When we ran the article "Do Your Academic Policies Get in the Way of Student Success?" in July, we interviewed a past college president, a current college president, and a vice president of student affairs, about the need to review and audit institutional policies and procedures that delay students in progressing toward their degree -- and they had specific tips on where to start looking for "bottlenecks."
This week, we decided to take a more in-depth look at how enrollment managers can make strides in identifying process bottlenecks that can frustrate and slow students. We interviewed Susan Leigh, associate vice president of enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University, and Lawrence T. Lesick, vice president of enrollment at Ohio Northern University, who have each fostered a true "customer service" approach in enrollment management at their institutions. Leigh and Lesick have specific advice to offer related to:
- Reviewing complaints as opportunities to identify and correct outdated policies or procedures
- Surveying students in ways that help prioritize where you need to focus
- Providing enrollment staff with resources that encourage proactive improvement of procedures
Reviewing Student Complaints
"Most frequently, student complaints emerge around the speed of getting a critical task done. Periodically review complaints, and when you find bottlenecks, take them apart. Often, behind that bottleneck, there is an outdated policy or an outdated procedure. Get the right people around the table, ask them directly: How can we improve this service for the student?"
Susan Leigh, DePaul U
For example, DePaul University, which enrolls a large percentage of students who work full-time, found that one significant stall was requiring students to visit an on-campus office as part of a critical process. Working students are often unable to take a half day away from work to visit offices on campus during business hours. "Students would tell us that they can't wait a week for a particular process to be run on their account," Leigh recalls. "For example, an employer may offer to pay for the class if the student can get registered and billed by a particular date, but the student may need to secure permission to register for a class that is closed, and then have their account reflect the right balance due for the employer. Yet the student may not be able to take the time off work needed to visit several offices on campus to complete the procedure."
In a down economy, more students are enrolling to retool their careers, but these students are also facing increased constraints on their time. Moving processes online can remove many of the most common bottlenecks.
"Look for the root cause. Maybe your front-line staff are having to answer more calls, and in trying to provide better service, you are working to make those calls faster and move more quickly. But how to speed up the calls may be the wrong question. The right question is: Why do we have more calls?"
Lawrence Lesick, Ohio Northern U
Surveying Students: Identify the Most Critical "Trouble Spots"
Colleges are more frequently surveying their students about the quality of their services, but Leigh and Lesick note that too often the surveys do not return information that can empower your enrollment staff to pinpoint the underlying service issues or identify the ideal solutions to them.
Here's one method DePaul University uses to identify and prioritize trouble spots. Students are asked to rate (on a 1-5 Leichert scale, with 1 being the lowest rating and 5 the highest) both the importance of a service to their ability to register for, attend, and succeed in their classes, and how well the institution is providing that service to them. The survey is designed to identify the most important gaps in service and assists in prioritizing efforts to improve services.
For example, when asked about parking, let's suppose that students at a particular commuter campus answer:
Importance of parking - 5
Level of service - 2
In this first case, parking is a valued service, but one that needs investment. In another scenario, though, students at an urban institution with significant access to public transportation may answer:
Importance of parking - 2
How well are we providing parking - 1
In this second case, improving parking services may not be the first priority, even though the service is lacking -- because it isn't one of the services that makes a significant impact on students' speed in getting to their classes, their stress level, or their ability to build momentum toward their degree.
Next, ask follow-up questions that invite a high degree of specificity. For example:
- Ask students when they have felt they received poor service or a "runaround."
- Give students a list of options to select from, to pinpoint the "runaround" -- Did they stand in line too long or have to wait too long to have their call picked up? Were they routed to another office? Were the staff unable to answer their questions?
- Ask them what the one thing was that slowed them down the most.
"Sometimes students don't know where the inefficiency is or how you could provide them with superior service. If Steve Jobs had been conducting focus groups several decades ago, likely none of his potential customers would have volunteered: "I would like to have a portable recorder that I can put in my pocket, with headphone buds in my ears." That didn't exist yet. You have to know how to ask the right questions."
Lawrence Lesick, Ohio Northern U
NEXT STEP: BRING IN A MYSTERY SHOPPER
Here's an idea suggested by Kevin Pollock, president of St. Clair County Community College. Once you know which services need the most work (whether through a review of student complaints or through surveying your students) consider having your staff conduct "mystery shopper" exercises, in which a staff member walks through a process in person to get a firsthand perspective of its efficiency and to note which specific points in the process stalled their progress.
Encouraging Ongoing Improvement of Services
To encourage a proactive approach to identifying ways to improve services, Leigh and Lesick recommend:
- Giving your staff opportunities to educate one another about the work they do
- Not assuming that "friendlier" service by itself is the solution
- Providing resources that help staff identify trouble spots proactively
"When departments remain siloed, the one who suffers is the student," Lesick cautions. Perhaps staff in records and in financial aid each feel that the other office does not understand or appreciate the work that they do. Provide opportunities for them to learn more about one another's work, to cross-train, and to gain an awareness of being involved together in one process: "Does the student know what a bursar is, or a registrar -- and do they care? The student just wants to register for classes."
Friendly Service vs. Good Service
Often, "customer service" is misunderstood as a focus on affability and a visible eagerness to assist students. "Don't assume smiling faces will take care of everything," Lesick warns, "or that having people who are committed to service will take care of everything. If the procedure itself is inefficient, the smiling face won't matter. Maybe the procedure is that students line up to register, and then stand in line. They don't care about the smile, they just want to get registered, and quickly. It's an old example but a good one: the solution isn't friendlier staff but moving the process online so students can take care of it in minutes."
Provide Resources for Identifying Trouble Spots
One resource that Leigh has provided her enrollment staff is a three-column chart that tracks, over the course of an academic year, common worries or stress points for students:
- Column A tracks key points on the academic calendar, such as registration, midterm exams, and final exams
- Column B tracks transactional points, such as the FAFSA due date, the deadline for the housing contract, etc.
- Column C tracks common student life stress points, based on student development research, such as a wave of homesickness six weeks into the first term
"Offer staff a more holistic, mindful view of the student's concerns and needs; invite staff to consider the whole picture of the pressures on that student at a particular time."
Susan Leigh, DePaul University
It is very easy for discussions around providing better service to focus on the transactional processes and deadlines that a particular office manages. But you can see larger gains by looking at a larger picture. For example, if you are checking for students who are slow in registering, a look at this kind of holistic calendar can help you determine who should reach out to the student and how best to do so. Perhaps registration for the second term coincides with midterm exams and homesickness for freshmen -- how does that change your approach to outreach?