Published on 2018/09/21

Improving the Student Experience through eCommerce: Best Practices for Higher Ed

The EvoLLLution | Improving the Student Experience through eCommerce: Best Practices for Higher Ed
By integrating best practices from the eCommerce space into strategic and digital initiatives, postsecondary institutions can exceed students’ expectations not only as learners, but as customers.

Online shopping is increasingly the norm for people buying books, groceries, clothing and everything in between. According to Lisa Slavin, the familiarity that individuals have with online platforms like Amazon and Google are shaping their expectations of the online experience they hope to find from a college or university. In this interview, Slavin discusses how customer service is becoming an increasingly important part of the student experience, and lays out ways in which colleges and universities can integrate eCommerce best practices into their digital platforms.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How are students’ expectations of the college experience shaped by the experience they get from companies like Amazon and Uber?

Lisa Slavin (LS): The most obvious way is the level of instant gratification that these companies provide. It’s embedded in people’s everyday lives. Students are used to the convenience of a click or swipe, and they’ve built this expectation into all aspects of how they use the internet, including for the purposes of higher education. Amazon is the perfect example: You know where your order is at every step in the process. For those of us who are older, we can find those expectations frustrating, but we have to recognize that instant gratification is now the norm.

Evo: What are a few key characteristics of the Amazon shopping experience that universities should consider integrating into their online presence?

LS: Easy navigation is probably the most important thing to do really well. Amazon’s system is mobile, easily navigable and user friendly. It’s literally click and go.

Amazon is leaps and bounds ahead of most colleges and institutions. They understand that most consumers are browsing and shopping on their phones. If a school is not optimizing their site to be easily readable on a student’s mobile phone, they’re at a huge disadvantage.

Evo: What can colleges do to better apply these characteristics to their own organizations?

LS: First, it’s important for schools, no matter whether they’re adding a new feature, launching their own app, or updating their website, to regularly solicit feedback from students. Oftentimes, this happens pretty late in the process or is avoided altogether, but it’s critical. Administrators have to make sure that the platform is friendly to their target market, so getting real feedback from students is key.

Accessibility is also incredibly important. A lot of schools are heavily dependent on their website: almost all admissions offices will tell you their number-one point of contact with prospective students is online. If their website isn’t clean and easy to navigate, they’re not going to get very far with new enrollments. One way in which a lot of schools mess this up is by not using what I call “external talk”—that is, language that is simple and accessible. It’s easy for an institution to get hung up on internal acronyms, but those acronyms won’t mean anything to prospective students. University websites have to use very basic language so that anyone, regardless of their age or where they’re coming from, can navigate to where they’re looking to go.

Schools need to consider the website as part of their customer service experience. When individual offices or departments start leveraging tools on the web to help students, they’re usually thinking about it from their own perspective, but they need to consider it from all sides of the student experience. No matter where they are in the student funnel—whether they’re looking on the website for the first time, enrolling, paying their deposit or checking financial aid—the student has to have a positive customer service experience.

This needs to be embedded in the college’s strategic planning. Customer service can’t just be lumped under “technology”—in reality, all of the offices that work with enrollment have to think about the student experience. They can’t just consider it in terms of their individual office. They have to think about where the student is, and how they’re getting to the next office.

If you’re going to develop a university app, who will your audience be? Is it just for current students? Is it for prospective students? Can it be used for alumni? You have to have the right people around the table when you start talking about creating an app. It can’t just involve the marketing department and IT. You have to bring in current students; you have to bring in financial aid and orientation.

Evo: How do you start shifting that mindset towards student centricity at every level of the organization, rather than just those that might be traditionally considered customer service departments?

LS: I’ll give you an example. We recently had a retreat where the staff played a version of Candyland. We set up all of the offices—financial aid, enrollment, orientation, library services, IT—and navigated the board from the student’s perspective. If a student comes to our institution right out of high school, what’s their journey like? Which office do they start in? If they don’t need financial aid, which office do they go to next? When do they get their bill? If they’re struggling, how do they get to the academic achievement centre?

In the end, it doesn’t matter which office a student turns up in, because he or she doesn’t think of the offices as separate entities. All students see is the institution, so the level of customer service they receive should be the same at every single office or on every single phone call. My objective is to get to the point where any office can answer a series of basic questions about the institution. For example, if a student calls the admin’s office to ask about the deadline for financial aid, the admin office should be able to answer without transferring it to financial aid. Now, if a student is calling in and saying, “How come I didn’t get a Pell Grant?” that question does need to be transferred to a financial aid officer. But basic front-line questions should be able to be answered by anyone. That just takes some regular training of staff and faculty.

Every department at a college or university needs to own enrollment. The more that staff and faculty across the institution can point students in the right direction, the better the experience will be for our learners.

Evo: How important is it to make sure the enrollment process is streamlined to give students a feel for how the rest of their administrative interactions with the college are going to go?

LS: It’s really important. Institutions often fall into a pattern where recruitment is very high-touch, high-contact, but then they don’t follow through on that level of engagement once students are enrolled. Students are courted very actively at the very beginning—they get texts from counselors and follow-ups from coaches, they’re reached out to on Facebook—but once they get to the institution, that contact melts away.

I remember coming across this challenge at one of my previous institutions. My admissions team was responding to students pretty much immediately when they reached out—we would reply to emails on weekend, or at any hour of the day—and when these students enrolled they expected that same level of engagement from their academic advisors. We were told that we had to be more realistic with these students upfront. Academic advising simply couldn’t sustain that level of student engagement. So, trying to bridge over that courtship, if you will, is a challenge.

At the same time, this raised the possibility that the advising team might need more appropriate outreach mechanisms, perhaps through a Facebook page or extended hours during peak season. So, it did start a conversation. That doesn’t mean that one way was right and one way was wrong. We had to ask, well, if students are texting more than calling, then maybe that should become a new outreach method.

Some folks in higher ed don’t like the term customer service, but the reality is that students are our customers. They’re in college and they have to do the work, but at the same time the institution has to make sure that they’re getting the product that they paid for. This is also a reputational issue. The second a student has a bad experience, they’re letting people know.  We try to be proactive in countering this by regularly reaching out to our students through surveys. With those surveys, what I’ve been happy to see is that our level of customer service satisfaction has increased. We still do get constructive criticism, and I share that up and down. There’s constantly room for improvement. When the students are taking the time to tell us what would make their experience better or easier, that’s extremely valuable.

Evo: Is there anything that you’d like to add about the importance of taking lessons from the eCommerce space to improve the online experience in higher ed?

LS: It’s always a challenge to find the resources to take on continuous improvement processes. It’s important for enrollment managers to start thinking not only about how to add eCommerce best practices into their budget but also to help their leadership team start to see it as part of their overall strategic plan. Technology’s not going away: whether they’re students or shoppers, people will continue to use online platforms. If we aren’t meeting students where they are and where they’re going, that’s going to show up in our customer satisfaction surveys and, ultimately, in declining enrollment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • Expectations around customer service, as laid out by Amazon and other commercial giants, are changing students’ expectations of customer service in the higher ed sector.
  • By integrating eCommerce best practices such as easy navigation and accessible language into their online platforms, postsecondary institutions can fulfill students’ expectations of customer service.
  • Good customer service isn’t just an expectation; it’s also a reputational issue. All offices at an institution, whether they’re front line or not, have a responsibility to ensure that they are providing the best service possible.