Service With a Smile

A survey of how students feel doing business with nonacademic departments across campus reveals eight actions for clarifying expectations and improving service.

August 26, 2022
Although the concept of providing good service to students has been recognized as part of promoting student success, actually referring to students as customers generally remains unpopular.
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Two semesters of working the front desk at Wichita State University’s recreation center shaped Lauren O’Donnell’s appreciation for the kind of stress full-time employees on campuses can feel. O’Donnell fielded questions, and quite a few lost-item inquiries, in person and over the phone as students and others checked in to use the facilities. Once, as a group insisted on reserving an already booked dance studio that day, she found herself trying to explain policies and practices to students who just didn’t seem to understand why their request couldn’t be met.

The job experience has “helped me remember that [campus staff members] are people, too, behind the desk. They have their own life. Maybe they’ve been working since 6 a.m.,” says O’Donnell, who anticipates a May 2023 graduation with a degree in communications and integrated marketing.

She sometimes finds herself reminding peers to have patience—that an office employee taking the time to give a correct answer is better than someone rushing to provide any answer.

Even as higher ed has gone all in on holistically supporting students so they can succeed in college, and as the concept of providing good service to students has been recognized as part of that support, actually referring to students as customers generally remains unpopular, even on the nonacademic side of the house.

Yet “students think of themselves as customers,” says Melanie Gottlieb, deputy director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, adding that she doesn’t think registrars take issue with the word “customer,” as they see their work as helping students to reach their goals.

Does that mean they must adhere to the rule about customers always being right? “It doesn’t matter if someone is right or wrong. What matters is how you treat them. The key to customer service is to carry out the function that needs to be carried out.”

When 2,239 college undergrads were asked in a mid-July Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, to reflect on the levels of service they have received from various offices across campus:

  • The top four departments identified for having good service (replying quickly, resolving the issue, being kind, etc.) were financial aid (57 percent), the library (43 percent), the campus store (34 percent) and the registrar (28 percent), with respondents asked about 18 nonacademic departments.
  • Students were most likely to call out two of those same offices, financial aid and the registrar, as departments that have provided bad customer service, with 20 percent and 9 percent of respondents, respectively, naming them. Housing/residential life got selected by 10 percent, and the bursar by 9 percent.
  • Nearly half of students who were in college pre-COVID believe service levels have not really changed since departments introduced virtual options for connecting and receiving services. Twenty-three percent of these respondents think service is now better, and 27 percent say it’s worse.

Campus professionals’ acceptance of students as customers within higher ed depends on whom you talk to, says Philip Hunt, North Dakota State University’s registrar. Some agree with the wording. Others believe that “to classify it that way makes us a business, all transactional … At the end of the day, we’re providing a service in the form of an educational experience, inside and outside the classroom, for money.”

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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Offices that take payments directly for goods and services may be more likely to embrace the customer concept. In res life, for example, “we do charge a fee, so there is a customer feeling in exchange,” says Suzanne Price, assistant vice president for auxiliary enterprises at Clemson University, who also serves on the executive board at ACUHO-I, the Association of College and University Housing Officers–International. “However, we are still part of the educational process for these students. We do our very best to balance their needs as consumers with their needs as students who are learning and growing.”

In Justin Draeger’s experience as president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, some refer to students as customers. “That sort of vernacular really clashes with higher education,” he says, but “higher ed could probably learn a few things from the private sector.” Complicating the service situation is that financial aid professionals serve as both student advocates and stewards of public funds. “A lot of the ire and frustration students and families feel about federal rules are misdirected at financial aid administrators,” Draeger says.

Joshua Sine, who spent 15 years as a higher ed administrator and is now vice president of higher education strategy at Qualtrics, an experience management software company, frames the student service discussion longitudinally. Over time, customer service–oriented moments and interactions accumulate to form an overall student experience that can’t be tied to a time or place.

“Their experience can be influenced by everything from on-campus events to facilities and signage, and just about every other part of your institution,” Sine says. “Students have interactions that institutions are unaware of at times as well, meaning that each individual’s experience is nuanced and different. These ad hoc moments are hard to capture for colleges and universities but are integral pieces of the overall experience for any given student.”

“Students need school services to be supportive, accessible and easy to navigate,” he adds.

Following are eight actions to help promote positive student interactions and impressions with departments involved in the business of being in college.

1. Be Intentional About Student Connections.

College type emerges as the biggest factor influencing responses to many survey questions, with students at two-year colleges (who make up about one-quarter of survey respondents) having fewer complaints about service levels and in some cases having more positive interactions with department employees.

Free access to all Student Voice survey results: explore the dataTwo-thirds of these students can’t recall bad customer service from any office listed, while that’s the case for fewer than half of four-year college students. In terms of good customer service experiences, they are much more likely than students at four-year colleges to call out the financial aid office—two-thirds of respondents compared to about half.

Perhaps the national guided pathways movement, focused on ensuring that students have and stick to a plan, swayed the community college students’ responses, says Linda García, executive director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, based at the University of Texas at Austin. More than 400 U.S. community colleges use the guided pathways approach.

She views the pandemic as a concurrent factor, with colleges being more intentional about connecting with students and connecting students to resources. Community college professionals must ensure their students, many of whom have college-access barriers, are set up for success. Students “don’t come to community college to fail,” García says. “They come with their hopes, aspirations and dreams.”

Even pre-COVID, community colleges focused on tailoring transactions to individuals, says DJ Pepito, chief learning officer at NACAS, the association that supports nonacademic departments such as food services, campus stores, housing and transportation. Commuter populations tend to connect less to offices at their colleges, so “some of these smaller interactions wind up being more meaningful for students.”

2. Set Service Goals.

Even where office foot traffic remains steady, department leaders can no longer assume service happens in person. Emerging from “pandemic crisis operational mode into whatever the new normal is,” says Gottlieb from AACRAO, must involve examining what types of students are being served by the department and what they need and expect.

Defining—and now redefining—service goals include being proactive about anticipating common pitfalls and understanding communication preferences, says Hunt from North Dakota State. “You’ve got to be mindful that not everybody knows how to navigate an institution, even those who are not first-generation students.”

Department silos can stall such work. Pepito would welcome more discussion about how parts of the campus community interact with each other. “Rethink collaboration,” she advises. “How are all these systems working together in a way to provide that positive customer service experience to build community throughout the entire campus?”

3. Ease Campus Shuffle Frustrations.

A common headache for college students is uncertainty about where to turn for assistance. As a Student Voice respondent from a California community college noted, “There were times I was looking to do something, and I needed help on where to find it. I go to a particular office and they tell me it’s at a different office. In that office they tell me, no, it’s in another office. The people inside the offices [don’t] know where I should go.”

At North Dakota State, Hunt admits, his department will get calls or emails from students referred there by other departments. “My staff will say, ‘I don’t know why they forwarded this question to me.’ And I’ll say, ‘Think of it as a compliment. We’re good at our jobs and they assume we know where the answer is.’”

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O’Donnell at Wichita State, who now works in admissions, has found that “when students don’t know where to go, they just come to our office,” she explains. “We get random questions, [and students] don’t realize it’s fielded through a different office.” Some front desk staffers “are very kindhearted and always willing to help or print a campus map or give students a phone number,” she adds.

In her work at the rec center, O’Donnell sometimes found herself looking for a staff member to help with a problem. When the person’s office was empty, that entailed searching throughout the large building’s three floors of space.

García of CCCSE challenges campus staff to go above and beyond for students who have reached out to the wrong area. “Maybe say, ‘I’m going to call this person and connect you,’ rather than, ‘Here, here’s the contact, you’re on your own.’ Some students are OK with that, but what if we took that extra step? I’m not saying we can resolve every issue students face, but it’s about the connection, the relationship, [showing] ‘you matter to me.’”

A popular action to help “eradicate the ‘campus shuffle’” involves consolidating services and forming new departments, says Sine from Qualtrics.

The survey suggests the trend toward forming one-stop shops, where cross-trained staff can address various types of campus business, hasn’t become prevalent, with one in four respondents saying they have access to a one-stop. Or perhaps colleges with one-stops aren’t ensuring students know about them. Four in 10 respondents aren’t sure if their college has this type of facility.

One Qualtrics client has opened three one-stops across campus and operates with additional online hours, too. A student trekking to an office and finding it closed is not a service-oriented model, says Sine.

4. Avoid Communication Black Holes.

Inquiries getting lost or ignored (or fear about that) is another common service issue. “The housing office has like 17 different emails,” wrote one student at a public university in California.

O’Donnell emailed financial aid a timely question during a COVID shutdown. “No one was answering, and I didn’t want to miss the deadline,” she says, adding that her communication included a second email and a voice message. Finally, she came across a customer service form on the department’s webpage—and 30 minutes after retyping her inquiry and explaining the additional assistance attempts, she heard from an apologetic staffer by phone.

“He immediately helped me, which was great,” she recalls. “But it took [reporting] that negative experience for them to just answer my question.”

Higher ed staffing shortages are likely impacting response times. “It’s not uncommon to be talking to a department that is only at half-staff,” says Price from ACUHO-I of campus housing offices nationwide.

A spring NASFAA member survey found that half of financial aid offices operated with a 75 percent staffing level for 2019–20 and 2020–21. Nearly eight in 10 were concerned (at least slightly) about their ability to be administratively capable, and over half about their ability to adequately serve students.

Autoreply messages can be a low-tech way to communicate about potential waits, yet only about one-third of Student Voice survey respondents say they’re aware of at least one office on campus using them. Instead of “wait times may be more than usual” and pleading for empathy about being short-staffed, Draeger suggests offering specific estimates for processing requests: “It’s closing the delta between expectations and reality.”

Service-related technologies students most want their institutions using more or better are chat bots—both to answer after-hours questions and for deadline reminders—and digital documents/e-signing to minimize or eliminate paper forms. “Students are looking for flexibility, automation and digital access,” says Sine. “Most schools are behind the times on all three.”

5. Temper Expectations About Outcomes and Immediacy.

Some offices field many requests for help that go beyond what’s realistic. A parent, says Price, might ask housing employees to provide emotional support for their child, or address a major mold infestation that minute (when their child sent a photo of mild mildew that could be fixed with a student-initiated work order).

This summer, a frustrated parent called about not getting needed help, and Price promised to go speak with a specific colleague in that building who could assist and call right back. Within the minute it took her to walk over, the parent had called that person directly. Price witnessed the director not only request information by email but wait until it was received and then take care of a needed correction before ending the call.

When an anticipated outcome can’t be met, “our job is understanding their expectations and then setting the appropriate ones and then overcommunicating what that looks like,” says Hunt of North Dakota State, who might also offer an alternative option. He refers to himself as “your friendly neighborhood registrar. I may not always tell you what you want to hear, but I’m going to do my best to support you.”

Registrars, adds Gottlieb, always know policy but also “how far you can go around the policy, and what the paths are around the policy.”

6. Provide Service Training.

When front-line employees don’t present a pleasant demeanor, even a simple transaction can leave a sour student perception of a department. More than three-quarters of Student Voice respondents say staff in nonacademic offices across campus seem at least somewhat happy to be doing the work that they do, with one in four getting the impression staff are very happy. But 11 percent believe staff are not too, or not at all, happy.

As one student at a New York City university noted, employees answering the phone “tend to be rude or dismissive when you have a complex question, or when you don’t know all of the information that they are asking. I think the school should regularly remind those on the phone-related services of the importance of patience, as voice tone can lead to more negative experiences.”

With fully staffed departments, managers might be able to put the friendliest staff in the most student-facing roles. But needing to handle both back-end transactions and people interactions is far more common.

NASFAA is making inroads on standardizing “soft skills that round out what it means to be a proficient aid administrator,” says Draeger. To earn a designation through the certified financial aid administrator program, individuals must develop their professional skills through a wide range of activities, which can include customer service skills. The association is currently developing a comprehensive core competency model to help guide all financial aid professionals in both hard and soft skills development, he adds. Also, he has never been to a NASFAA event “where customer service is not offered somewhere on the agenda.”

In terms of institutional priorities, Draeger adds, meeting administrative requirements for federal, state and institutional aid is always going to be most important, with disbursement duties being the next focus. That leaves soft skills training next in line, but “obviously the three are intertwined.”

Limited resources necessitate priority levels, but ignoring how staff members make students feel is “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” Draeger says. “It’s the soft skills that enroll students and keep students enrolled.”

7. Encourage Service Reporting.

Of the 1,578 Student Voice respondents having had at least one negative experience with a campus office, just 15 percent tried following up for a resolution, although that jumps to 24 percent of students at four-year colleges who view campus staff as very happy over all.

Price from ACUHO-I wishes more students would do so. Say a webpage has missing or incorrect information. “Tell us and we will fix that,” she says. Or if a student feels bad service has been provided, there’s a process for addressing it.

Sine says many Qualtrics client institutions are discussing how best to solicit feedback. One client is tracking transactions in its one-stop department, asking students questions like:

  • How was your interaction?
  • Did you get your question answered on financial aid?
  • Was our virtual adviser able to help you?

Rather than survey data that wind up in a bucket, this approach is more human centered and allows staff to circle back to students.

Email and text are natural ways to collect such information, but Sine has also seen offices where students select a smile or frown-faced emoji as they exit, with the hits tracked.

Free access to survey results: segment and benchmark. Explore the data.Department leaders can turn to colleagues across campus for guidance on collecting data on interactions and experiences. Pepito of NACAS has found auxiliary services departments are particularly adept at tracking student touchpoints. It’s especially important in places like campus ID offices, “where volume and the ability to reach as many students as possible are required,” she says.

Andy Brantley, president and CEO of CUPA-HR, the professional association for higher ed human resources staff, notes that it shouldn’t be limited to student feedback. “We have to make sure we are listening to our employees, that we are giving them the opportunity to provide feedback, and that we are doing our best to either alter services or change the service level experience.”

Besides being smart business practice, utilizing employee expertise “is an essential part of being able to recruit and retain employees,” he adds. Many people are drawn to higher education work because of the sense of purpose it provides.

8. Act on Feedback and Data.

Rather than basking in positive findings about service experiences, Sine reminds leaders to attend to all the narratives.

In the Student Voice survey, he noticed “students were willing to be open and honest in their textual responses, but the same sentiment was not always present in the qualitative survey responses. This is something for institutions to think about, as the majority of survey information is reported back quantitatively, potentially leaving out important context to the way students really feel.” Open-ended feedback, he adds, can support resource allocation in real time.

As for goals over time, Sine advises studying relationships that individuals form with single departments and the entire institution.

Traditional colleges tend to only have “operational data that tells you when, where and maybe what,” he says. “I can tell you they stopped by X office on X date, but I can’t tell you if they left feeling their relationship with the institution was better.” Higher ed can look to the corporate world and its focus on uncovering why consumers interact with a company and providing staff with that knowledge for the individual’s next encounter.

Sine acknowledges such goals can be overwhelming. “Start with one office and take a careful look at the experiences students are having,” he suggests. With regular feedback, teams can zero in on students’ top challenges or barriers to access—plus make data-driven decisions about the most impactful changes.

Strong relationships, with students or anyone turning to a campus department, he adds, “depend on your ability to foster environments where they feel listened to and understood, and where their feedback is used to take action.”

More survey results, with a focus on how students feel about interacting remotely with employees and campus offices.

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