Studies, Emerson College
Higher education leaders are under more pressure than ever before to deliver on student expectations. The marketplace is immensely competitive and, given the options available to today’s students, colleges and universities cannot afford to ignore customer demand. Given the example set by retail leaders like Amazon and Nordstom, students expect a similar service infrastructure to be provided by their chosen postsecondary institution. Most institutions, however, do not have the resources to build this in-house, let alone the expertise. In this interview, Lesley Nichols shares her thoughts on how institutions should react to recent changes in student expectations and discusses the value of working with service providers to meeting these advanced demands.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the factors that determine whether a student’s experience at an institution was positive or negative?
Lesley Nichols (LN): It’s all about student expectations and what the institution can do to provide an experience that ideally exceeds those expectations. Students don’t necessarily come to us because they want a degree or certificate. They’re looking for a way to pursue their dream. That could be a new career or a promotion, or simply to feel more confident when they go into a job interview that they can demonstrate the knowledge and skills they gained at our institution. Our main focus has to be delivering what we promised to a student in order for them to have that positive experience.
In terms of delivery formats, you have to look at online students and how their experience can be different. For residential students, a big part of that experience goes beyond the academic—it could also be the campus itself from the classroom facilities we provide—the parking experience, the dining hall—to something as simple as WiFi connectivity for their mobile devices. Looking at online students, are we providing a seamless experience to them through technology?
Evo: How can a college or university determine what that student’s expectations are upon enrollment?
LN: When you have a student who inquires, ask them questions about what they’re looking to achieve. Be sure that the program they select is the right fit for them.
Evo: Why do institutional leaders so often overlook the importance of providing students a good customer experience as well as a strong academic experience?
LN: The academic experience is rooted in tradition. There are a lot of institutions that have been around for hundreds of years and are used to providing the academics. However, delivering the customer experience is tricky because expectations have really changed. Sometimes when you talk about the customer experience in the higher education environment, the conversation comes to a halt because of the semantics.
The word “customer” still scares a lot of people in academia. Regardless of what terminology we use—whether it’s “customer,” “student,” or as I prefer, “human being”—it’s still about the user’s experience. Ultimately, the person making the purchasing decision wants to be satisfied and they want to feel confident that they made the right decision.
Part of that means the purchasing process should go smoothly. Let’s say a prospective student is looking at two institutions. One of those institutions does a great job of returning phone calls and emails quickly, they have staff members who are friendly and capable of answering questions and a website that’s easy to navigate. The other institution has a complicated website and they take several days to return a phone call after a voicemail is left. When they’re comparing those experiences, it’s more likely the student will choose the one where they have that positive first impression.
Institutions who do not recognize the importance of the customer experience today risk losing potential students to other institutions who have figured it out.
Evo: When it comes to the tools critical to providing this high-end student-customer experience, why is it valuable for institutions to partner with vendors on their provision?
LN: I try to think about the companies that are known for the high-quality customer experience—Nordstrom, Amazon, Zappos. Those companies invested millions of dollars strictly on the infrastructure they need to support the customer experience. Unfortunately the average university or department within the university doesn’t have those types of resources to build it all in house. That’s where I see a critical role for vendors to play; they can bring their own infrastructure well as industry best practices to the table.
Evo: What are some of the most common areas institutions will look for partners when it comes to creating a robust and valuable experience for students?
LN: Electronic textbooks and videos and online course delivery mechanisms or learning management systems are things that a university’s probably not going to try to develop in house because it’s probably much easier to partner with someone who is doing this cross-country for a variety of institutions.
Another big thing is student self-service. We’re used to instant gratification and we expect to be able to access information and the tools that we use 24/7 but it’s really difficult, if not impossible, to staff our offices and provide 24/7 service. We can leverage technology to provide that experience, even when we don’t have staff immediately available.
Another big one is programs. There are a lot of partnerships with vendors to allow institutions to expand their programming and offer a wider variety of classes and delivery formats that they may not be able to do in-house.
There is also a big trend towards credentialing. There are a lot of vendors who have emerged in this market recently to help institutions who are looking for competency-based education or digital badges to allow students to demonstrate their education. Working with a vendor on that allows the institution to be able to have the technology resources to be able to do that credentialing.
Evo: What are the advantages working with vendors to develop and introduce infrastructural tools as opposed to trying to build them in-house?
LN: One thing to look at is scalability. You run the risk when you build something in-house that it may be perfect when you build it but it cannot grow with your institution. When you work with an outside vendor, and they’re working with a variety of institutions, they have to build a product that’s scalable because they’re working with clients of all different sizes, different enrollments, different geographies. Ultimately when you build something in-house, you need to be sure that it has that scalability, which is tough to do.
The other thing is having a process-driven mindset, which means avoiding the automation of bad processes. Leaders need to step back to reexamine the experience from a student perspective to look at areas for improvement. Look at the pieces that you can put in place now and the pieces where you simply don’t have the expertise and resources you need so that you can bring in a partner who can help you fill that role.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of working with vendors to create a high-end student experience?
LN: Look at other institutions and learn what works well and what doesn’t. When you work with a vendor who may have other clients within the industry, it helps sometimes to look at examples. That could be a website you’re working on, a student self-service tool to look at some of the other client sites and say, “Here’s some great things they’re doing for their student experience, how can we then work with a vendor to implement those tools for our institution as well?’
Similarly, when you have that network of other clients to reach out to, you can compare notes, talk about that experience and learn from each other so you’re not reinventing the wheel every time.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator