Monthly Archives: June 2016

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

Calming the crazy

TSASince 9/11, one of the most annoying, but necessary, things about air travel is going through long security lines and being treated like you are a potential security threat. Still, most of us are now accustomed to removing our jackets and shoes, going through body scans, and sometimes getting patted down by dour-faced TSA agents. In fact, it’s become normal and acceptable that TSA agents are less than friendly as they focus on processing thousands of people in airports and ensuring our safety every day.

So, imagine my surprise when I was in the Dallas airport returning from a business trip last month, and my experience was vastly different. I handed a TSA agent my boarding pass and ID and she gave me a big, warm smile and said, “Good morning! How are you this beautiful day?” Her attitude and smile was contagious. I smiled back and said, “I’m doing well. And I really appreciate your friendly smile.” Her smile widened into a big grin and she said to me with a knowing look, “Honey, it calms the crazy!” At that I laughed and went through the rest of the security line, noticing that all the TSA agents there were different than I had experienced elsewhere. They were doing their jobs competently and efficiently, but they were all smiling. They took extra care to interact with people in positive ways. And most importantly, people flying out that day responded in kind. The mood was lighter in that line and people seemed much more tolerant and patient.

On my flight home, I was pondering that experience and wondered: What kind of leader do they have, that they were approaching their jobs with such positive attitudes?

As Todd said last week, one of the behaviors that contributes to exemplary customer service is demonstrating a positive attitude. The TSA agents at the Dallas airport were doing that in spades.

Positive attitudes can do wonders when we interact with customers, no matter what business we’re in.  A simple smile and warm greeting, like the TSA agent said, can “calm the crazy.” It can also leave our customers with a desire to do business with us again and to recommend our colleges and universities to others. So, for me, it begs the question: What can we do as leaders to ensure that the staff and faculty we lead in our colleges and universities demonstrate a positive attitude when working with students, community members, colleagues, or any other potential customers?

Anita Rios


What does customer service mean in higher ed?

customer servicePart of the problem with the idea of customer service in higher education may be lack of agreement on who the customer is and what service looks like. Here are some definitions that might help.

Who is a Customer?  A  customer can be defined as “someone who receives goods or services and has the ability to choose between different products and suppliers” (  In today’s competitive higher education environment, the element of choice is becoming more critical than ever. A friend of mine used to say “we may not have customers, but whoever they are, online schools are stealing them!”

While students are clearly choosing to receive our services and could be defined as customers, we have many other potential customers. Creating a list can become overwhelming. One colleague posted this on a project management syllabus: “All students” or “Minnesota taxpayers” is not a customer group! What she meant is that we need to define our customers in enough detail that we can identify services they need. For example,

  • Faculty who teach face-to-face courses on our campus
  • Parents of incoming freshmen students
  • Potential donors to a new building program
  • Students who are returning to higher education for a different degree or certificate
  • “Traditional” students just graduating from H.S.
  • Students who want to complete a degree or program they started previously and left
  • Retirees who are learning new skills
  • International students

What is Customer Service?  Academic Impressions published a 2012 report, Improving Customer Service in Higher Education. It proposed that customer service in higher education is less about behaviors such as friendliness and more about responsiveness. Here are some examples:

  • Enrollment Services projects that identify and reduce bottlenecks. One campus asked its leadership team to walk through the steps required to enroll and register. They identified several places where instructions were not clear, and where even campus staff members did not agree about the correct process. Streamlining the process produced better results for students, advisors, and staff.
  • Academic Support Services projects that coordinate service across multiple administrative areas, remove barriers, and make services transparent. For example, the first point of student contact at one university was a one-on-one meeting with an advisor. By directing new students to a central office that explained campus resources and connected them with the appropriate staff, the school was able to ensure they received the services they needed.  Another school focused on ways to make it easier for students to ask for the help they needed.
  • Academic policies and procedures can produce barriers to positive student experience. For example, requiring students to file paperwork in person during office hours could be a significant barrier to students who work full time and attend school online or in the evening. The student experience could be improved by allowing them to file the paperwork electronically.

What do you think of when you think about customer service in higher education?

Dee Anne Bonebright





Customers? In higher education?

Blazing Saddles, No Stinking Badges scene-8x6At times higher education seems to be channeling Mel Brooks, “Customers? We don’t need no stinking customers!”  We have students that need to be educated. In fact, the term “customer service” can lead to a full debate on the merits of considering students and their families as customers or descriptions of how many students are “bad” customers. At other times you will hear reasoned dialogue describing the value of treating students as customers or well thought out concerns detailing how higher education is different.

Despite this angst in higher education we will take time during June to highlight the value customer service can have for leaders, in higher education and in other fields. At Minnesota State Colleges and Universities customer service is a crucial element in the role leaders have as managers of people and services. We define it as:

  • demonstrating a positive attitude
  • listening attentively and respectfully
  • responding effectively to internal and external customer needs, requests, and concerns
  • exercising creative problem solving

While I hope we get some good dialogue and I would enjoy some lively banter I believe strongly that we can be better educators and provide better opportunities for our students if we focus on “helping students make the most of their experiences on our college campuses.” (Boyd, 2012.)

Todd Thorsgaard