Monthly Archives: June 2016

That’s not what I expected…

why-is-there-a-metallic-taste-in-my-mouth-1I was so excited to be taking a friend to a new neighborhood restaurant that I had discovered. We had a great cocktail, some good appetizers and then the entree arrived – and it was terrible! What to do? Often, as a native Minnesotan, I would have just said nothing and only left a 15% tip but I decided to ask for the manager. Nervously I told him how much I enjoyed the restaurant but the seafood creole dish we had ordered was bad. And, he listened! He didn’t argue or question my taste or understanding of how seafood should taste. He apologized and said he would ask the chef to pull the dish for the night. Then he told us how much he appreciated our business and hoped we would give them another chance. He also comped our meal and gave us a gift certificate.

Despite our best intentions we can’t always provide the customer service we want and our customers expect. How we, and our people, respond determines if we can recover. In my story I have gone back many times to the restaurant and encourage friends to visit when they are in St. Paul. At our colleges and universities how we respond to our students and their families when we don’t meet their expectations will influence how engaged they feel while on campus, how welcomed they feel and how connected to us they feel after they leave.

Forbes posted an article that highlights three key actions that my restaurant manager took and that we need to help our people take when we don’t provide the service our students expect.

  1. Apologize and Ask for Forgiveness: be clear that you are taking their issue seriously and that you genuinely understand their concerns. Don’t try and explain or defend and don’t feel like you have to agree – just understand.
  2. Go Over the Complaint with Your Customer: explore and listen. Remember that you may have a lot of information that customers don’t have – and don’t care about. Your goal is to understand their point of view.
  3. Fix the Problem and Then Follow Up: take action and confirm the next steps happen. Ask what the customer hoped would happen and how you can do something now. People don’t expect miracles; they want to be listened to.

Let me know if you are in St. Paul and want to try a new restaurant. I know a place that cares.

Todd Thorsgaard


Do you understand your customers?

diverse customersLast week while I was facilitating a retreat, one of my colleagues mentioned how our blog theme for the month complemented the customer service training she was using with staff at her college. The training program is called, “At Your Service: Working with Multicultural Customers.” While we usually don’t promote training programs on this blog, I thought that this one was worth a mention.

Created by the University of Minnesota’s Extension Service, the program helps participants understand the significant role that culture plays in any service encounter. For example, did you know that customers’ wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings are shaped by their culture?  If you accept this premise, it naturally follows that in order to truly serve your customer (i.e., student, parent, community member, colleague, boss), you need to look at the following questions through the lens of their culture.

  1. What does my customer want?
  2. What does my customer need?
  3. What does my customer think?
  4. What does my customer feel?

Taking this one step further, you can also ask:

  1. What is important to my customer?
  2. What are they trying to accomplish?
  3. What are their goals?

Understanding the answers to each of these questions and then helping your customer reach their goals or accomplish what they want, can go a long way to providing stellar customer service no matter what culture they are from.

Anita Rios



Designing for the margins

It turns out that if you design for the people in the margins, your building works better for everyone. – CAST (education design and resources)

We’ve been talking this month about customer service and what it looks like in higher education. Thinking about a couple of recent conversations with that lens gave me a new leadership insight – sometimes we don’t know who all the customers will be for our work. We do something that meets the needs of one group, and it turns out to have broader application.

As an instruction designer, I’ve had a version of the same conversation several times. Basically, it’s about the balance between creating content that’s accessible for everyone and using the fun new bells and whistles that don’t work for all learners.

curbWhile I want to make my content as engaging as possible, I also remember the principles of universal design. A good example is sidewalk curb cuts. When they were first proposed as an accessibility measure, there were complaints about the cost and effort. Once they became common, everyone found them useful. After breaking my ankle and being on a scooter for a few months, I know I appreciated them in new ways.

The CAST organization has proposed guidelines for Universal Design for Learning. While their focus is K-12 education, I thought many of their observations were useful in higher education as well. For example, they suggest that teachers ask first, what are my learning goals? Then ask, what barriers in the classroom might interfere with my diverse students reaching those goals? Following their principles about presenting the message in multiple ways and providing multiple means for engagement will make the lessons more informative for everyone.

Similarly, providing excellent service for people in the margins can have a much broader impact. When I worked at the University of Minnesota I saw a good example. For many years the custodial staff were required to wear a uniform that included polo shirts. When newly hired Somali women objected, the leadership team got creative. Rather than asking people to wear a uniform that didn’t fit their cultural norms, they added a second option – a smock that could be worn over existing clothes. It turned out that many staff members preferred the smock and it became a popular alternative.

Who are the customers at your margins, and what can you build that would make things better for everyone?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Is the customer always right?

customer always rightI imagine this isn’t a revelation to anyone who has ever worked with another person – no one is ALWAYS right – not even the customer. On the other hand, we know that customer satisfaction in higher education is the greatest predictor of retention and completion. (Schreiner, 2009) And a core component of satisfaction is the service students perceive they get from their college or university. Our students, our customers, may not always be right. But their success, and our success, is dependent on the service we provide and their satisfaction with it!

Neal Raisman,  author of Embrace the Oxymoron: Customer Service in Higher Education defines customer service in higher education as how students perceive their return on investment in:

  1. Financial rewards – will they find a field of work or service that provides security?
  2. Emotional rewards – do faculty and staff treat them with respect and consideration?
  3. Associative awards – do they feel accepted and a part of the institution?

The day-to-day interactions that your people have with students, whatever their role, will determine first how accepted students feel, and second how respectful the overall campus experience is for each student.

Laurie Brown, a communication and customer service consultant, encourages leaders to focus on the following seven attributes of customer service when coaching and developing people to meet emotional and associative expectations:

  1. Accessibility – is it easy for students to navigate the institution and processes?
  2. Availability – are people and services available when needed?
  3. Affability – are students greeted warmly and with genuine concern?
  4. Agreeability – do your people have the skills and support to find creative solutions and not say “NO?”
  5. Accountability – are your people empowered to take action and coached to be responsible for solutions?
  6. Adaptability – is your institution staying current and responding to the issues that are relevant today and tomorrow?
  7. Ability – have you continued to develop your people so they can serve students?

No one is ever always right, but we can always help our students feel accepted and supported!

Todd Thorsgaard

Hiring for great customer service

interview 1While most of us in higher education are not hiring customer service representatives, all of us have an element of customer service required in our roles. Whether we are providing direct services to students in admissions, advising, financial aid or in the classroom, or providing services and resources to our colleagues or bosses, it can help to hire people with the right customer service skills, knowledge and abilities.

While browsing for good resources, I happened upon a set of great customer service interview questions from I’ve skinnied down the list and adapted them a bit for higher education below. What I like most about them is that they help you zero in on the qualities you are seeking, such as honesty, engagement, attitude, engagement, etc.

Honesty and Communication:

1. Have you ever had to communicate a bad news to a student (or colleague, community member) who was affected by your service? How did you do it?

2. Give me an example of a time when you have successfully handled an irate student, parent, faculty or staff member?


1. Do a role play as a customer support agent who is trying to manage a customer when facing a performance hiccup during a solution demo.

2. How do you sense the mood of your customer (student, parent, colleague, etc.) while communicating with her?


1. What is that one skill you possess that will influence the success of our college/university?

2. Why do you want to be a member of our team?


1. What do you enjoy about working as a __________? in a college/university?

2. How do you think you can help our  team become more efficient? Where would you start?


1. What do you do to keep yourself updated with industry best practices?

2. What do you think is key for contributing to both your personal growth as well as the institution’s growth?


1. What is that one quality in you that helps you understand a customer’s problem better?


1. How much fun do you have in your job and what can you do to make your co-worker’s job fun as well?

2. What was the best mistake you did on your current job and explain why that’s the best?

What interview questions have you used to hire for great customer service?

Anita Rios

A cautionary tale

rainy ski hillMaybe it’s just me, but some of my best lessons are learned from observations of what not to do, especially when it comes to customer service. That was the case last March when my sister and I took my two daughters and their two friends to a ski resort for a 3-day get away. We had planned for a total girls vacation. When we weren’t skiing outside, we planned to make full use of the resort’s pool and spa, and of course, the fitness room to offset the homemade chili, tacos, and loads of snacks we were going to consume over the three days.

As it happened, March was rather warm. We arrived in pouring rain, making skiing a remote possibility. While we were a bit daunted, we were still determined to have a good time and make use of the resort’s inside facilities that I had touted to the girls on the road trip north. So as I was checking in at the front desk, my daughters went to scout out the pool and spa and the fitness center. They came back distraught from their scouting mission. “The fitness center is closed…all there is is an empty room,” said my 20-year-old daughter, “And the hot tub is broken,” my 16-year-old daughter cried. “What are we going to do for three days…especially if it keeps raining?”

I turned to the front desk clerk and asked if there was another fitness center we could use during our time there. I explained that we had booked with the resort precisely because their web site said they had workout facilities. The front desk clerk replied, “Oh, they were supposed to take that off the web site a month ago.” Disappointed, but looking to make everyone happy, I then asked when the hot tub would be fixed. “I don’t know. The maintenance guy went home,” she replied. “Why don’t you come down tomorrow morning and ask the person at the front desk to contact him?” she added. I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t willing or able to contact him. And that she was putting the responsibility for that back on a guest.

Because of the remote location of the resort, with very few restaurants nearby, we had brought our own food to cook in the condo kitchenettes. After checking in to our rooms, we noticed that the kitchenettes didn’t have coffee makers, so I made one more trek down to the front desk. Very politely, I asked if there was a coffee maker that I could borrow for our room. I was rewarded with a heavy sigh, as the front desk clerk rolled her eyes at me and said, “Let me see.” She then turned around to open a door behind her revealing a shelf of coffee makers inside the door. I nearly laughed. She had acted as if my request was absolutely unreasonable, and yet here were a half dozen coffee makers on a shelf waiting for guests to request them.

Perhaps the front desk clerk was having a bad day or perhaps she really didn’t like her job, or perhaps she perceived that we were overly demanding guests. Whatever the underlying problem was, the reality was that she was not able at that moment to deliver good customer service or make us feel like welcomed guests at that resort. We felt like our arrival was an inconvenience to her.

Thinking about that experience, I wondered. What are the lessons here for me? Are there times in my work that I make my customers feel like they are unwelcome or a nuisance? Are there times when I need a shift in my attitude to approach a request with a positive attitude? And in my leadership of others, am I demonstrating how to provide excellent customer service, rather than displaying what not to do?

I’m sure we all have cautionary tales to share that highlight “what not to do.” What have you learned from your customer service experiences?

Anita Rios


Listening as customer service

Last weeklistening I attended the 2016 Minnesota summit on preventing campus sexual violence. It was a difficult topic, but very energizing to be with 300 people from 57 different campuses who are engaged in this work.

One thing that I heard repeatedly was the importance of investigating complaints through well-informed listening. Paul Schnell, the Chief of Police for Maplewood, talked about false assumptions that can get in the way of an investigation. For example, some police officers believe that most reports of sexual assault are false, whereas research shows that the level of false reports is only around 5%. We learned about the neurological response to trauma that results in fragmented memories and non-linear stories. You can imagine the difference that assumption could make when listening to a survivor. Is the person doing as much as possible to describe a traumatic event? Or is she making things up as she goes along?

I was struck by the knowledge that just being well-intentioned isn’t enough. A good investigator understands the psychology of trauma and is knowledgeable about the proper techniques for interviewing survivors.

The same thing can be true in many of our leadership roles. Listening with good intentions is a start. But informing ourselves about our customer’s needs, background, and context is often essential. I’ve experienced that in my own life as a team member on a large project. The difference between talking to a sponsor who had read the report and had meaningful questions was striking when compared to another sponsor who tended to say versions of “nice job, keep up the good work.” While she might not describe it this way, my impression is that the first sponsor treated business interactions as a chance to provide service to the other person – to understand their needs, acknowledge key issues, and use her expertise to strategically address them.

When you experience well-informed listening, how does it make you feel? What lessons can you apply to customer service?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Are you my customer?

are you you my motherDo you remember the children’s book, Are You My Mother?  The story of the young bird asking, over and over, the critical question, are you my mother? I believe that leaders in higher education need to push their organizations, and their people, to ask a similar question over and over. Are you my customer? And we can learn from the young bird to not restrict who we consider a customer, even internal customers!

The traditional structure and hierarchy in higher education often identifies groups as faculty or staff or administrators. And even further, we tend to divide ourselves into colleges, departments, bargaining units and divisions. Then you can add in shared governance. All of these push us to not view fellow employees as customers who have legitimate needs that we can serve. Over time this approach makes it harder for each group of employees to actually do the job we are all here to do, deliver a high quality education to our students in higher education, or in general, to provide a high quality product or service to our external customers.

As Martinez, Smith and Humphrys highlight in their book, Creating a Service Culture in Higher Education Administration,excellent external customer service is achieved through a team of people who deliver excellent internal customer service.”  The starting point is to ask the following three questions about our own colleagues and co-workers, even if they are in a different bargaining unit or on the opposite side of campus!

  1. Who are they?
    • do you rely on their work to do your job?
    • do they rely on your work to do their job?
  2. What do they want?
    • what information, resources, data, documents, materials, or support do they need from you to do their job?
    • what do you have that can help them serve the students they work with?
  3. How have they changed?
    • are you meeting their current needs?
    • how have their customers changed?
    • what is different in their work?

Asking these questions, and truly listening to the responses, will build the foundation for collaboration and enhance our institutions ability to provide the high quality education we all want to deliver to our students.

Todd Thorsgaard


Delivering effective teaching

student1As we’ve been discussing, those of us in higher education often have a difficult time thinking of students as customers. But whatever the language, we are committed to creating the best possible experience for our students. Within our various areas of responsibility, we want to respond effectively and creatively to student needs.

The Faculty Focus newsletter is one example of a tool to help us serve students by providing effective teaching and learning. This week’s issue had a good article on Six Ways to Improve Your Department’s Teaching Climate.

  1.  Talk regularly about teaching and learning, and share good ideas, tips, readings, or even quotes to keep the conversation fresh.
  2. Discuss teaching and learning topics at department meetings, for example sharing ideas or problem-solving around specific issues.
  3. Start a reading group to discuss books or articles related to teaching and learning.
  4. Develop collaboration with other people who care about your issues. Support each others’ efforts and work together to advocate for change.
  5. Strategically assess the teaching potential of new job candidates. For example, ask for teaching philosophy statements or ask them to respond to typical classroom scenarios.

Beyond improving teaching and learning, I thought these tips could apply to other areas of customer service in higher education. For example, the same set of suggestions would work when thinking about serving underrepresented faculty, students, and staff members or developing high-potential leaders.

What do you think?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Where to start? The middle perhaps?

trumphillaryNow that I have your attention, lets talk about customer service in higher education.

Based on the current presidential campaign in the United States the middle ground appears to be an impossible dream! However, I want to share an article with you today that encourages us in higher education to seek out the middle ground on customer service, even if we have some concerns about labeling students as customers.

Ricky L. Boyd, director of the Shaw Air Force Base Program at the University of South Carolina, reviewed the research on the pros and cons of customer service in higher education and suggests that we “all agree to disagree” (my words) and focus on the “basic tenets of the customer-service paradigm that could and should be utilized in higher education settings.” (Boyd, 2012) His work isn’t revolutionary but he does a nice job of translating the usual corporate-speak of customer service to a more familiar higher education language.

Tips for the Middle-Ground of Customer Service

  1. Treat students with dignity and respect (a basic human necessity and right.)
  2. Give students clear directions on how to solve their problems and issues (students are in school to learn – not to go on unnecessary wild goose chases to find answers for operational issues.)
  3. Be responsive to students and their families (being true to your word means a lot!)
  4. Give timely answers to student’s questions and regular feedback on their progress.

Boyd also translates Ken Wallace’s 15 Principles for Complete Customer Service to seven principles that appeal to a middle-ground approach in higher education.

  1. The success of the institution is dependent upon providing high-quality service to students – students affect the bottom line.
  2. Employees need to be reminded that every single one of them (faculty, staff, administrators, front-line, back-office, etc.) is in the business of serving students. Students deserve to receive assistance to meet their legitimate needs.
  3. Perception is reality. We need to understand our students and what is important to them.
  4. Each student is unique and has unique needs.
  5. Treat students the way you would want a member of your family or a good friend to be treated.
  6. Do it right the first time.
  7. Solicit feedback from students in all areas and truly listen.

All in all, it seems like this middle ground will be easier to find than our political middle ground. Our colleges and universities have an opportunity to help students get the most out of their academic experiences. It will take deliberate planning and action to expand customer service from just the student services functions to the work that everyone on campus does.

That is something I can vote for!

Todd Thorsgaard