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"Customer service" can be a four-letter word on campus.

We don't like to think of prospective students and their parents as potential customers, because the educational experience we offer is far more complicated than a typical consumer product or service. But prospective students have grown up in a world where they can order a book with one click and have it delivered to their door within hours. Since they've come to expect great service from companies, why not from their college or university?

So: How can you improve your institution’s customer service?

Think like them.

Our role as marketers is to represent the voice of important audiences. So, in this case, think like a student/consumer. What do they care about? What are their fears? What do they want from us? Understanding their perspective allows you to turn the focus from you to them. It helps you understand what needs to be on your home page and what doesn’t. And which staff members need to be cross-trained on what topics. It allows you to put less emphasis on the things that matter to your institution (like the number of buildings you have) and more emphasis on the things that matter to your students.

How do you understand their perspective? By staying in touch with student voices and needs: conducting regular focus groups or one-on-on interviews with prospective students, current students, and parents of both.

Consider the full journey.

We tend to segment and “hand off” different parts of the the student journey from prospect to enrolled student to alumna. That makes sense internally, because different staff members handle admissions versus orientation versus financial aid. The problem is that this artificial segmentation leads to disjointed messaging and communications for your target audience.

Having a communications team that looks at all of the communication points – across all interactions – can help to ensure consistency in messaging and experience as students pass from one group to another.

Eliminate unnecessary obstacles. 

Segmentation of the student journey doesn’t only result in inconsistent communication. Because higher ed institutions tend to be siloed, we often fail to look at ways to simplify processes across departments. Think about a student with a question about her tuition bill. Does she need to go to the financial aid office? Student accounts? Somewhere else? Often she’ll be sent from one office to another to another in search of the answer to her question.

Process mapping – the activity of physically charting the processes that people have to go through to receive answers and solve basic problems – is a good way to identify the unnecessary obstacles that students and parents face. The act of drawing the steps a person must go through to complete a task makes the process difficulties easier to see. Once your map is completed, ask how you can can eliminate unnecessary steps or make the process simpler.

Talk like a human.

One of the biggest problems with any type of organizational communication is that it sounds like organizational communication, complete with jargon, buzzwords, and overly stuffy language. Edit your communications with an eye for simple language and short words. Your audiences will thank you.

Own the problem.

Don’t you hate that experience of being handed off from one person to another? Students do too, whether they’re prospects or enrolled “customers.” Train staff to own the problem rather than handing it off to someone else. Not only will students and their parents be happier, it will also help with cross-training staff, as they have to learn about other areas in order to solve the problem.

Deborah Maue was recently appointed to the newly created position of Vice President of Strategic Marketing and Communications at Columbia College Chicago, and is a leading voice in higher education marketing.

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