Since 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?
Part 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” (BusinessDictionary.com). 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
At 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.)