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Creating the Experience Students Expect

The EvoLLLution | Creating the Experience Students Expect
The customer experience is a true differentiator in the modern higher education marketplace, and institutions that do not adapt will be in trouble.

Today’s student population has transformed significantly over the past decade. Today’s students have a huge range of choice when it comes to choosing an institution, and their customer experience with a given college or university can prove to be a differentiator. They expect immediacy and technology-enhanced services, and institutions need to serve that new expectation if they are to succeed. In this interview, Christine Blakney expands on the expectations of today’s students and shares her thoughts on how institutions can adapt to meet them.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is the student-customer experience so important for higher education institutions today?

Christine Blakney (CB): The competition with other higher ed institutions is growing dramatically. With the growth of online offerings, students no longer have to be physically located near their institution. We’re competing for greater number of students across the world, and in light of that we have to address the student customer experience in order to attract more customers to our university.

It’s important that institutions realize their students are customers whose needs and wants should be addressed, because if they don’t, they could quickly lose market share. Students will very quickly communicate a negative experience widely and since a lot of funding models are tied to enrollment and growth, poor customer service could result in a loss of funding and possible loss of valuable faculty and staff. Institutions cannot sit back and think they are too big to fail; they must continue to develop and relate to current trends or face becoming stagnant.

Evo: What kinds of changes must universities make to create the kind of experience today’s students expect?

CB: You have to really consider the new student expectations. This has shifted dramatically from even 10 years ago. Students today experience lifestyles that lend more toward immediacy. If you’re not providing that as an institution, that’s not what they’re attuned to and that’s not their expectation of how they want to continue.

For example, when somebody walks up to your customer service window and you’ve got a bunch of paper forms sitting on the desk, they’re going to think they’re about to enter into a very time-consuming process. They’re not going to want to stay for that interaction, but they would be more inclined if the same person offered them a more efficient process.

You can either present yourself as a very beneficial institution by serving those needs or you can show yourself to be a very stagnant institution that fails to address technological advances. Urgency and service on demand is the new definition of quality service.

Evo: Do you consider a strong customer experience to be a true differentiator for institutions?

CB: Absolutely. If you can differentiate yourself within that first student interaction with technological advances students are after, you can beat out your competitors when it comes time for the student to enroll.

Evo: How do you create change that allows institutions to deliver personalized service at scale?

This can be done by keeping track and educating ourselves on trends both within the higher education environment as well as the business world. By examining these, we can then track what trends can be addressed in our current environment to provide an improved student experience. Examples include:

  • Queuing services that track who a student needs to see and where they are in the queue
  • Customer service tracking such as recording calls, creating issue tickets that track a question to its resolution
  • Calling/texting services that allow you to direct a message to a student quickly in a format that they will acknowledge
  • Wait from Home clinics that allow students to text for an appointment time instead of waiting in our offices

This all boils down to identifying touch points for each interaction with a student or customer. Think about where you can improve the efficiency and effectiveness and personalize it to the student experience.

Evo: Why are universities adverse to treating students as customers?

CB: What you find at various institutions is that they just don’t see the value in changing to adapt to their customer’s wants and needs. They feel like their product is perfect as is. We’re never going to grow if we keep doing the same thing we’ve always done.

Evo: What are the most significant roadblocks to these kinds of change?

CB: There are several roadblocks that stand in the way of institutions being able to effectively improve their customer service, including the lack of funding, time, motivation and lack of long-term vision.

In terms of funding, most people perceive a technological change as costing them something. They feel like they have to go buy software or enter into a contract with a third party or hire programming staff to develop some of these things. They may not even investigate the options because of this perception. Sometimes they just need to open their eyes.

People are comfortable in what they know and so you have to motivate them by saying, “This is how your life is going to be better.” In the same way, you want to attract a customer by saying “we can make your life better because we can offer you all these efficiencies.” You’ve got to take the same approach with your staff and tell them that with an automated system for example, they’re going to be able to work an 8-5 p.m. schedule as opposed to their current 8-9 p.m. schedule.

This is also what you need to sell your upper administration on. They may not see dramatic enrollment growth immediately but over time they’re going to see that with increased efficiency, they may be able to do something else with those budgeted dollars that were previous covering the workload.

Evo: From your perspective how do these savings in terms of the staff time contribute to a more positive student experience?

CB: If you make the staff experience more smooth and efficient, they are going to present themselves to the customer as more professional and efficient and less stressed because they are able to accomplish their duties and responsibilities more efficiently based on the tools that you’ve provided to them. When you’ve got 400 students sitting in your lobby, the stress level of your staff is very palpable and they may even attempt to answer questions brusquely because they’re looking out in the lobby and seeing 400 more people that they have to assist before they can go home. Increased efficiency changes their attitudes in some ways and reduces their stress and anxiety levels.

This interview has been edited for length.


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