Driving Student Satisfaction and Institutional Revenue by Investing in the Staff Experience
Institutional staff have a significant impact on the lives of students, not just in terms of day-to-day interactions but across their entire lifecycle. Whether front-line or back-end, staff are pivotal in helping students progress through their programs, minimizing bureaucratic roadblocks that might be standing in their way and helping them manage their overall relationship with the institution. Unfortunately, even with the critical role these employees play, postsecondary institutions have a tendency to overlook the impact their staff experience has when it comes to designating ever-declining budgets. In this interview, Kevin Currie reflects on the critical role the staff experience has on the student experience and the institutional bottom line, and shares some ideas for leaders looking to improve the staff experience at their institutions.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why should senior college and university leaders pay attention to the staff experience their institutions are delivering?
Kevin Currie (KC): Unhappy staff means more employee turnover; the work still remains so not only do you have the added expense of recruiting people, you end up burdening those who remain with additional work.
Unhappy students are almost worse because you end up with a student retention and persistence problem in an industry where reputation is everything. The institution’s good name will suffer. This is especially true with international students, as referral from their neighbors is very important in determining which institution they’ll go to.
Evo: To your mind, what are some of the characteristics of a great staff experience?
KC: People want to work in a place where they have a sense of purpose, a sense of community, a sense of being individually valued and of being heard. Studies have shown that people are happier coming to work if they feel that they have a friend there, so if you can somehow create an environment where the employee fully understands what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, where they feel like they’re working with a team that has the same goals and that they’re being heard, they are more likely to feel like they’ve got something to contribute. Now being heard doesn’t mean that you have to implement everything but it does mean that you have to listen. And that if staff are struggling–and we all struggle some days—they know they’ve got a friend at work they can chat things over with and that will help them through the day.
Evo: What role can technology and back-end systems play in supporting that positive staff experience?
KC: Technology should make work life easier, not harder. The system should be reliable and it should clearly help with tasks that are important to the employee and to the organization. We have to be careful because sometimes I’ve seen systems that have been in place that are great at data gathering but they actually get in the way of the prospective student, the student, or the employee getting what they want. The systems really need to help us in our immediate tasks but also they need to help us with future tasks. For instance, if there are systems that are customer service relationship systems then basically you want that system to be able to help you understand where the prospective student is and where they’re going to be going so you can serve them better. If it’s a registration system, you want to know that the registration system is tracking where the students are within a certain program and what they need to do in order to get out of that program. And of course, the best systems help the students actually see that themselves so that they can go in and see how they’re progressing.
Evo: How does investing in the staff experience impact the institutional mission of serving students?
KC: Having happy, experienced staff who understand an organization and student goals will result in greater student recruitment, persistence, retention and success. Happier employees will be better and faster and more innovative in their problem solving both for students and for the institution. If things go well, you might tell two or three people that it was a really good experience. If things go poorly, you’ll stop strangers on the street to let them know how bad this experience was, and let’s face it, the reputation of an institution is really the greatest thing it has, so you want to make sure that reputation is that of a student-centric organization.
Evo: Do you think it’s possible for an institution to be student-centric without focusing on and investing in that staff experience?
KC: I don’t think it’s possible to be student-centric without investing in staff. Higher education is a service industry and so it’s really very difficult to provide good service without having quality staff. If your staff are not happy or aren’t invested in the work, then you’re not going to have a positive student experience. That’s really universal with any service industry. If you’re selling a product, no matter how bad the experience was, if the customers go home and they say this is a great product, you’ll stay in business. We’re just about the experience, so if customers don’t feel good about the experience then their impression of the organization will be a negative one overall.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes to develop and deliver a staff experience that’s going to positively impact students?
KC: If you hire great staff you’ll have a great staff experience. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have had wonderful staff members working with me and for me and that has really made all the difference in the student experience as well.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Business