CE Focus on Customer Experience Would Benefit Main Campus
Higher education has a reputation for being institutionally minded, stodgy and slow-moving. This characterization, however, could not be further from the reality in the continuing education (CE) environment. Serving non-traditional students, these units need to be focused on tailoring high-end customer experience and reactive to changes in the economy and labor market. As the traditional student population begins to adopt some of the characteristics of their non-traditional colleagues—namely their consumer-mindedness and expectation for an Amazon-style customer experience—main campus leaders should begin following the examples set on the margins of their institutions.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How does the importance of meeting students’ ROI expectations differ between CE units and main campus?
Carolyn Young (CY): Both have equal importance but there are variables for CE students that require a different approach. CE students’ lives are impacted by three factors: time, program relevance and outcomes. Adult learners have very little time between their work, their families and then trying to take on professional development. From their initial interaction with the CE unit, right to the completion of the program, they are very focused on making the best use of their time and it’s really important for the CE unit to do everything it can to respect that time and to be efficient in its processes so that there’s no back and forth. In any interaction with students, whether it’s phone calls or any of the other kinds of email exchanges, whenever students are using up their valuable time we need to make it very clear and be efficient in our processes.
Program relevance and the result that students get are very important. Units like ours have to take more risks than main campus because we can’t depend on government funding to be coming through year after year. We have to take our chances with new approaches and sometimes those risks are rewarded and other times they’re not.
Evo: What sets CE units apart when it comes to meeting students’ outcome expectations?
CY: We have to offer programs that are relevant to the current economy and that meet employers’ needs. We can’t offer some of the programs you’d find on main campus because if they’re not going to have a direct impact on our students’ lives—whether it’s professional development or personal enrichment—they’re not interested. We need to be nimble in identifying what those programs are and we need to get out of the gate fast.
Our students are looking for results, so when they’re looking at our courses, they expect to apply that learning as soon as they are finished. We also want practical information. There’s always a place for theory in our courses but students want to be able to put it into practice and use that knowledge.
Evo: Why is CE able to create programs so quickly?
CY: It varies from one CE unit to the next, but at Western, if we want to offer a professional certificate in data analytics or another emerging program we don’t need to go through the same approval process that main campus units need to navigate. If we decide in February that we’re going to want to offer a diploma in data analytics this September, we can do it. We don’t need to wait for the approvals that would need to come from the Ministry of Education.
Evo: What differentiates a CE unit from main campus when it comes to offering customer-centric value adds?
CY: We can’t depend on the funding to come from provincial budgets. As a cost recovery department, we have to ensure that we offer excellence in customer service or people will go somewhere else.
When I think about excellence in customer service, it’s everything from the way that your team answers the phone to the way they interact with prospective customers at open houses to the way that the website presents itself.
Students expect an online registration experience that is trustworthy and user-friendly. Once they’ve registered in a course, students expect the communication between themselves and the continuing ed team, and even the instructors, to be respectful and timely. If they’ve taken several courses from us, they want to be able to go into our system, access those records, print off the grade report and take that to their employer. They don’t want to be jumping through hoops and doing three or four phone calls to get a simple transaction done.
Our students expect to be treated like individuals. That’s why we need to have an approach to customer service that probably exceeds most of what you see on main campus. Our students, our customers, expect the experience to be like the way they’re treated in a bank or the way they can shop on Amazon.
Evo: How does an effective back end facilitate a CE unit’s capacity to provide the level of customer service that today’s students expect?
CY: An effective system is crucial to facilitating this customer experience. When students go into our website and they log in with their user ID, they expect to see all of the transactions that they have had, they expect to see a record of that. One of the features of our system that we find very beneficial is it informs students when they’ve completed a certain number of courses and are only a few courses away from earning a certificate. Ultimately, just like main campus students, CE students are also looking for accreditation, for certification. They do want to be able to present those accomplishments as they go forward in their career.
If they go into a website and the educational provider has answers to their questions, links to different parts of the websites that will keep them informed, it builds this trust and confidence in choosing the school. There are ways you can use the online experience, specifically through your website, to make a student feel confident about their decision to enroll in our courses and to continue taking courses. It is a great way of retaining students.
Evo: How could main campuses benefit from applying some of CE’s customer service best practices?
CY: Students really appreciate the opportunity to do self-service functions and not have to make these phone calls or do these emails back and forth to get a simple process done. That’s maybe where main campuses could benefit from what we do—giving students the option to take care of some of their simple needs on their own without needing to do a multi-day exchange of information. They would also benefit from always putting the student’s experience first and not letting the system decide how it’s going to be.
One of the things that we are really interested in right now is making pathways from our programs into the university, so that if students complete a certain amount of learning from continuing studies, they can apply some of that towards credit in a university degree program.
Evo: What are the roadblocks to that kind of program becoming a reality?
CY: The systems don’t recognize each other’s language. For example, some of the reports that we have to send over still need to be entered manually because there’s not an automated process. It’s probably around differences in what a main campus and a CE campus needs. Our students don’t have access to Western library services; they have a separate ID and Western won’t recognize it. That’s one of the roadblocks. The expectation is that more and more adult learners are going to want to be able to get into the main campus programs and it feels like that pathway is not user friendly. It’s small things like library access but it’s also big things like getting into the system of record.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator