In higher education, we often hear about the need to put the students first. However, we rarely look at student needs from a customer service orientation.
An Academic Impressions survey from about decade ago identified that less than 7 percent of colleges rated their customer service as deserving of an A rating. Only about one-third rated their schools as earning a B rating. Some actually said their customer service practices were embarrassing. They identified “cranky clerical folks,” haughty professors, and “clueless student workers.”
It is as if the old trope that colleges would be great places if it wasn’t for the students was actually being embraced by faculty and staff. However, there is a change coming to higher education in that the students many universities have taken for granted are no longer enrolling. Public 4-year institutional enrollments dropped on average about 3.8 percent in 2021. Fewer students are graduating from high schools, so the applicant pool is shrinking.
Universities need to do a better job at both recruiting and retaining students. One important way to do that is to make students, and faculty for that matter, feel valued. Good customer service can go a long way towards that end.
Most are aware that the rules, regulations, policies, and deadlines in higher education can be Byzantine at times. It is common for students, and sometimes faculty and staff, to not entirely understand them. This occasionally evidences itself as the “I’ve got a secret” game. This occurs when a functionary at the institution responds to a student request by telling them they have either done something wrong or have not completed the right process. However, they don’t go the extra step and guide the student to the next step.
Telling a student “No” and then providing nothing more than a full stop is not good customer service, even if the student clearly missed a deadline or filed the wrong form. University personnel need to go the extra step and give the student necessary information on how to remediate the issue or to whom they should appeal. Often those same Byzantine rules provide for a multitude of options. However, the student rarely knows or understands them. It is the university faculty and staff’s role to help the student to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for students to articulate that they don’t think their instructors care about them or take an interest in their success.
Good customer service can help engage students, lower their stress level, and improve their mental health, as well as improving their academic achievement. Luckily it does not take much to provide good customer service. The first step is to try to consider the response to a student. If there is an obvious follow up question, proactively answer it for the student. If there is a potential next step, point it out for the student.
Another key is to be warm and welcoming. This is true either face to face or virtually. Make sure to greet the student or thank them for the inquiry. Taking the extra step to be positive and polite is always worth it. If the student is sharing a problem or complaint, articulate some empathy or compassion for the situation. Responding to a student complaint by articulating that the correct process was not followed without acknowledging concern that the student may have an issue can come across as cold if not harsh and unfeeling. Acknowledging that students have a concern, lets the student understand that the university cares. Most students do not want to go to a school where the faculty and staff are not caring or compassionate.
All faculty and staff should ensure that the needs of students remain at the forefront of all interactions with students. University personnel need to routinely look at situations from the perspective of the student. How would they want someone to act if they were the person with the problem? Universities are in the people business. It is important for the success of the institution to focus on the success of the student.
University personnel at all levels should be provided customer service training on a regular basis. Institutional leaders must model positive customer service and articulate the importance of good customer service to students. The student is often the most fragile link in the chain. It is essential to ensure that they feel valued and important in their interactions with all university personnel. As each student will continue to be more valuable as the student population continues to decline.