Consultant Neal Raisman publishes a periodic study on why students leave college. Here’s his findings after interviewing 618 students who left a college or university in 2016.
I was quite surprised by the results. 23% of the students cited poor service as a reason to leave their college or university, and 25% cited a belief that the college didn’t care. That means ALMOST HALF of the students left because they hadn’t built a strong relationship with the institution. Finances, scheduling, and grades all scored much lower.
Academic Impressions recently published an interview with three academic leaders – What does customer service in higher ed actually look like? They pointed out that the Raisman article means that higher education needs to look at the issue in new ways. Here are some take-aways:
- It’s important to set standards and hold people accountable. If you don’t measure your service, you can’t make it better.
- Make customer service work in our context. While the customer is not always right, we need to ask ourselves how we can make the situation right.
- Make sure everyone knows your history and traditions; building institutional pride is a great way to generate positive interactions.
- Make time to put yourself in a position to observe or experience what your students and other customers experience. It will enhance your credibility and help you identify needed changes.
When I worked at the University of Minnesota, I had a colleague who frequently said, “we might not call them customers, but whoever they are, Stanford is stealing them!” His point was that we have to address needs and expectations of our stakeholder groups or they will take their tuition dollars and grant money somewhere else. What has worked for you to keep students engaged and moving forward at your institution?
Dee Anne Bonebright
Last week, construction finally began on our home to fix the damage that occurred with an extreme hail storm nearly a year ago. We are getting new siding, gutters, fascia, window screens, and a replacement of trim on our home’s exterior. If you’ve lived in a home while construction is going on, you know it’s both exciting and frustrating at the same time. Exciting because of the anticipation of having a fresh, clean home exterior, but frustrating with the added noise, construction debris, and traffic around your home.
Unfortunately, our frustration levels increased beyond our expectations the very first day of construction. After coming home from work, we discovered that the siding crew had drastically sheared all the mature shrubs around our home without letting us know ahead of time. Several shrubs were cut in half around the foundation and the 20-foot tall arborvitae framing the house on either side were butchered, exposing bare branches on the lower half of the trees that would never recover. It was shocking to see the devastation.
My husband Cesar called the contractor and gave him an earful. We were both frustrated that this had been done without our approval or prior knowledge. Thankfully the contractor responded gracefully and first listened to Cesar, apologized, and then told him he would make it right. Over years of working with homeowners, our contractor has honed his skills at resolving customer service problems when they arise, following these simple, but effective strategies outlined in LifeHack:
- Listen Intently: Listen to the customer, and do not interrupt them. They need to tell their story and feel that they have been heard.
- Thank Them: Thank the customer for bringing the problem to your attention. You can’t resolve something you aren’t completely aware of, or may be making faulty assumptions about.
- Apologize: Sincerely convey to the customer your apology for the way the situation has made them feel. This is not the time for preachy reasons, justifications or excuses; you must apologize.
- Seek the Best Solution: Determine what the customer is seeking as a solution. Ask them; often they’ll surprise you for asking for less than you initially thought you’d have to give—especially when they perceive your apology and intention is genuinely sincere.
- Reach Agreement: Seek to agree on the solution that will resolve the situation to their satisfaction. Your best intentions can miss the mark completely if you still fail to deliver what the customer wants.
- Take Quick Action: Act on the solution with a sense of urgency. Customers will often respond more positively to your focus on helping them immediately versus than on the solution itself.
- Follow-up: Follow-up to ensure the customer is completely satisfied, especially when you have had to enlist the help of others for the solution delivery. Everything up to this point will be for naught if the customer feels that “out of sight is out of mind.”
Since the first phone call with our contractor, we’ve had several conversations with him to talk through how to fix the problem. On Thursday he came out to our house and calmly assessed the damage. He told me that he had already contacted landscapers and nurseries to get estimates on delivering 10-foot arborvitae. I told him we wouldn’t need 10-foot arborvitae and could replace them with smaller trees. I also added that we would be happy to do the landscaping work ourselves saving him extra money in the process. He was pleasantly surprised and I was happy we could arrive at an agreeable solution.
When I think about that interaction, our contractor demonstrated all 7 steps for resolving customer service problems. While they are simple (and work no matter who your customer is), it also takes humility, grace, and true concern for your customer to resolve problems to everyone’s satisfaction.
The church where I worship runs a neighborhood-based nonprofit. We recently hired a consultant to help with some strategic planning. The first thing she asked us to do is spend the summer talking to community members. We’re asking business owners, local residents, other service agencies, and the guys who spend time in the vacant lot down the street what they actually need.
The consultant said that very often, agencies assume they know what their clients need. When they actually talk to people and get them involved in decision-making, very different results can happen. For example, one organization wanted to set up a food shelf. After talking to potential clients, it turned out that there were already enough pantries in the neighborhood. What was missing was a source for perishable items, especially milk. Turning the project from creating another food pantry into a reliable source where families could get milk made a huge difference.
We in higher education are prone to the same mistake. We can assume we know what our “customers” need – whether it’s students, coworkers, peer institutions, or the whole system. By taking time to talk to each other and build real relationships we’re in a better position to create strategies and processes that address the real needs.
Dee Anne Bonebright
A critical step in customer service is to actually invite the customer to the table and include them in your problem-solving work. While this makes theoretical sense it can be challenging to do and takes leadership to ensure its success. Seth Godin, one of my favorite authors and bloggers, describes it as “dancing with customers in the act of co-creation” in a blog on customer service. It involves:
- clearly inviting customers to work with you
- focusing on engagement – not perfection
- over communicating
- speaking and listening to customers with respect
- not making assumptions
Most leaders and employees are not used to working together with their customers. When I was working in the health care industry we decided to include patients in our work meetings as we designed the electronic visit follow-up document and communication process. At first that was very threatening to the doctors, physician assistants, nurses and intake staff. They were worried about “unreasonable” demands that patients would make. Surprisingly, everyone discovered that they enjoyed working together, both sides learned more about each other and the ideas shared ended up being practical and doable.
If you choose to include customers it is important to make the invitation clear and describe the work you will be doing together. Customers are also not used to being asked to work with you! The project team for the design of our new Enterprise Resource Planning data system at Minnesota State has done that well (NextGen). They have invited all students, faculty and staff have to participate in envisioning the future NextGen experience. Through emails, in-person presentations and an intranet site they have clearly described the work to date and what opportunities we have, as customers, to work with the vendor to help design and build the system. In addition, given the geographic spread of our system and the variation in availability, they provided three different options to work together; an online review process, virtual Q & A sessions or onsite regional review sessions.
What opportunities can you find for you and your team to dance with your customers?
The stressed-out demanding coworker, the skeptical regulatory agent, the overwhelmed student, the sick and crabby patient, the distracted team member, or the busy boss – what do these people all have in common? They are someone’s customer!
When I worked in health care we always had to stop and remind ourselves that the reason our customers (patients and their families) were acting stressed, confused, and unhappy was because they were sick or their family members were sick! Customer service can be easy when everyone is on their best behavior and interacting in a highly professional manner, but that isn’t reality. Leaders need to be able to listen and respond with respect even when people are being “difficult.”
Author Paul Meshanko in his book, The Respect Effect, highlights 12 Rules of Respect that can help you establish respect with your customers even in difficult situations. These rules are based on behaviors that have been shown to neurologically enhance human interactions even in stressful situations.
- Be aware of your nonverbal cues – are your behaviors supporting your desired message?
- Develop a curiosity about the perspective of others – actively demonstrate that you are interested in what or why or how others are feeling or thinking.
- Assume that everyone is smart about something – give people the benefit of the doubt.
- Become a better listener by shaking your “but” – using the word but dismisses anything said previously even if that isn’t what you mean.
- Look for opportunities to connect and support others – identify areas of agreement while acknowledging areas of difference.
- When you disagree, explain why – provide information that clarifies how you made a decision.
- Look for opportunities to grow, stretch and change – remind yourself that nothing is static and each of us has something new to learn.
- Learn to be wrong on occasion – consider other points of view, even when your idea will work, and demonstrate to others that it is ok to make a mistake at times.
- Never hesitate to say you are sorry – acknowledge when you have not been respectful. It happens!
- Intentionally engage others in ways that build their self-esteem – intentionally interact in ways that recognize the value others have.
- Be respectful of time – remember that other people have time commitments that you are not aware of, and they are important to them.
- Smile! – last but definitely not least. Even in difficult situations look for opportunities to recognize connection or forward movement with a genuine smile.
Customer interactions can be messy. Demonstrating respect gives you the foundation to move forward.
This month we’ll be focusing on the leadership competency: customer service. In higher education, we tend to focus on the complexity of our relationships in supporting student success and don’t always define students as our customers.
In reality, if you are working in higher education, no matter what your role, students ARE our customers. And depending on the situation, internal and external stakeholders such as peers, direct reports, bosses, community members, business leaders, legislators, and all tax payers in Minnesota can be our customers too.
For example, I’m currently working on a master contract that will provide a valuable service to our HR offices in each of our colleges and universities. While I often work with my HR colleagues as business partners or peers, in this instance they are also my customers.
In Minnesota State, here are the behaviors we focus on to provide excellent customer service:
- Demonstrates a positive attitude
- Listens attentively and respectfully
- Responds effectively to internal and external customer needs, requests, and concerns
- Exercises creative problem solving
We’ll be exploring these topics and more during the month of June. In the meantime, I challenge you to think about each of your relationships in your leadership role and ask: who is my customer? You might be surprised how many you actually have.