Customer service in higher education

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

 

Seeking solutions with your customer

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.

Anita Rios

 

 

What do my customers need?

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

 

Dance with your customers

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?

Todd Thorsgaard

Who are you?

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.

  1. Be aware of your nonverbal cues – are your behaviors supporting your desired message?
  2. 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.
  3. Assume that everyone is smart about something – give people the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Become a better listener by shaking your “but” – using the word but dismisses anything said previously even if that isn’t what you mean.
  5. Look for opportunities to connect and support others – identify areas of agreement while acknowledging areas of difference.
  6. When you disagree, explain why – provide information that clarifies how you made a decision.
  7. Look for opportunities to grow, stretch and change – remind yourself that nothing is static and each of us has something new to learn.
  8. 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.
  9. Never hesitate to say you are sorry – acknowledge when you have not been respectful. It happens!
  10. Intentionally engage others in ways that build their self-esteem – intentionally interact in ways that recognize the value others have.
  11. Be respectful of time – remember that other people have time commitments that you are not aware of, and they are important to them.
  12. 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.

Todd Thorsgaard

Who is your customer?

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.

Anita Rios

 

 

Trust and change

Last week the Harvard Business Review blog included a case study that is a good summary to our discussion on building trust. It focused on the tech company Nokia and how it dealt with major industry changes and the resulting need to completely overhaul their business strategy.

The article described three important practices the company’s newly-appointed board followed to address the emotional side of strategic change. In order to move ahead, they focused on building trusting relationships among the leadership team and across the company.

#1 Increase trust by defining new conversational norms. The previous leadership made it uncomfortable for people to express their opinions and voice concerns. In contrast, the new board identified “Golden Rules” for board discussions that included showing respect to each other and assuming that people are speaking with good intentions. Following these rules created a culture where people felt free to express alternative viewpoints and generate more options.

#2 Reduce emotional attachment to the prevailing strategy by generating many new options, not just one alternative.  People are more willing to express concerns and identify weaknesses in organizational strategy when alternatives are available. As the board created a culture in which multiple options are considered, they were able to make more thoughtful decisions.

#3 Nudge top managers to pay attention to data that conflicts with their gut feelings. It’s easy to get caught up in wishful thinking. Paying attention to data helped the leadership to make better decisions and deal with their current reality.

Similar to the tech industry, higher education is in the midst of disruptive changes. I found these actions applicable to the work I do as a leader. What do you think?

Dee Anne Bonebright

The 3 C’s of trust

Today, on Memorial Day, as we honor our military men and women who have served and died for our country, I thought it might be apropos to share the 3 C’s of trust published by naval academy graduate and helicopter pilot Philip Gift in The Military Leader.

Gift says that building trust boils down to three fundamentals: 1) Competence;  2) Caring; and 3) Communication.   Here are a few insights that he shares about the 3 C’s:

  • If people are not competent, then no matter what is promised, they will not be able to deliver.
  • If people don’t care about the other members of the workforce, then there is no guarantee that they will keep their word when a better deal arises.
  • No matter how competent people are or how much they care, if they cannot communicate that information to other people, then trust will never grow.

Given the importance of competence, care, and communication in building trust, here are some questions for you to consider about your own leadership.

Competence: Are you competent in the job you currently hold? Do you understand your leadership role and your impact on others? What steps can you take to improve your effectiveness as a leader?

Caring: Do you care about your organization and the people who report to you? What do you do specifically to demonstrate that care? Do you listen to your employees and take time to learn more about them as whole people? How do you support them with the necessary tools and resources to accomplish their jobs? What growth opportunities can you give them?

Communication: How well do you communicate your ideas and decisions? Do you find that people understand what you are trying to convey? What do you do to ensure effective two-way communication? When do you opt for face-to-face meetings, email, memos, phone and online meetings? Do your communication strategies and modes seem to work well? What can you do to improve your communications?

While I work hard to demonstrate caring with my team members, when I’m overloaded, it sometimes falls by the wayside. The last couple of months have been so frenetic, that I haven’t had much time to check in with each staff member individually to see how things are going. This week I’m going take extra time to do just that.

In the next week, I challenge you to take one of the 3 C’s and see how you can work to enhance trust with your team as well.

Anita Rios

 

 

Insights from a trusted leader

Last month, I had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Hara Charlier, President of Central Lakes College about her onboarding experience as a new president in Minnesota State. President Charlier has a natural ability to connect with people and even over the phone, had me enjoying our conversation. During our talk, she shared some very useful insights about building relationships and trust on her campus. Knowing that other leaders would benefit from her wisdom, I asked if we could feature her on our blog this month.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

We talked about your onboarding experience as a new president at Central Lakes College in Minnesota State. During that conversation, you told me that your very first challenge was a cultural challenge around trust. Can you tell me more about that?

Sure. I think that trust can be challenged any time there is a leadership transition. People think about the new leader and ask: Can I trust him or her? Will he or she uphold the traditions of this college? Will he or she make decisions that are in the best interest of the college? Leadership transitions can shake the foundation of trust.

When I first came here, Central Lakes College was experiencing extensive turnover in leadership positions, from deans to directors and vice presidents. Issues of trust were evident from years of leadership transition. It was no reflection on the leaders themselves. It takes time to build trust and because of the continual turnover, there was no time to build trust with individual leaders.

What specifically did you do to build trust on your campus?

I believe that leaders should listen and learn first. So, as a part of my onboarding process, I conducted focus groups with all employees. I asked employees: What do we do well? What can we improve? What is our ideal culture? And how can we create our ideal culture?

That is when I realized there was a trust issue. People were fearful and did not feel heard. They were not trusting of administration.

The focus groups helped me to really hear employees’ voices and provided fabulous data to help us understand and begin to create the culture people wanted.

Based on the data, we formed a community-building team of volunteers to begin building the culture that people had identified…one where all employees are respected, feel heard, and care about each other. The team led an employee recognition day and created a calendar of social events with the goal of connecting people from different parts of the college so they could get know each other as people.

I also send out regular email newsletters to the campus community… helping them to see all of the terrific things happening on our campuses, thanking them, and letting them know that we value all that they do. This often takes the form of a top ten list. People report that they like hearing about the great work that is happening at CLC. It helps people feeling valued, contributes to the sense that we’re doing good work together, and helps to build trust.

Why do you feel building trust is essential to your effectiveness as a leader and to the success of your institution?

I believe everything we do is about “relationship,” which is the foundation of trust. It’s a personal value of mine, and it aligns with the values of the college. We are really in the relationship business.

It sounds so simple. As a public proponent of relationships, I talk about the value of people and relationships at every opportunity. We have been very vocal about how relationships are a top priority at CLC, and we work to share that message consistently across the college.

A college can’t do its work without relationships with students, each other, and with our community. CLC employees do that every day. They go above and beyond. I watch them. It is the cornerstone of what we do. We can’t get momentum without valuing and trusting one another.

How have you helped your team focus on relationships at Central Lakes?

Our leadership team actively works on strategies to build relationships – how to ensure that employees feel supported, valued, and heard, how to have meaningful conversations, and how to nurture a culture of respect. This work happens through professional development and ongoing conversations about relationships and trust, so that it is instilled in the employees of Central Lakes College.

One of our key initiatives has been knowing people’s names. If we believe that we should know employees as whole people, we need to know their names. We ask people to wear name tags at college events to help people learn and remember each other’s names. We ask them to please know each other’s names and smile at each other. We are whole, complicated beings, with lives outside of work. Knowing each other’s names is the beginning to know people.

In your role as president, people are paying attention to you. How does that influence your actions every day as a leader?

I believe that it is important for leaders to be authentic. I think it is important to just BE me. I work hard to be authentic, vulnerable and let people get to know me. It is only when we know who people are and what values guide them that we can trust.

We also spend lot of time working to gather input about decisions and ultimately conveying the WHY we make decisions. Explaining “the why” is important so that we are all going in the same direction. That contributes to trust.

The most important time I spend is walking around our campuses, stopping by offices, labs, and having hallway conversations. It’s my opportunity to talk with and listen to students and employees. Through these casual, unplanned conversations, we get to know each other as whole people – and build trust. Of course, it’s challenging to find time to do this, but if we recognize it as critical, it becomes a priority. I schedule “walk abouts” on my calendar.

What advice would you give to other leaders to enhance their ability to build trust with others?

  • You can’t build trust unless you are authentic, vulnerable, and approachable.
  • It’s hard to find time to walk around and talk to people, but it is worth every minute.
  • Be yourself and let people see who you are (even your flaws).
  • Get to know employees as people. They will appreciate you taking the time, and you will gain so much from learning about the wonderful people that make things happen in our colleges.

Anita Rios

Of course I’m trustworthy, right?

I have to admit, as a leader it is natural to look outward and try to help other people succeed, or change, or improve, or tackle a sensitive issue. Yet, looking inward is the first step to take when building trust.

I was reminded of that when I took an “Am I Trustworthy”online quiz. I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the quiz but I wanted to share some trust-building ideas I had discovered in this article.  The last tip was to “be courageous,” acknowledge you have blind spots, and uncover them. So I had to! But first, I will share all 7 tips from Michelle Reina, co-founder of Reina, A Trust Building Consultancy, on how to earn trust.

Ask what you can give. Authentically support your people and ask them how you can help them succeed.

Facilitate breakthrough conversations. Pay attention and help identify miscommunication, misunderstandings and missing information. Help people stay on track and make a difference with their time and energy.

Let people know what they can count on. As we have talked about previously it is important to share information and context. Help people understand decisions and build clarity.

Provide whole person feedback. Let people know how they have made a contribution–and let people know what is getting in their way to further success. Everyone needs both.

Draw the line against gossip. Establish, reinforce and role-model a “no gossip” policy. Ensure that your work culture is a safe one where people don’t have to worry what is being said behind their backs or when they are not in the room.

Admit your own mistakes. Acknowledging and sharing your own fallibility demonstrates your authenticity and helps others feel safe and willing to share.

Know thyself. Good intentions don’t earn trust, actual behavior does. We have to examine our own behavior and assess how trustworthy we are. It is important to know what you do well–and keep doing it. Honestly recognize where you need to make changes to be more trustworthy. Here is a link to the short assessment in the article – How trustworthy am I?

I learned I need to do a better job in giving people authentic feedback. I didn’t like seeing my lower score but now I know what I need to do differently.

Todd Thorsgaard