Service to Students: It’s a New DayWayne Smutz | Dean of Continuing Education and Extension, UC Los Angeles
It’s no longer news that higher education is in the midst of dynamic and dramatic change. There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t see a new book addressing the change and the future of higher education. One topic that’s not often core to those books, however, is service to students.
Higher education’s approach to serving students has not been glorious. My own undergrad days were filled with standing in lines, fighting to get into classes, doing battle with bureaucracies. It was on me to push my way though. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of good things that happened, too, but it was clear that serving students and ensuring their success was not a high priority for colleges and universities. I was one of those who actually did hear the dean of letters and science say to the incoming freshman class, “Look to your right. Look to your left. In four years only one of you will still be here to graduate!” And that was said with gleeful enthusiasm. Students were pretty much on their own to survive.
How times have changed. One item that we must change to keep up is the way we serve our students. The quality of service we provide needs to improve significantly. However, the force for change is not likely to come from within the institution but from students themselves, especially adult students. While they may not have wanted power in this fashion, they now have the power of the purse. The price of higher education is such that our students have become more than willing to share their thoughts on what they get from us. With social media only a click away, the word on bad experiences (and good ones) can spread quickly. Keeping students happy through good service pays dividends to the bottom line in addition to just being a nice thing to do.
It is critical, therefore, that we seriously attend to how we serve students. The experience we provide for students inside and outside of the classroom will go a long ways to ensuring that they persist and succeed—or get them to enroll with your institution in the first place! In fact, if you’re interested in tackling the student service issue, start with small steps. How do your staff answer and talk on the phone to students? Do you have a staff that solves student problems or a staff that passes them along the telephone tree? How often do staff tell existing or potential students that they can find what they need on the website?
Unfriendly voices, frustrating experiences, and driving students to a web site after they have taken the time to call or e-mail your office undermines your chance to have a positive, personal contact with that individual. I believe in high tech/high touch. Automate as much as you possibly can. What you can’t automate, that’s where you use high touch. And, since you’ve driven down the number of contacts through automation, your staff should have the time to apply the personal touch. Not surprisingly, above many other experiences students remember how well your office treated them. It’s a key part of retention from my perspective, not just through their degree program, but over the course of the student’s career and life.
One of the most interesting things about frontline service to students is that it really doesn’t have to cost that much. It’s not free but it’s certainly affordable. The keys to success are the following:
- Hire high-quality people who are committed to service.
- Develop customer service standards.
- Set performance expectations.
- Train staff so they are in a position to deliver quality service based on standards and expectations.
- Monitor to make sure that they deliver what you want.
This last item, monitoring, can be a bit tricky. One way is to have a phone system that allows you to record all call interactions between your staff and students or potential students. This approach is likely to be met with resistance by staff and you’ll field questions like, “Don’t you trust me?” The answer should be, “The issue is not about trust. It’s about maintaining quality control.”
In fact, in terms of business operations, higher education uniquely ignores quality control issues at the point of contact between the institution and the student/customer. Recordings allow for the quality control since they can be used to help staff improve—once everyone gets past the fear of being recorded.
Getting the right people for this service role is critical because in large part, student/customer service is primarily about attitude and training. Too often, we in higher education have created the lowest level and lowest paid jobs to interact with students outside of the classroom. This is a mistake. You put your educational business at risk when you do this. Hiring more qualified staff in all likelihood will allow you to hire fewer staff to do the same job. At the same time, don’t lowball those who have the most contact with your students. It’s not worth it.
Perhaps you don’t think you have a student service problem. I suggest you find out. The best way to do that is through mystery shopping. Hire a company to call, e-mail, and visit your operation acting as potential students. It’s not cheap but my hunch is that you will find that it’s well worth the investment. I certainly have.
Author Perspective: Administrator